Sunday, January 8, 2012

The objectification of women

Sex sells but does rape? 

I'm working on two similar blog posts at once. The content overlaps some, even though one post is about objectification and the other is about shock art.

Yeah, I'm going to go there...again. And yes, I will encourage people to watch Killing Us Softly once more. I should probably change the title to The Objectification of People, but because women are traditionally put on display more, I'll leave it as is. I know I have addressed this issue in the past, but it's one that keeps popping up and staring me in the face.

First let me say that I have a very open mind when it comes to the expression of sexuality. Also, I have no problem with women showing skin if they like. I believe it's possible to present sensual, even sexy images without completely objectifying the model. Oddly, in a strange twist of what inherently seems wrong, some women will even objectify themselves in order to have a sense of empowerment. While I get that on some level, it also makes me cringe. Really, there is a line, and while we may not always be able to define or or describe it, we know when that line has been crossed. To objectify means that the person is discounted and the focus is on removing the human aspect. She becomes a sexual object (nothing more than something to provide sexual arousal or pleasure), not a beautiful or capable woman. It can be a very subtle difference between that and merely presenting an arousing image of a beautiful woman. There are extremists who believe that any attraction based on physical attributes is a problem. I don't see it that way. We are visual creatures and take pleasure in visual stimulation. The problem is where to draw that line, and it will be different for each of us.

Part of the problem in advertising is that we are so bombarded with these kinds of images that we are less aware of what objectification even is. I always bring up the Killing Us Softly series mentioned above when these kinds of discussions arise, simply because it raises awareness around how much we become accustomed to and accept in the advertising world, even when something doesn't sit quite right with us. Enter American Apparel...

Keep in mind that many American Apparel customers are in the 13 to 18-year-old age range.  This ad is currently on their website as of January 2012.

        What, exactly, is being sold here?

Kiddie porn or print campaign genius?

Where do I even begin?

The severity of objectification is so incredibly blatant in these ads that it's impossible to ignore. It's true that several ads from both Calvin Klein and Abercrombie and Fitch did stir up controversy when they came out years ago, and now the bar has been raised (or lowered) yet again. Congratulations American Apparel! It's incredibly upsetting that in addition to models looking far too young to be posing in these kinds of provocative positions, the ads also contain suggestions to check out porn star sites. Keep in mind that the target audience is young girls, not adults.

Calvin Klein ad

I realize that men are objectified too. It just happens more with women. Take the recent picture on the cover of Outside magazine of Lolo Jones. How would a male hurdler be portrayed? It's not that I feel her posing in a weird 5th Element-esque swimsuit is necessairly wrong; it's more that I see her as being a product of our culture.

Lolo Jones- no doubt the lady is incredibly beautiful! 

It's odd to say, but there are degrees of objectification. On a scale of 1 being a Sears model and 10 being, well, an American Apparel model, these sports stars in swimwear types of images fall somewhere in between. In this case, Lolo's image could be easily considered one that celebrates the strength and beauty of a female athlete, yet something about it tends to rub people the wrong way. The image below seems to convey that sentiment without the objectification.

Lolo Jones on the track

I see nothing wrong with showcasing a beautiful woman. I do see something dreadfully wrong when ads like the ones below are presented to the public:

Is the one on the right supposed to be better? 

More disturbing images from American Apparel


  1. Solid post Lize. I had (gladly) not seen the AA ads, and won't be in any rush to shop there (ever).

  2. It's really sad what advertising has done using the "woman" as eye candy to attract attention. I'm sure what most men remember is the "picture" and not the "message", although the "message" is unclear.
    Thanks for being able to share this awareness!

  3. I agree. The message, whatever it may be, gets lost in the shocking images. I'm surprised American Apparel has gotten away with this kind of advertising without more flack, though the company has been subject to at least a few sexual harassment lawsuits. One more disturbing aspect is that the CEO of the company was the brain behind this kind of controversial advertising. In addition to using porn starts as models, he often is the one who scout out girls on the street to become models. Thank you for your comment.

  4. Good post Lize. There's also the current obsession with youth in magazines and advertising. Heard an author on the radio today and she highlighted the fact that there are very few women over a certain age portrayed 'naturally' in magazines (even magazines catering for older age-groups).

