Wow. It’s been a long time since I talked about the various categories of mainstream perfume advertising and how they reflect different methods of objectification and policing sex and gender. For those of you just joining us, it might be useful to refer to the previous posts, which you can find on the tab “Perfume and Feminist Aesthetics” above.
As you may recall, dear reader, a while back I began a series discussing the male gaze and its presence in perfume advertising. For ease of discussion, I broke the ads down into various groups. FN1. The first, general erotica, focused on ads appealing purely to sex, and which tend to quantify women as objects to be used for male pleasure. Make no mistake, we will be doing another round of these; in the year since I started this series, there have been more terrible ads that treat women as props and objects, rather than people. But there are other approaches to objectification, and these approaches frequently not only objectify women as objects, but implicate other women in the policing of their own gender or other forms of privilege by focusing on difference.
Previously we discussed the use of the “exotic” as a form of othering. Another form of othering is the idea of selling “the other” as an alternative form of appeal. Call it what you wants: alternative, DIY, hipster, bohemian. Eventually capitalism finds a way co-opt successful critique by commodifying it for mainstream consumption. FN2. I find this aspect incredibly troubling in part because, when I was a young, naïve little thing, this is the flavor of insidious advertising most likely to move my hand to my wallet. That’s right. I was a teenage rebel, and if you tried to convince me your product would make me different (like everybody else), I was right there with you.
Not terribly unlike a lot of teen girls nowadays, actually.
Thus I bring you the ‘rebel’ ad series, in all its disappointing glory.
“Rebel, rebel, you’ve torn your dress”: Juicy Couture
Let’s start with one of the most shallow examples of the “rebel but not really” ads. Oh, Juicy Couture. Our heroine, with her semi-mohawk pompadour and her haute couture dress seem edgy. And look, she’s blowing off that guy with a handful of glitter. She’s totally a strong, independent woman. Except…
She’s not. You see that, right? Yeah younger-self, I’m looking at you. She’s this incredibly, stereotypically thin girl wearing a skirt so short there’s nothing but tulle there. And even if we give her that the skinniness is genetic and not from upchucking her lunch every day in a sacrifice to the porcelain gods of thinness, and even if we declare her barely there skirt as an act of self-empowerment, we still have to deal with the guy.
That’s right. There’s a guy. And I don’t mean the glit and glam boy with the too long hair she’s literally blowing off. I mean the one she’s staring off the page at. Because if you’re younger-me, you might think she’s looking at you, daring you, young pretty alterna-girl, to “Do the Dont’s,” to be the person everyone tells you not to be.
Combine it with the other two Juicy Couture ads, and it confirms all subtle cuing in the first ad. This girl has a giant bow on her head – how alternative! The fact that she’s topless and has the same vacant come hither gaze as all the other ad girls? It means she’s out to capture the same insipid dude’s attention as all the others.
And here we have bow-head again (she has a top on, hallelujah!), with her alterna-male friend who appears to also be into you, Mr. Male Gaze, in case you swing that way. We here at Alterna-Sex-R-Us aim to please.
And let me clear -- I have no problem with nudity or sexuality in images or film or art or reality. I do object, however, to using a woman's nude body to sell a product, as though her sexuality is something to be commodified right along with the bottle of perfume she's hawking. I have a problem with the idea that we use women's bodies, and men's bodies for that matter, as things rather than seeing them as people. If bowhead and her alterna-man friend there want to go at it, because they freely choose to, more power to them.
I just want the advertising industry to recognize that when it decouples the person from the body, you allow the distance that makes it easier for hatred against that body, for violence against that body, to be committed and ignored and excused by a world that has historically seen women as chattel, not as people. A world that in many places still does.
And in case your alterna-fantasies of "taking" a woman run toward the pseudo-hippy type, we have a natural blonde here covered in flowers, butterflies, and feathers, just waiting to share her peace, love, and Juicy Couture with you. That vacant stare, those slightly open lips, her complete inability to act, because she’s so blissed out, so all she can do is lay there passively? All for you.
Excuse me, younger self, I think I have to vom for a bit.
Tune in tomorrow for more continuing ranting in my current series “‘Alternative’ Styles in Advertising and the Male Gaze,” also known as “Rebel without a Clue.”
FN1. This series sprung from a presentation I did with Angela from Now Smell This!
FN2. I sometimes wonder if this process is what makes us reach farther and farther into the extreme to establish ourselves as outside the mainstream. Sure, some of it a desperate need to feel original and unique in a world where you can be connected to literally millions of other people with a click of a button. But some of it, I think, is also a legitimate effort to reject aspects of a culture we find uncomfortable. When those efforts become a new trend, it pushes those who feel at odds to further extremes. I can’t decide how I feel about it. On the one hand, more behavior becomes permissible, which means more freedom to express one’s identity without rejection. On the other hand, as the middle gets bigger, the left and right gets pushed out to further extremes, which results in the kind of political rhetoric that leads nowhere. On the gripping hand, true rejection of culture is so extreme very few ever engage in it; what we do is more upcycle or downcycle parts of a culture, because no one really wants revolution most of the time. Most of the time we just want more bread and circuses, even if we can’t admit that to ourselves. But I digress…