So let’s talk about advertising, shall we?
When Angela and I sat down to talk about our presentation, one thing we talked about pretty extensively was the presence of certain kinds of themes within perfume advertising.(FN1) While, generally speaking, every single kind of ad is trying to sell you a fantasy, from the clothes washing soap that improves clothing quality to the motor vehicle that magically makes your annual family road trip one your kids want to participate in even as surly teenagers, Angela and I broke down perfume advertising into a handful of categories of fantasy. While these categories are frequently crossed to hit wider market share with the same campaign, each of them, in my opinion, is extremely problematized from a feminist perspective because they are all completely held captive by body image problems, perpetuated stereotypes of unhealthy sex relationships, and traditional male gaze inspired imagery that continue to associate men with action and control and women when passivity and submission. (FN2)
Because not everyone is well-versed in feminist aesthetics as an academic field (though a lot of it is probably obvious to anyone who has ever done any academic work in feminism), I’m going to go over some basics of feminism, the body, and art right now. Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty, art, and taste, and with the creation and appreciation of beauty.(FN3) Aesthetics generally refer to the categories of art that are created purely for artistic merit and enjoyment rather than functional use. Traditionally this has referred to “painting, music, literature, and sculpture, and it excludes crafts, popular art, and entertainment.” (FN4) This distinction historically existed to separate out high or fine arts from more functionally related arts and crafts. This is notable because historically the fine arts were dominated by men rather than women, while crafts were the primary purview of women. (FN5)(FN6) More recently, though, feminist aesthetic critiques have been extended to include popular music, film, television, and even advertising. When it comes to evaluating film, television, and visual advertising, Laura Mulvey's essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," is foundational in defining the role of the “male gaze” in visual art. (FN7)(FN8)(FN9) Mulvey’s critique takes some of the feminist aesthetics critique made of fine art (painting, sculpture, etc.) and applies them to film in order to demonstrate the “power asymmetry” that continues to pervade art. One of the symptoms of power asymmetry, the male gaze demonstrates the pervasive, subconscious, and structural presumption that the viewer is a man and that good art, enjoyable art, ‘fine’ art, is that which appeals to the male viewer.
The defining characteristic of the male gaze is that the audience is forced to regard the action and characters of a text through the perspective of a heterosexual man; the camera lingers on the curves of the female body, and events which occur to women are presented largely in the context of a man's reaction to these events. The male gaze denies women agency, relegating them to the status of objects. The female reader or viewer must experience the narrative secondarily, by identification with the male. (FN10)(FN11)The concept of the male gaze, Freudian psychoanalytical roots aside, is really useful when we talk about issues related to female body image, advertising, and the general presentation of women in visual media. Stereotypically women are presented as passive and consumable, whereas men are portrayed as active and as consumers. A woman will be seen, for example, lying or sitting, surrounded by supple fabrics or consumables like food. The whole image indicates that the entire scene, and everything in it, is waiting for the viewer, to be accepted or rejected, consumed and enjoyed or rejected and discarded.
Men, by contrast, are shown in motion, or if stationary, standing squarely, or posed next to items that indicate movement (i.e. in classical paintings, on a horse; in current photography, next to a car or motorcycle). The scenes that surround them tend to be images that convey strength and dominance, frequently through violence (i.e. in classic painting, scenes of war or ‘subduing the land’) or scenes that cast them in their arena of accomplishment (i.e. a learned man with books). Female figures may look down or away; when they do look at the camera, it is what could be described, colloquially, as a “come hither” look. By contrast, male figures will stare, rather frankly, out at the viewer as if to challenge them.(FN12)
When we look at modern advertising, particularly print advertising, it is fraught with this kind of imagery. In this respect, fragrance is not all that much better or worse as an industry than almost any other industry. Still, and I mean this in the way I am troubled by the language issue, I am troubled by the fact that the world of scent is so specifically gendered and desperate to use the same tired tropes to sell something that, in the natural world, has no sense of gender. This played out and put on set of roles has nothing to do with whether something smells good or is worth wearing, and yet we just seem intent on selling and consuming, and therefore becoming, these same old roles. JT is posed at his soundboard, mixing his music that is his arena of accomplishment, gazing out at the viewer.
Meanwhile, Marc Jacobs' advertisers felt the need to advertise Daisy by resting the giant bottle right on the virtually naked body of a woman laying prone in the grass, just waiting for the first man who stumbles into her to take what he wants; apparently Daisy will help make sure he stumbles into you. (FN13)
I think we can do better than these ridiculous ‘fantasies,’ and as far as I can tell, the only way to convince anyone to stop this tired crap is to simply refuse to reward them for the effort. There are a lot of reasons I tend to stick to the world of independent, ‘niche’ perfumery, but one of them has got to be that Christopher Brosius, Dawn Spencer Horowitz, Andy Tauer, Ineke Ruhland, Ayala Moriel, Anya McCoy, Roxana Villa, and every other independent perfumer I’ve come across seem to be doing well without this kind of crass sex/gender essentialism. And if I only have a few dollars to spend a month and I’m going to spend it on perfume, I choose to spend that money on artists who do not feel the need to feed me a line about the kind of woman I’m supposed to be or the kind of man I’m supposed to want in order to sell me their wares.