  5. Thank you, Ewen. That is a really good point. The multi-billion dollar beauty industry sets an unrealistic ideal for women, often having girls in their teens posing as 30-year-old women or airbrushing to the extreme, so that we feel inadequate enough to buy whatever their selling. It's terrible!

  6. Good post! Sometime last year I was reading about how Elle Fanning (Dakota's younger sister) was the new muse of the fashion world for her long, thin limbs and lack of curves, the "perfect" fashion body. Yeah she lacked curves - she was like 11 years old at the time!!! Gross.

    Semi-related: The Sueddeutsche Zeitung had a photo series recently by a photographer who, shocked to discover the whole "pro ana" scene and disgusted by the portrayal of women in advertising, did her own fashion-style shoot with normal-sized women in fashion-y looking clothing in the sorts of unnatural poses you see in those ads. She then digitally altered the photos so that the women look like they weigh only 32 kg's (about 70 lbs) and displayed them in a gallery in Berlin. According to the photographer, most of the women who looked at these photos didn't notice anything amiss and thought they were regular fashion photos...

    Anyway, scary stuff. The photos are here (warning - highly disturbing)

  7. Wow- that is sad. A child of 11 should be spared from those kinds of comments. It's terrible.

    Thank you for the link. Those images are definitely disturbing. It's hard to believe that people didn't notice anything wrong with them. Scary. I can believe it though, because there have been plenty of models who were very sick who still got work in the fashion world. Sigh.

    I found the link for the Plus-Sized model article:

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  9. People have been complaining about this forever, and it's not going to stop. At least not if the complaints aren't focused and aimed in the right direction and imbued with magical properties to boot.

    We can all wring our hands and write blog posts read solely by people who are equally put off by a zeitgeist that's held sway in First World advertising ad campaigns ever since the camera was invented. Now the sex-vendors have handy tools like Photoshop, strategic lighting tricks, etc. to accentuate the imagery. Like anything else reliant on visual cortical processing, it's only going to involve more and more creativity and intensity as time passes.

    What would it take to put a stop to this? A miracle, probably. I suppose that if people made a mass commitment to boycott products that use American Apparel-style ads, you'd see a ripple in the amount of sexed-up material tossed out as a lure. But other companies engaging in similar practices wouldn't be cowed at all. Why? It's a cliche', but sex does sell. It would be great if a genuine, far-flung effort to shun products made by companies that cross the line were undertaken, but that line sits pretty far in the direction of "whoa, really?"

    A large proportion of the U.S. population consists of conservative Christians who would like nothing more than to see some of my favorite TV shows (e.g., Family Guy) eliminated. If they were to succeed, I'd start throwing flash-bang grenades through the windows of churches in mid-sermon, but you know what? I'll never have to worry about it. Despite the huge number of blinkered douchebags who belong to this segment of society, they can never organize themselves sufficiently to have anything they dislike shitcanned.

    Does that make it right to glorify T&A, to project the idea that women with bodies generally considered most attractive are more valuable? 'Course not, any more than it's a good idea from a number of perspectives in a country overrun with elephantine physiques to have every third TV advertisement feature some sort of triglyceride- or sugar-laden food product. This will never stop, either, because hunger is just as basic a drive as sex and can be cajoled into running buck-wild in more or less the same way -- through a barrage of overexposure.

    I think it's pretty fucked up to have some girl/woman who looks about 15 at the oldest sticking her ass out like that (the "Kiddie porn or print campaign genius?" pic). But the caption houses a false dichotomy. Try "kiddie porn AND campaign genius." And that right there is the problem, which, I repeat, is most likely insoluble in a society like ours. Maybe if every day was a literal fight for survival a la life on the African veldt, where Internet and cable and iPhone service is kinda sketchy, people wouldn't have the luxury of sitting around finding themselves becoming aroused by pictures of 15-year-old females. But then, look how women in those societies are treated.

