Monday, July 07, 2008

Violence Is Sexy! (Don't You Agree? If You Don't You Must Be Ugly So Don't Buy Our Product!)

Melanie and I were chatting online last night about some reading she's done regarding the use of violence and "sexy violence" in advertising and pop culture. There's a lot of insidiousness that we all see and become inured to each day, and for some reason a lot of advertisers (and TV producers and video game producers) are using violence (and sexual violence) the way they used to use sex--to market a product and attract viewership.

She got to emailing me some links to some recent advertisements. The common theme among them was "sexy violence."I'm going to link to them here, although I won't go as far as to post the images on my blog (why, after all, should I be doing D&G the favor of giving them ad space when I disagree so strongly with their campaign?). I'll warn you that I, at least, find some of these images in particular disturbing, but a) I think it's important to talk about them, and b) you've probably already seen most of them, since unfortunately to a large degree we are no longer free to choose what we are exposed to.

Start with this link, and look at the top image (before scrolling down and reviewing a lot of other examples, which are interesting for other reasons). In the top image, D&G offers us what is basically a highly sexualized (glittering pecs, arched stilettos) gang rape. I and others who have seen this ad can't imagine any other possible way to interpret it.

D&G ran this ad in spring of 2007. When the campaign ran, the Spanish government criticized the photo as "illegal and humiliating to women," and D&G pulled the entire campaign in Spain. Most interesting to me was D&G's response when they chose to pull the ad. "We will only withdraw this photo from the Spanish market," said a D&G spokesperson. "They are a bit behind the times."

Behind the times, you say? (And to think, all this time I was thinking gang rape was becoming *less* acceptible with time. Silly me.)

Dolce & Gabbana defended the campaign as art in comments reported by La Vanguardia. "What has an artistic photo got to do with a real act?" the paper quoted the firm as saying. "You would have to burn museums like the Louvre or the paintings of Caravaggio."

(Check out a full article here.)

The equation of the ad photo to art gets my goat in yet another way--now D&G is criticizing you if you don't find sexual violence beautiful. Why are we being taught to sexualize sexual violence? Why? I believe in free speech and the beauty of art and expression, but for me there is a line that can be and has been crossed.

To be totally fair to D&G, though, they don't just promote sexual violence against women. Here was their follow-up ad campaign for Fall 2007, in which a series of images picture male models (with no clothes they can possibly be advertising) being subjected to various sexual humiliations at the hands of clothed female models.

Here is another example, from a controversial ad campaign by Cesare Paciotti. In this picture, a dress is modeled by a date rape scenario. And here's another by the same house, in which the violence is not quite as explicit but for me, at least, still comes through strongly (an all but naked woman is positioned extremely suggestively on a stationary bike).

When I talked to Melanie about this last one, I said, "I just don't understand--it's not like it's successful advertising." (Thinking to myself, it's a fashion house and this model isn't wearing any clothes.)

"That's the thing," Melanie said. "It's actually advertising exactly what they're selling." Ie debasement of the human body. You are nothing; your body is not sacred. Spend money on our expensive clothes and then at least you'll have that much.

I took a very narrow sampling here to illustrate a point; almost all the links/images I'm posting are specifically from fashion advertising, and most of them were put together by Dolce & Gabbana. I'm not pretending to make a cohesive thesis about an industry with these; I only offer them up as talking points. This (mis)use of the human body is by no means a phenomenon in advertising. Much of visual advertising is designed around making us feel bad so we think we won't be good enough without the product in question. But we do need to step back and give ourselves a shake about this, notice the images we are being fed, and remind ourselves that some of the messages seeping into our brains are not okay.

I'm blogging about this for two reasons.

1) It makes me really effin' mad.
2) It's a good (if corporatized) example of the power of media, and how we all need to be conscious of the messages we're disseminating.

