Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Perfume Marketing and Feminist Aesthetics, Pt. 2: Sex/Erotica and the Male Gaze in Perfume Advertising

Angela and I, in our quest to make heads/tails out of perfume advertising and the traditional gender tropes it succumbs to, divided current ads into five themes that play on different aspects of traditionally and stereotypically gendered fantasy. Much of these idealized images play into the male gaze, forcing the viewer to see the image through the view of a male, despite the market’s clear acknowledgment that most of the buying power rests in the hands of women. The first of these themes I want to talk about it is the most ubiquitous, the most tired, and the most often found in ads that attempt to play to more than stereotype at a time: sex/erotica.

Let’s start with this Ralph Lauren Romance ad pair. On the left is the ad for Ralph Lauren Romance for Women; on the right, Ralph Lauren Romance for Men. Taking on the women’s ad first, I’ll highlight some of the specific things that gender it in a traditionally feminine way, particularly in contrast to the men’s ad. First, The natural setting is much more visible in as the background of the women’s ad vs. the men’s ad. John Berger’s work on Ways of Seeing talks extensively about the continual linkage in visual art between nature/land and women, which ties together concepts of dominance and conquest associated with both. Note that the individuals in the women’s ad image are passive and posed, as if frozen and waiting for the viewer to take the photo, as opposed to active imagery of the men’s ad, indicating a photo caught of bodies in motion.

Again, referring to Berger’s Ways of Seeing, we have see traditional gender messaging repeated: women wait to be taken, men do the taking. I do appreciate, and note, that in the men’s ad the female is at least pictured as active as her male counterpart, which does break some traditionally imaging (say, rather than her lying there, waiting to be ‘taken’), but even that is offset but this trend you see in men’s ads that seem to imply that it is perfectly acceptable and completely masculine and not at all in any way gay to wear cologne, because if you do women will simply lose all control of themselves and become your willing sex kittens wherever they encounter you.(FN1) The other thing I’ll note about the women’s ad that I find discomforting, and which the men’s ad avoids, is the implication of physical control of the woman by the man. The placement of the hands in the women’s ad, which is not an embracing position, like a hug or a caress, but one typically implying physical restraint or control in what otherwise is supposed to be a romantic image is unsettling. This restraint is reinforced by the placement of the shirt in the women’s ad, which is pushed down to mid-forearm and would restrict her ability to pull her arms forward in order to either participate in, or defend herself from, contact she is receiving. I look at this image, and I see a lot of subtle but very real cuing about passivity and control, and when you throw it up against the ad for the same scent ‘for men,’ using the same models in the same setting wearing the same clothing, I think those visual cues become a lot starker. I also think this deeply demonstrates Berger’s point about activity vs. passivity. The ad for the women says, “Be passive; give in,” while the ad for the men says, “Be active, engaged; take what you want.” (FN2)

Speaking of restraint, can we talk for a moment about the Victor & Rolf Flowerbomb ad? First of all, this image does not communicate anything about the scent except perhaps to remind you it has flower in the title. This message could have been far more effectively communicated with, I don’t know, flowers? Perhaps an explosion of flowers? Instead, we get an incredibly thin, implicitly nude woman (you can’t see her lower half, but the implication is clearly ‘no clothes"), weirdly constrained by the packaging for the scent, with her face obscured by cloth. Wow is there a lot of crap going on in here! First of all, face obscured/faceless naked female body? Hard to get more objectifying than that. (FN3) This is especially ironic given that I guess she is supposed to be trying to smell that ‘lovely’ perfume through the massive amount of cloth that, you know, restricts her ability to breath. Given where the ribbon falls as it wraps around her, it’s again clear that the arms from the elbow up remain at the side, making it difficult for her to maneuver against someone who say, wanted to touch her naked body. This ad manages to be simultaneously ineffective and offensive, which makes me less than eager to ever actually try Flowerbomb, no matter how good a fragrance it might be.

