Monday, March 22, 2010

Perfume Marketing and Feminist Aesthetics, Pt. 1: Perfume, Advertising, And the Male Gaze

I want to take a moment to dedicate this series to the late, great Dorothy Berkson, who taught me everything I know about feminist aesthetics, and to Jeff Gauthier, who continues to teach feminist aesthetics at a university where it would not be taught otherwise.

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, [Viewed March 20, 2010].

(FN4) “Feminist Aesthetics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy),”
[Viewed March 20, 2010].

(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,” [Viewed March 20, 2010].

(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.)


Arachne said...

This is the first time I stumbled across your blog so excuse the rather inarticulate first comment - believe me when I say that the advertising/feminism angle is of great interest to me and I'm hanging on your every word. I may have something slightly more intelligent to say after I properly read and digest your essay and (interesting!) links, just wanted to let you know that it resonates. Big time.
Thanks for writing about this!

ScentScelf said...

Well, that sure is a lot to put in one's pipe and smoke, if it's your first time in the tobacco pouch.

fn5 is a lot to chew on just on it's own!

But, let's return to the gaze...the main concept you are tracing for us here...

I think that it would be fair to introduce John Berger's Ways of Seeing as another way to introduce oneself to the concept of the gaze/the male gaze. Sure, he's a ... male (sex) ... but that's a decent "The Gaze for Dummies" kind of way into the concept. Last post you mentioned "Killing Us Softly," which you're probably going to bring up in another installment. The Mulvey you cite is indeed, as you note...provacative/incendiary. Which has its place. :)

What drives me crazy is that, decades later, perfume representations still largely fall along the lines of "what you present to someone else" (woman) vs. "what you are" (male). If on the odd chance you are a woman being yourself, you are being watched.

Those Enjoli commercials from the '70's that went through a re-tour of the intertubes recently? I LOVE those. Because they are so I am Woman. I understand the mockery ("ah, so x minutes ago..."), least she was presented as what.she.was. Even Charlie was the object of the male gaze; she just happened to wear pants. (Gasp!)

Which leads me to the lede, which I've buried: I'm looking forward to *you* guiding a trip through current advertising, and tearing apart the subtexts there. :)

Should be a fun trip.

P.S. Ironic, isn't it, that white unmentionables are either for virgins or grannies?

Diana said...

ScentSelf, yeah I knew that was a lot to put in a footnote (re FN5) but I figured it was a sort of "buy the premise, buy the bit" essential nugget, so I'm just going to blow past it and then come back with a series of post on biological essentialism and the sex/gender/orientation dichotomy if need be. I can say though that it's one of the first thing that trips some college students up and since I know I've got a handful of not yet in college readers, I threw it in there for clarity.

THANK YOU for bringing up Berger! It was one of those things where, because our apartment is small and my gender and aesthics class was *muffled* years ago, my binder and reading materials are in my basement and I'm functioning a lot from memory here. I do think "Ways of Seeing" is foundational, though I can't find the full twext online, I will go back and add a footnote for it in there because I'd like people to read it before the Mulvey if they want.

Yes, the virgins and grannies! This seemed so obviously aimed at titillating the 'barely legal' fantasy, given the youth of the model and the particular body type she's got that I figured if I was going to make a throw away comment, I'd just make it.

That said, now that I look at it again today, another thing that bothers me is the fact that she's posed in a field, a natural setting, as though her passivity has something to do with her natural state of being as a woman. Yes, I realize that they were probably going for 'field of daisies' but if that were true, the field woiuld be, I don't know, green and flowered? No, I look at this and I see subtext: a young naked woman just waiting in the wilderness to be 'plucked' by some lucky a flower. A daisy perhaps?

Excuse me whilst I vomit...

Diana said...

Arachne, thanks and welcome! I'm so exicted you found me, and thanks for the read!

Diana said...

ScentScelf, I noticed from looking over your profile that you went to film school (and can I just say that you have SUPREMELY good taste in books/film?) and have been involved in film making. I have no background in this respect, but I'm about to embark on a film making venture (documentary), and I'd love to pick your brain sometime if you didn't mind. My email is If you're open to talking. you can contact me there to let me know how to reach you, that would be great. If not, no hard feelings AT ALL, I just figured I'd ask since you happen to come across my radar screen at this particularly timely moment.

ScentScelf said...

Talk about timely! I am, as they say, between projects. (Which allows me to digest more blogs--yay! And yammer about projects.)

As for the field of daisies...I'll bring up a current cultural reference (with old overtones, expression-wise): Pushing Up Daisies. What's better than passive/dead? Passive/dead on command! Cool!!! (She said, oh so tongue in cheek.)

Okay, I'm PM'ing you. Here's to serendipity.

Diana said...

You know, that is one aspect of "Pushing Daisies" that I hadn't fixed on. There was a fair bit in there to deal with, though, re: sex, touching, chasteness, sexuality, life/death, etc. etc.

Can I just say that this is another one of those times when I am thrilled the internet exists, because you have such interesting things to add and you wouldn't be here to comment without this magical series of tubes? In terms of connecting feminists, I really have to say that the internet is such a welcome development. Yay technology!

Ines said...

Diana, I am seriously looking forward to reading more on the subject. Fascinating post!
Btw, I kind of got confused when you said queer for yourself - what exactly does that mean?
You know, lately I realized I also lean more toward the work of independent perfumers - the quality of their work is superb and the genius of those scents smellable each time you put them on.

Diana said...

Ines, I identify as queer because, despite being married to a man, I am attracted to both men and women. I prefer queer to bisexual because I am open to attraction to transgendered individuals, and because of some other aspects of my personal attractions. Though I am married to a man, my attraction to female identified individuals still exists; though I am monogamous, I still fee attraction to all kinds of people. Being married doesn't make me any less queer, just like being married doesn't make someone who identifies as heterosexual any less hetero. Given the hatred and discrimination that GLTBQQ people continue to feel around the world, I choose to continually and openly identify as queer both because (a) I honestly am, and (b) it is important for people to recognize that all kinds of people who live among them and leaf perfectly average lives are queer. I am hopeful that, for every one of us who stands up, the harder it will be for people to hate us as they realize we represent all friends, neighbors, and loved ones in their lives.

Does that clarify?

The Left Coast Nose said...

So I go away for a few weeks, and you blow up big, Diana!!

Wow-- what a fabulous post-- so sorry I'm so late to the party. I have *quite* a few things to share on your posts on gender, perrfume, and advertising, but I think I'll stick to this on this post-- you could cut-and-paste your comment to Ines word-for-word on how you self-identify, and how you live your life, and put it under my own profile. Honestly, I couldn't/wouldn't change a word. (Although I don't discuss my husband's sexuality or identity in public-- he choses to be private about those things.)

Thanks for your honesty and your *wonderful* analysis!

Diana said...

Rita, yeah I'm sort of shocked and awed by the outpouring of love and readership!

My husband is really very open about his identity, so I figured I wasn't hurting him any, though I think it's very nice that you respect your partner's autonomy vis-a-vis his own identity.

Ines said...

Thanks Diana - that clarifies a lot. :)
I got confused since you mentioned bisexual in your post and then identified yourself as queer so I kept thinking there must be a difference I am not seeing. :)

The Left Coast Nose said...

My Other Nostril lets me be the "out there" one. ;)