Fashion advertising is not a far stretch from book publishing. Media is media, and being involved in media in any capacity makes you responsible (at least in part) for ideas, images, and words that you endorse with your involvement. There is plenty of sexualized violence and condoned sexual violence in print culture. I do think it is slightly less harmful than print images and advertising, since the audience is more directed (anyone who walks by a poster sees it and is affected by the image, whereas someone has to purposefully read a book). And adults have a right to read what they want to. But I believe strongly that authors--particularly children's and YA authors--need to be aware of the messages they are dissemenating, and need to be sure that everything they are standing for they stand for deliberately. I talk about that a lot in this post from way back, if you want to know more about my position.

Most people I've talked to about these images have said something along the lines of, "I wonder what jerk approved this." The fact is, many higher-ups--probably whole roomfuls of them--at various companies approved these images and campaigns. Committees of people thought these images were a good idea, much the way they have greenlit video games marketed to teenagers and pre-teens filled with murder, rape, and torture themes and images. The trouble with all these higher ups who are not, in D&G's terms, "behind the times" is that not only are these images potentially dangerous--life imitating art, anyone? that never happens, does it?--but in a world of high-speed internet connections and ubiquitous mass media, they are more accessible by more people of all ages than anything has ever been before. So as it becomes less acceptible to admit to being scandalized by these kinds of things and therefore the number of these media being produced goes up, so does the likelihood that these images fall into the hands of people who might be traumatized, scarred, or irresponsibly inspired by them. Do you really want your five-year-old seeing any of these images hanging in the subway? But by criticizing you for your prudishness, D&G gets away with taking away your choice.

As dissemenators of media (which we all are, all us bloggers, writers, editors, publicists) and consumers of media (which we all are, whether we want to be or not), we need to be hyperaware of what we're saying and what we're hearing. We need to say what is good and true and what we believe in, and we need to be able to step back and remember that everything we see and read is not right or ok.

Take a stand, if you can. Don't let people get away with telling you and showing you things you don't believe in. We all have the power to be part of the solution.


Conduit said...

I'll limit my comments to the first link you provided...

That D&G ad is quite troubling. I don't really see any other way to interpret it, and I think 'art' is a flimsy excuse. But is moral indignation the best response? I suspect that was the objective - get people talking, stir controversy, get publicity. It would appear to have worked.

As for the rest of the ads on the page you linked to, I'm afraid they detract from the credibility of the site owner, in my opinion. Labeling them "Offensive to women" doesn't make it so. Individuals may be offended, depending on their sensibilities, but to tell an entire gender how to feel about an image - well, if I was a woman, I think I'd find that more offensive.

In any magazine you'll find plenty of ads where men with chiselled pecs and abs are objectified, and make those of us who are less than perfectly formed suck in our stomachs. The portrayal of unrealistic body types is not a gender specific issue. The use of sexualised images to sell products is not a gender specific issue. Just a few minutes ago I watched an aftershave ad on TV with Sawyer from LOST tossing his hair and baring his chest. Was I offended? No. Was I jealous? Of course.

But, to your original point, using sex to sell is one thing. Using sexual violence to sell is quite another.

Daniel W. Powell said...

Kudos to you for writing this post, Moonrat. The Media Education Foundation at UMASS, Amherst, has created a series of documentaries that explore the issues of irresponsible consumer images and corporate colonization. We use some of them in my classroom as discussion starters, and they often lead to really solid, articulate term papers on some of the issues you touch on here.

Many of our strongest (and most insidious) cultural assumptions have been reinforced over the last half-century by corporate images like the ones you link to here. I think that the kids that are cycling through my classrom (post-1982 births, or Gen. Y if you like the label) are very savvy about mediating these issues. They've been immerced in such a cynical marketplace their whole lives. It's a marketplace where the only thing a company can do to get its message noticed in the storm of clutter out there is to shock the audience. So Paris Hilton washes a car in a swimsuit to sell hamburgers. And ads like these, which reinforce the worst aspects of society, are the ones that resonate in the marketplace.