Oh god, and restraint?  Can we talk about the Beckham & Posh Spice ads?  Why does he look like he's about to choke her out in EVERY ad? He seriously looks like he's trying to put her in what is colloquially known in law enforcement as a 'take down' move, and -- particularly in the Night ad -- she seems to really like it.  I means she's grabbing at the arm, which could be interpreted as resistance, if it weren't for the enamored face she's making, which seems to say, "Oh yeah, choke me out -- I love it!"  Meanwhile, Beckham stares out at you, the viewer, as if to say, "I'm coming for you next.  Aren't you excited?"  And I'm going on record as saying that this just way too far in terms of kink-related imagery without either of them being on the record as clearly into breath control play.  It doesn't look consensual.  It doesn't look sexy. It just looks vaguely violent and kind of terrifying.

Speaking of ‘just lying there, waiting for you to take” ads, I’ll give this to Dolce & Gabbana’s Light Blue ad campaign: at least they give you a man or a woman in the docile, vulnerable, objectified position. That said, here in the U.S. market, this guy would probably be considered, given the tiny speedo and oiled chest and compared with traditional hegemonic views of masculinity, as, well, “the gay” as Margaret Cho would say. (FN4) He reads as gay, which means, whether you’re after the supine woman or the supine man, you, as the viewer, are in all likelihood, assumed to be a dude, and looking at these images from the position of the male, dominating gaze.

Last, but not least, probably the most bizarre and offensive of the ads I’ll show you today: Bebe EDP. So many questions! This is a scent for a woman. It’s being sold to women in magazines for women. Why is she naked except for some ankle-breakingly tall uncomfortable heels? Does she have to be terrifyingly skinny?(FN5) Am I supposed to assume that she willingly took up position on a skinny ledge that in no way looks comfortable? And last, but perhaps the most perplexing: the giant bottle, positioned directly as though it is emerging from her vagina! So perplexing, this message. Is this meant to infer that the vagina the heart of a woman, which could be good (source of life) or bad (object waiting to be fucked)? Is she giving birth to the scent -- is it her 'bebe'? Does the scent smell like a vagina? Is that supposed to make me want to buy Bebe, which incidentally is named, literally, “baby” in French? Because when I think actualized, empowered, accomplished woman, I think “baby.”

Anyway, that’s all for now, though more will be coming. As I’ve been doing this, I’ve also started collecting ads that fall into these categories and yet avoid a lot of the same offensive pitfalls. I am also collecting ads that avoid the stereotypes entirely, and to give us all a happy uplifting end to this series (whenever I manage to finish it) so we can all feel hopeful about the direction the advertising might go in.

For more on this topic, see:
~ Gender, Language, and Scent
~ Perfume Marketing and Feminist Aesthetics, Pt. 1: Perfume, Advertising, And the Male Gaze
~ Some More Thoughts on "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" and Advertising of Scents for 'Men'
~ 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) Again, see any of the Ads for Axe or Tag Body Spray. And this taps into some serious virgin/whore stereotypes that advertisers LOVE to leverage to sell stuff. Though there are many, many issues tied up in the male gaze that infuriate and depress me – reinforcement of bad body image and corresponding health issues such as bulimia, anorexia nervosa, etc.; the bracketing of certain opportunities and roles as the exclusive purview of men or women, to the detriment of both; rampant normalizing of images of domestic and sexual violence – one of the worst in my opinion has got to be the continued support for casting women’s sexuality as an object to be obtained in a proverbial game of cat and mouse, wherein a woman is either a virgin/prude or a whore/loose/easy/etc., which continues not only to create sex objects of women but also denies them the agency to define themselves sexually. We like to pretend that the so-called ‘sexual revolution’ freed women to embrace their sexuality, but as long as the virgin/whore complex continues to be reinforced in society, embracing said sexuality in any real sense – comfort with one’s own body, knowledge and experience of sex, the sheer appreciation of joy within the confines of one’s own body (i.e. masturbation) – is to fall off the precarious balancing point and into one side of the chasm (whore), while to follow traditional moirés that deny women sexual agency/knowledge/power is to fall into the other side (prude). Even trying to strike a balance is punished, and is perhaps the most thoroughly punished. A woman who will is a slut, a woman who won’t is a prude, but the woman who looks like she will and then doesn’t is a tease. And that last category, not unsurprisingly, is most often the focus of another debate w/r/t her sexuality – is she a rape victim or did she want it/lead her rapist on? (This gets me into a whole other post about the ‘reasonable man’ standard and how we define rape and really all you need to do to understand my position is to read Catharine MacKinnon’s pieces on rape from Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law.)

