Elsa, one of the organizers of the Brigade Antisexiste (“Anti-Sexist Brigade” in French), handed out fire-engine red bandanas and matching stickers the size of a cheque with “SEXISTE” running across them in white.
The feminist activist group has been zigzagging through the streets of the French capital once a month since April 2016, armed with stickers and permanent markers; its mission is to decry sexist advertisements in the public space.
The bitter cold, near-freezing temperatures, and the stubborn drizzle did not discourage 12 women and three men from turning up to the Brigade’s 20th patrol.
“With Christmas around the corner, sexism is on display in storefronts. Come and fight [sexism] with us…!” read the Paris-based Brigade’s Facebook invitation for tonight.
Huddled together at the upmarket Place des Victoires, straddling the 1st and 2nd arrondissements, the group gathered around 26-year-old Elsa as she reassured them. (All Brigade members requested their last names to be withheld due to privacy concerns.)
“Sticking stickers isn’t actually legal but we have never had any problems,” she grinned. “We just have to make sure there’s no police around when we do it.”
Elsa, who works in the non-profit sector, and Léa, the other organizer present at the patrol, led the group down the rue Etienne Marcel.
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“We have an itinerary planned. When you see an advertisement or a poster that shocks you along the way, stop the group and explain why this ad caught your eye,” said Léa, a 21-year-old graphic design student. “We will debate it together and then vote on whether or not to put a sticker on it.”
The group weaved through Christmas shoppers and made a beeline for a Guess shop. Five plastic mannequins dressed in the brand’s winter collection faced the street, but the Brigade was more interested in the poster behind the clothes.
The model in black fishnet tights was lying on her front, with her elbow propped up and her chin leaning against it. Her mouth slightly open, she stared straight into the camera with a “come hither” look.
“Honestly, I don’t think this advertisement needs much debate,” one of the participants said disdainfully, taking a drag on a cigarette. “Who even lays like that on their sofa anyway?” The others nodded. “It’s very porno,” another added.
“It’s important to remember we are not slut-shaming the model; we’re criticizing the visual as a whole,” Elsa reminded the group. “Shall we vote?” The group raised their hands and voted unanimously to use a sticker.
Morgane, a 24-year-old who works in communications, piped up: “Oh, I would love to stick the sticker.” She stuck “SEXISTE” near the model’s shoulder; the group cheered as she pointed theatrically at it.
“Everything about that poster shocks me,” Morgane explained when I ask her why she had volunteered. “The clothes, the position in which she is lying, I find it so degrading and disrespectful to women. This shouldn’t happen.”
During their two-hour walk, the Brigade debated the hidden sexism behind a mobile phone advert; the perils of color-coded shop displays, with shades of pink targeting women, and the unrealistic beauty standards of a L’Oréal advert for mascara at a bus stop. As they marched across central Paris, they also scrawled explanations onto offending advertisements to alert passers-by.
Lauriane had noticed a few of the stickers in the Metro subway and looked up the Brigade; she decided to tag along to see what it was like. “This is fun,” the 29-year-old gynecologist said. “We have a debate, everyone gives their opinions, which you may or may not agree with, and we’re able to move forward and fight sexism at all levels.”
“It’s interesting to point out that three or four times we came across white, blond models,” Charly, a 24-year-old who works in the humanitarian sector, told me. “They are not representative of the French population and they correspond to these stereotypes, both for men and women, of what beauty should be.”
When I interviewed Brigade co-founder and biology student Lauréline in April 2017, she recounted the Brigade’s origins: “It all started in February 2016. Two friends and I decided to go to Châtelet [in central Paris] to paste stickers on sexist advertisements. We enjoyed it so much that we decided to do it again. Week by week, there were more and more people joining us so we decided to create a Facebook page and invite the members of the public.”
Since then, the concept has spread across France, with 27 cities boasting their own antenna organizations, and internationally, with groups in Belgium, Switzerland, and Canada.
On March 28, the Brigade celebrated a landmark victory. The Council of Paris—the assembly responsible for governing the city—voted in a new contract for outdoor media giant JC Decaux that included a ban on any “sexist and discriminatory” adverts. This was a first for Paris, following in the footsteps of London and Geneva, which had already passed similar laws.
Lauréline was representing the Brigade outside City Hall that day, protesting with another feminist group, Les effronté-e-s. They had printed out the controversial Yves Saint Laurent adverts that had mushroomed across the city earlier that month (and which were later banned) to remind officials of how degrading advertising could look.
In the City Hall’s press release, Hélène Bidard, deputy mayor in charge of gender equality, human rights and fighting discrimination, expressed hope that this ban would eventually translate into a national law: “[These advertisements] uphold ordinary sexism and participate in the banalisation of a certain form of violence suffered daily.”
Now, the Brigade is working with other feminist groups to decide what criteria should be used to determine if an advertisement is sexist.
“When advertisers sexualize parts of a woman’s body to sell something, this affects us,” Lauréline, 22, added. “Seeing these stereotypes in the public space where everyone can see it, we couldn’t bear it anymore.”