But my point on this next generation of young people is that they are willing to engage issues like these in debate. And when they find their way into the halls of corporate advertising (and publishing!) houses, the hope is that they'll shift the paradigm.

Again, thanks for the post. I keep a file on lots of these rhetorical examples, so your post had some nice material for me.

jeanne k said...

"What has an artistic photo got to do with a real act?"

The question is, what has this particular act got to do with selling over-priced clothing?

Another question, who convinced the models (males as well as female) that this was an appropriate way to sell over-priced clothing? (Who am I kidding...?)

Oh, and, newsflash: your "art" is going to be displayed in Vogue, not in the Louvre. Get over yourself.

JES said...

To continue with Conduit's train of thought, and tie it to books: what about book covers? I can't think of the title or author off the top of my head, but I think it might have been something by Lisa Scottoline? ... Yes. I don't mean to comment on LS herself, of course, but the covers her publisher selects for her books make me only slightly less queasy.

At the same time, I have to admit that I like (say) Quentin Tarantino's films. This is completely at odds with the quease factor I describe above.

It's hard to want a different world; there are so many things to LOVE in the world, after all, and I'm not sure but maybe I love them all the more because of all the grotesque alternatives...

Charles Gramlich said...

I've seen the top add on the first link before and immediately thought it looked like a rape scene. I can definitely see a problem with it. Most of the other ads on that page don't seem to me to be much of a problem. The one about "until I find a real Man" seems more offensive to men than women. A few of these do skirt the edges though.

Mags said...

Wow, we're exhausting. We live in one of the safest countries on the planet (which is extremely difficult to remember sometimes) and yet we're constantly trying to keep up with the things we need to know to keep our bodies safe from harm.

All of us, but non-men and non-adults most pointedly.

Always something new. Don't leave your drink unattended, don't wear headphones when you walk, don't get into your car without checking beneath it and looking into the floor wells first. Don't be too bitchy. Don't, do not, be too friendly. I accept these things because I don't accept the alternative.

And so fashion sells us this, and it's sexy? D&G, Cesare Paciotti, and anyone who finds these ads intriguing can bite me. I'm exhausted, and I'm never without my pepper spray.

I hadn't seen them. Thanks.

Daniel W. Powell said...

D'oh! I just read over my post and caught my error--immersed. I is a writer.

And Conduit, Jeanne and Charles all make an excellent point. The pendulum swings both ways. Budweiser's commercials resonate well becauase of their humor, but the underlying message is that American men are gullible slackers who will go to insane lengths for a sixer. The ads are funny in a vaccuum but, over time, the message becomes tiresome.

That's a very far cry from applying sex appeal to violence, but the point that these messages can disparage both sexes is well taken.

ChrisEldin said...

Moonie, This issue touches on something I've been grappling with a lot the past couple of years.

We (our family) live in the U.S. 7 months of the year. THen we live in Dubai for 5 months. In transit, we usually stay in London for a few days. These ads are so common in the European magazines. Even topless ads. Then I go to Dubai, which is gradually becoming overrun by foreigners, but still I see the covered women and I think that's equally (if not more) offensive.
Then there's the U.S. Seemingly conflicted about sexual issues on many different levels. Maybe Conduit can answer--are Europeans more comfortable with their sexuality? Do these ads offend Europeans?
I guess I see/live three different views on topics like this.

Great post.

Southern Writer said...

Great post! My thought before reading chriseldins' was that these ads are probably aimed at the European market. I'm not exactly a prude, but I still don't like them. They're degrading to women. Period.

Eileen said...

I also hate advertisements directed to women where the male is always shown as an idiot.

very interesting post- thanks

AC Gaughen said...

It's a very interesting post, and a very interesting ad campaign. I agree, the insinuation of gang rape is definitely there, as is the helpless, frail, weak interpretation of the high-fashion woman.