(FN2) Okay, a word here on B/D/S/M. First, definitions: b/d – bondage/discipline, d/s – dominance/submission, s/m – sadio/masochism. I have absolutely no problem with people engaging in forms of bondage/restraint, dominance, submission, roleplaying, etc. within the context of a healthy, consensual, adult sex relationship. In fact, B/D/S/M communities and their active participants tend to be better at negotiating consent issues than individuals who are unable to acknowledge their own desires w/r/t BDSM, because methods of consent, safe words/signals, and open and honest communication about sexual fantasies and desires are fundamental and rigorously taught/practiced within these communities.

My problem is that we have no idea what the circumstances are in these ads, which are a snapshot of a moment that does not in any way imply that both individuals have predetermined their sexual comfort zones or created a system for ongoing affirmation of consent or a safe and swift exit from ‘play.’ In fact, the repeated imagery of bondage and dominance/submission within mainstream media not only sends subconscious messages of women as sex objects who can be used without their consent, but it also hurts the B/D/S/M community by making it difficult to acquire mainstream acceptance for certain aspects of play within these very structured and clearly communicated environments.

(FN3) You can, of course. Take any ad where a woman’s head is literally cut out of the image, giving her no identity/personhood beyond the object of her body, or any ad that uses parts of women instead of whole people, and you can get there. Also, you can literally make parts of her body an object, like this Chantal Thomass Osez-Moi! ad.  Because nothing quite says "use me" like making a woman's body simply made up of things you can use.

(FN4) To be fair, by European standards of masculinity, this guy could easily be straight and also considered damned sexy.

(FN5) Have you seen this new study on body image the Girl Scouts Research Institute did? It's worth at least looking at this article, which contains some of the more interesting stats. The bottom line is that, even with education about visual media and stereotypes and body image to the point that girls identify models as unhealthy looking, these girls still want to emulate them, to the point of making themselves ill.  As someone who has worked closely with a young woman who literally cut her life span in half and required ongoing and extensive surgeries and procedures due to disordered eating, let me tell you:  body image is a real issue, a scary issue, and a serious issue.  On this note, I'd like to recommend this list of NEDA recommended speakers, as well as the website/book Andrea's Voice if you're looking for good resources on this topic.


Ines said...

This series you are doing just keeps getting better and more interesting with every post.
And it's true about body image - I am no longer young and easily lead a-stray but I still fall into the trap of not feeling good with my self-image (body-wise) even though I'm healthy and weigh absoulutely normal. I hate that I cannot win through that and that I always think I should loose some weight.
One more thing I wanted to mention, I live in an extremely male dominated society and even though my knowledge of imagery in ads is limited, there were some ads here that are beyond words when you consider the message they are sending. I could send some photos if you are interested (they are not perfume related).

Diana said...

Ines, I'd love to see anything you want to send me. As someone who hasn't had a lot of opportunity to travel internationally (though I've been through 4/5 of the US), I'm always interested in the ways advertising in other cultures plays out.

As for the body image issues, I have some thyroid issues that have basically wrecked my body as an adult. It's hard to have the courage to even shop for clothes most of the time, and the constant barrage of negative messaging certainly does not help. I doubt there's a woman in there world today that doesn't fall prey to body image issues.

Thanks for the encouragement.

The Left Coast Nose said...

Howdy, D--
What a tremendous post!! You hit right on many important criticisms-- here are a few of my thoughts:

It's the subtlest thing out there, but you nail it in those RL ads: for women, “Be passive; give in,” while the ad for the men says, “Be active, engaged; take what you want.” YES.

I'd go a step further with the Flowerbomb ad, myself-- the image of the gauze makes explicit the name: a bomb going off in her face. There is a most excellent spoof of it I found here: http://www.elkzine.com/books_iframe.html
(Scroll down-- it's mid-page.)

As for Beck & Posh, well, of course the fact that they are married to one another strips the possibility of violence, domination, and non-consensuality right of that image-- don't you understand that? Marriage makes everything ok!!