To that end, I’ll be posting a series of ads over the next couple of weeks and critiquing the faux fantasies they use to sell perfume by appealing to stereotypes of female beauty and playing to the male gaze. For those of you feminists out there, I hope you enjoy the series. For those of you looking for perfume reviews, I promise to intersperse them so everybody gets a little of what they want.
For other posts in this series, see:
~ Gender, Language, and Scent
~ Some More Thoughts on "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" and Advertising of Scents for 'Men'
~ Perfume Marketing and Feminist Aesthetics, Pt. 2: Sex/Erotica and the Male Gaze in Perfume Advertising
~ Advertising Critique: Prada Infusion d'Iris
~ Perfume Marketing and Feminist Aesthetics, Pt. 3: The Exotic and how it relates to the Male Gaze and Majority View in Perfume Advertising
(FN1) We broke perfume advertising up into roughly 5 categories, though some ads fall into multiple categories. I'll talk more about those later in this series of posts, but let me say right now that I owe Angela a lot of thanks for helping me with this whole project.
(FN2) These are some basic precepts of feminist aesthetics, which I will be exploring in more detail in this series.
(FN3) "Aesthetics," Merriam-Webster Online,
(FN4) “Feminist Aesthetics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy),”
(FN5) I am, for the purposes of short hand within this series, going to refer to artists known or believed to be male sexed and male identified as “men” and female sexed and female identified artists as "women." This is with no intention of reflecting any indicators about specific artist’s sex or gender identity unless otherwise noted, and in no way indicates any relationship to their sexual orientation unless expressly specified. To make sure we all know the difference, let me just note: “sex” or “sexed” refers to specific genitalia that a person is born with indicating male/female/intersexes reproductive organs; “identified” or “gender” or “gendered” refers to the specifically expressed gender identity one chooses, be that male, female, unisex, or other. While sex is biological, gender is merely an outward expression that is defined in large part by cultural norms and is considered performative rather than inherent. Individuals with the same sex/gender expression (i.e. female bodied and female identified) would be referred to as cisgendered; those whose sex and gender are not the same (i.e. male bodied but female identified) would be referred to as transgendered. Sexual orientation is related to neither of these, and instead refers to an individual sexual desires vis-à-vis others, and can be but is not necessarily related to sex or gender-identity (i.e. gay/bisexual/lesbian/queer/questioning/etc.) For the record, I am female bodied, female identified (making me a ‘woman’ in the general parlance of our time) and I am queer, though I am married to a male bodied, male identified person who is also queer.
(FN6) By the way, I am not being this precise because it is my intention to police language or otherwise be politically correct. I’m being specific because it’s important to make these distinctions when talking about sex, gender, sexual orientation, feminism, etc. because there is a lot of biological essentialism that goes on, purporting that because a person has specific reproductive organs, they act in specific ways or are more inclined to have specific traits. Biological essentialism is basically bullocks despite a lot of people making extremely large amounts of money trying to exploit these so-called inherent differences in order to perpetuate stereotypes and discrimination. You don’t have to my word for it, either. I suggest you look at the work of neurobiologist Lise Elliot, an amazing doctor, scientist, and researcher who has done tons of research and writing debunking biological essentialist claims that women and men are radically different in neurobiological development, and has written two books, What's Going on in There? : How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life and Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps -- And What We Can Do About It. I highly recommend the latter, which was just published this last year.
(FN7) Scentself (Of Notes from the Ledge) noted in the comments section that John Berger's Ways of Seeing should also be credited for examining the gendering of art through the viewer's perspective and she is absolutely right. I could not find the full text of the book of essays online, but you can get it from a local library or parts of essays online and it's DEFINITELY worth reading. It will blow your mindhole. Also, it's pretty good background stuff for Mulvey and makes her work more accessible.
(FN8) The essay is, admittedly, on the theoretically thick side, but if you’d like, you can read it here. I definitely recommend watching Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” right after, or contemporaneously, to reading the piece. When you can connect the critique to the visuals, the argument is much clearer.
(FN9) It’s worth noting that Mulvey later wrote that her article was meant to be a provocation or a manifesto, and not a reasoned academic article that addressed all possible critiques of or objections to her position. Mulvey addressed many of the critiques and changed some of her positions in "Afterthoughts on 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’” which can be found here.
(FN10) “Male gaze - The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia,”
(FN11) For a hilarious and fantastic example of film that both demonstrates and cuts against the “male gaze,” may I recommend the original 1939 version of “The Women”? DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT watch the 2008 remake. The original is a brilliant film that demonstrates the way women’s lives revolved around their relationships to men, the focus on men’s wants and desires and how that completely defines and shapes their lives, without ever showing a single man on film. (The remake utterly fails at accomplishing any of this.) During the filming, other than Director George Cukor, there were no men on the set during filming either, which was groundbreaking in 1939. I cannot describe how amazing the film is, how the women seem like planets that orbit a sun, even after the sun disappears from their lives. They have no sense of self beyond their relationships to men, and really underscores the problem of the male gaze.
(FN12) Women are also frequently pictured completing domestic work or with children while men are pictured in council, making decisions or in traditional roles of power. While this is a historically accurate reflection of power structures in the Western world, it also perpetuates stereotypes that this has been, and is, the natural way of the world. I could say more, but Mulvey says a lot of it already and really that’s a whole other post.
(FN13) I’m not even going to start on those white panties and bra that are intended to imply purity, innocence, and adolescence. (Yick.)