It's messed up, with out a doubt. But in a day and age when our youth is as likely to pick up Vogue as they are to habitually read blogs and websites where such depictions have been blasted (like...HERE!) I can also see the benefit in bringing a crucial issue to the table.

If you ask me, as long as outcry follows, the most important thing is getting a teenage girl to really consider what she's reading, and seeing--to question the massive influx of media culture that Mr. Powell has been referencing. The only real benefit of these ads is to demand a reaction.

x AC

green_knight said...

I dated a guy - once - who felt that upping the ante was necessary because people had been desensitized to 'normal' levels of sex and violenc. That was in 1996, and for our first date he took me to see 'Seven'. Needless to say, I did not see him again.

And yes, this ad made me aware of the company, but in a way that says 'I would rather turn up at the Oscars in my oldest gardening clothes than buy anything from them'.

As for 'are all women offended by these'? Probably not. *Should* women be offended? IMHO, yes.

C. Leigh Purtill said...

As a YA writer - my most recent novel deals with body image issues in Hollywood - and a former network standards editor, I'm incredibly sensitive to images such as this. We're never going to have *less* sex in the media but if we can educate our children about how these pictures objectify women - and *why* it's wrong to do so (reasoning, sadly, that is absent from otherwise well-meaning people's arguments), we can look forward to a more enlightened society.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

An excellent and thought-provoking post. This is one of the most important issues of our times, on many levels. I hope more is written about it with the eloquence, intelligence and candor you've shown.

ChrisEldin said...

I've been thinking about this post, and the ads that are linked. I agree with everyone who's posted so far that the first one is offensive and irresponsible. It's promoting a message that denigrates women in a repulsive way.
Some of the other ones fall into a gray area for me. I don't like any of the ads inasfar that they make the product appealing. But I'm not offended by all of them. I think I've tuned out to some degree, which also isn't a good sign, is it?

moonrat said...

Thanks for all the comments, guys. This is a really important issue to me and I'm so glad other people have taken as much time to address it thoughtfully.

I have different feelings about the other ads on the first link I put up--it was the top D&G one that most upset me, because to me there was nothing innocent about the composition or message. The other ads, I think, would need to be addressed one by one and on different topics.

The "offensive to women" page in particular I would like to put aside (although it's my fault for using it as a link!). I think that ads that promote sexual violence are offensive--and dangerous--to men as well as women.

It's true that we can't protect our eyes from the ads (and other media), but (to the point many of you make) talking about it, blogging about it, and encouraging dialogue is as least a way of protecting our *brains* from the message.

Linda said...

Provocative post. The D & G ads - blatantly offensive, but most of the others... well, mostly sex, plain and simple.

I hate ads that objectify women; heck, I hate ads that objectify men (and those are growing - remember the giant Calvin Klein man hovering over Times Square?. And children, for that matter (how many ads do you see with models who look pubescent?). Those that condone violence - unpardonable. Those that objectify non-violently - more a matter of taste. Poor taste, perhaps, but still taste.

But in either case, I vote with my pocketbook. If done on a large scalre, I suspect that's more effective than regulating out sex and violence. I'll choose Armani over D & G next time I hit Milan. Peace, Linda

Rebecca said...

But I believe strongly that authors--particularly children's and YA authors--need to be aware of the messages they are dissemenating, and need to be sure that everything they are standing for they stand for deliberately.

Took the words right out of my mouth, actually, amost word-for-word. My BFF and I blog book reviews of kids and YA novels, and we recently featured a pretty large debate about just that -- what, if any, responsibility authors generally (YA authors specifically) have in presenting messages to their readers. My take is strongly that they need to read their own works critically and be aware of what the messages in them are and make sure that whatever's in there is there intentionally.

This whole post, just...yes, yes, yes. A huge part of why I've embraced feminism is that it gives me tools to look around and see what's going on in ads like the ones you linked and verbalize why they upset me.

danceluvr said...