As for the D&G-- well, I've said it before, I'll say it again, the great thing about the gay male gaze is, well, all the ladies get to look as well. I am of the opinion that the realm of advertising for scent is highly contested with regards to gender and sexual identity. (Although, if you ask me, straight women, and gay and straight men make up the targeted audience-- navigate that as one might. Lesbians, especially butch women, in scent advertising are the null set. Elles n'existent pas.

Ok, and yeah. Finally-- the naked bony lady? Never did get why women are supposed to be drawn to that. At the least the vast bulk of us who aren't 20, white, and with a BMI of 17.

Love. Your. Posts!

Diana said...

Rita, you know it is funny because it seems so obvious now -- particular after you showed me that fabulous guerrilla version -- that the cloth is coded as a bomb. I, of course, looked at it and thought "flower" implying her body as the stem and the entire thing objectifying her by converting her into a flower to be 'plucked' as it were.

This gives a creep new meaning to the words "dead heading." (Shudder.)I am even more grossed out by this ad now.

Diana said...

I'll say it again, the great thing about the gay male gaze is, well, all the ladies get to look as well.

We do and we don't. I mean I loved watching the beautiful men of Queer as Folk get it on as much as the next person, but never once did I get the impression that what was going on was for me. I think that's part of the struggle I have with traditional male-on-male slash fiction as a feminist effort/critique. I just look at/read it and think, "I can't visualize a place for myself here." I think the worlds created by both mainstream and alt.universe male-on-male fiction/visual fantasy are good in that they frequently create a space where men can be tender and express attitudes/emotions/behaviors toward each other that might otherwise get tagged as exclusively female (I love the gay couple on Brothers & Sisters, for example, because they're so domestic and normal), but I think the strength there is that there is no perceivable role for me. And when I look at ads (and there are some other D&G ads that I'll get to later) that seem to structure men toward the male gaze as well, I don't know how subversive that really is, particularly if all of the men (a) look 'sterotypically' (by mainstream standards) gay, or (b) fall into the bad body image issues demonstrated in Jackson Katz's Tough Guise

Also, yeah, there's basically nothing there for lesbians. (Aside from some celebs ads; I know at least one lesbian friend who, when the audience asked at a safer sex workshop to name a fantasy, yelled out "NATALIE PORTMAN!" and I suspect she loves those Coco Mademoiselle ads.)

The Left Coast Nose said...

With your second comment, you are getting right down to the nub of something that I'm struggling to write about now-- that feeling of, as you so eloquently put it: "I can't visualize a place for myself here."

Because I have felt that feeling too, for years--decades even. I'm not trying to take away from what you are feeling, but I have been spending a fair amount of time asking the simple question: Why not?

I'll speak only for myself: For a long time advertising hurt to look at because it made me feel bad about myself. Then, when I gained a critical eye, it made me mad because it made me feel bad about myself.

What's the next step beyond that? Right now, I'm working on letting beauty and pleasure into my life without guilt, rage, shame, or self-monitoring. It doesn't let advertisers and other generators of content off the hook for their messaging, but it does, oddly enough, rob them of most of their power.

I'll be posting on this myself in a few weeks. Thanks again for the lively conversation.

Arachne said...

I really appreciate your dissecting these images. While some are easy to get angry about (anything Axe, anything Tom Ford, or that Bebe... thing - triple barf), others are discomfiting in a more subtle way and I don't always take the time to question the hows and the whys (in this case: the physical control aspect of the RL for women ad - so obvious now that you pointed it out, but it had not registered before). Sometimes I feel shocked at how I/the general audience of these ads have been groomed to read quite disturbing images as "edgy", "artsy" or even "sexy".

Small aside on the pair of reclining models in the D&G ads: I would argue that there's still a gendered difference in how their sexuality is portrayed. The woman relatively coy, contorting her body, sleepily draped over the boat's edge and crossing one leg over the other in a protective pose - the man straight on, more upright, actively engaging/challenging the audience and exuding confidence. The difference in colour saturation is also striking, but I'm not sure if that's intentional or just a case of loss of quality upon digitalisation/different sources/something.

(My word verification is "disaboy", how apt)