I watched the cable series, Make Me a Supermodel, and was appalled at the scenarios the producers or whoever made the contestants pose in. Many were almost pre-coital situations. And several of these kids were barely out of their teens.

One girl did get upset about the raunchiness of the assignments but managed to go through with them. I think she even won.


Oriental Cracker said...

moonrat says, "To be totally fair to D&G, though, they don't just promote sexual violence against women. Here was their follow-up ad campaign for Fall 2007, in which a series of images picture male models (with no clothes they can possibly be advertising) being subjected to various sexual humiliations at the hands of clothed female models."

i'd actually have to disagree. the supposed sexual violence towards men here is of a completely different nature than what women usually get subjected to in popular culture. personally, i find the figure of the female dominatrix extremely volatile in this regards because while she is ostensibly the one holding the power it very much plays into the construction of female sexuality that dominates our society today--which frankly, must be said to be of male heterosexual creation. is the female dominatrix in this picture really exerting sexual authority or is she subjugating herself to a male fantasy and offering herself up as spectacle? i hate shit like this, and i think women who buy into the "empowerment" of sex are generally just contributing to the problem. it's faulty analysis.

women are SUPPOSED to be bitchy and hot and dominating according to mainstream society. women are SUPPOSED to walk the line between slut and vixen with dangerous dexterity. Picture the typical "hot" girl at a club. got an image in your mind? what does she look like? is she tall and thin, wearing something revealing, maybe a miniskirt and a tubetop? Does she have a confident smile on her face and a Cosmo in her hand? Everything about her signals that she's sexually available, which is fine. Then a man approaches her and makes sexual advances. So far so good. What is she supposed to do? What would a "slut" do? Probably accept the advances and maybe even initiate the next step. What does the "hot" girl do? She slaps him in the face. The guy is even more turned on and starts chasing her. She makes him work for it a little, then when she's "tamed" him she "lets" him approach her sexually.

I mean, I'm getting off on a long tangent here, but this is really what I see going on. I suspect it's somewhat related to the social stereotype of man as idiot that other posters referred to. I read a book the other day that said our sexual model construes men as "animal" and women as "animal tamer" and I thought it was dead on. This model completely deprives women of ownership of their own sexual desire and puts her in the position of flaunting her sexuality for men while being simultaneously required to fend off their lusty and uncontrollable advances. The hot girl in the club i talked about earlier is what every girl kind of secretly wishes she was like, right? I know I do. She's hot AND she 's strong. But I think that's a fallacy, the strong part. I think she's just playing into somebody else's construction of her and her sexual identity and it's fucked up.

heh, heh, i guess i should make an attempt to tie this back into the ad after writing a whole novel. i think my point is that the suggestion that the man in the dominatrix picture is being subjected to the same kind of sexualized violence as the woman in the rape scene is actually 180 degrees from the truth. The women in the picture may not be having violence done against them, but they're still be manipulated by the male spectatorship that dominates most cultural imagery.

Christa said...

Wow...and here I still recall argueing with the McDonald's drive thru kids (about 7 years ago or so).

It used to get me angry when ordering kids meals because they label them 'boys' and 'girls', instead of the types of toys they come with.

When my kids were younger, I'd always order the ones with cars, as my daughter likes cars and has never played with dolls. When I would get to the pick-up window, invariably someone would pull the order back, apologizing, saying that the order said 'boys' meals.

This was always my cue to succinctly state "just because she's a girl, doesn't mean she doesn't like cars." I then snagged the meals and left in a huff.

After seeing these adds, I'd much prefer only to deal with the McDonald's type ignorance.

Women used to complain about car ads with bikini clad women lying over the hood as being offensive. Instead of improving things, we decide to go the opposite direction.

I don't even want to try and fathom what people who make these ads honestly think. Nor what goes through the minds of consumers who are actually inspired to purchase these products. Talk about scary people...