    I hate to find myself saying "get used to it," but what's the alternative? Ban everything from Penthouse to Victoria's Secret catalogs? I guess it's incumbent to manage things on a micro-local or family level, just as it always is when it comes to immutable solecisms like this. I don't have kids, but if I had a daughter I have some idea of what I'd try to get across to her in this realm, even if I'd have some difficulty finding the right words.

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  11. The truth is that sex doesn't sell. It is only a cliche, but companies use it to shock. An image will stick in our heads, but that doesn't make us buy the product. only 8 out of 100 companies have any kind of success using the sex angle to promote their products. Most of the people who buy American Apparel are not doing so because of ads like these. These ads stir up controversy though, and that may get the name of the company out.

    Oh I'm used to it. That's the unfortunate part. We are all becoming numb to what's obviously not sitting right with most, yet have no real way to do anything about it. Boycotts are hit and miss when it comes to having any kind of effect on sales. They can give a company a bad name though, but I doubt the CEO of American Apparel cares much about that.

    It's like shock art. Free speech or freedom of expression is all fine and good, but the boundaries are being pushed so far into a realm that's too shocking. Take the art "exhibit" in which a dog was starved to death. The artist got notoriety, but at what cost? Yes, there was a backlash, but not enough of one to prevent a second exhibit.

    In the end, it seems to be about where to draw the line. While I'm disturbed by the Dolce and Gabbana image, I see less wrong with it than the ones below, simply because of the target audience and the age of the models. Dolce and Gabbaba, while making what I feel are bad choices in advertising, at least is an equal opportunity user, often placing men in the same awkward and distasteful positions. Plus, their target audience isn't young girls. American Apparel, on the other hand, using images of young girls who aren't true models but girls the CEO "discovered" on the streets or porn stars, and the target audience is young girls. That I'm not OK with.

  12. oops- that should read uses, not using.

  13. I completely agree with your observations in the last three paragraphs, Lize, but I should clarify my "sex sells" comment. By this I don't necessarily mean that companies directly enjoy greater commercial success by resorting to graphic sexual imagery (although I have to wonder how the study that concluded with the 8-in-100 figure arrived at this number). I mean that people definitely stop to look, and this plants a seed.

    When I go to a marathon expo and booths are handing out free samples of some new snack or energy drink, my trying them has never led me to rush right out and buy the product even if I like it. But I don't doubt that down the line my sampling has had a positive impact, either by my occasionally buying a bag of whatever or mentioning to someone I'm shopping with that such-and-such is tasty, etc.

    I say this not to compare an energy bar with a pair of nearly bare breasts, but to emphasize that it's very difficult to assay a given exposure's impact on product sales. My feeling is that companies wouldn't use such imagery unless there were solid reasons, based on the vast amount of research into human psychology that companies are known to conduct, for believing it was useful. After all, such companies are taking a considerable PR risk in showing pics of someone who is or looks underage wearing next to nothing. I refuse to believe that companies like American Apparel just don't care how their ads will strike consumers; even the most "edgy" business entities are invested in not going under.

  14. The study was done by Ad Age. They published a list of the Top 100 most effective advertising of the century. Unruly Media has a video tracker that showed that one 1 of the most viewed car commercials involved something sexual, and no, it wasn't the top rated ad by a long shot. My point in bringing that up was that it's a cliche. Sex doesn't sell, and companies interested in really promoting their product should know that. I have a hard time knowing what "seed" is planted with a topless young girl, but I'm sure most people can guess.

    If you read interviews with the CEO of American Apparel, you might think a little differently. They guy comes off as a scumbag, and I highly doubt his brilliant advertising campaign is helping his company. If anything, he should consider the backlash of parents who don't want their young children to be exposed to that severe level of objectification.

  15. There should be an Also, after Ad Age- it's two different studies, just to be clear.

  16. 'Objectification of Women' in advertising..zzzzzzzzzz..

    You should take a few advertising classes before writing yet another cliched article such as this, it would help your argument tenfold.

    1. It might help if you took a grammar class, but even that might not help me find a valid point in you comment. Perhaps some elaboration might do the trick.

  17. I bet they would sell MORE products if they used humor in their ads, or bright colors; pretty art or catchy songs. They are only doing this (creating ads that look more like porn) for SHOCK value. Stupid. If they REALLY cared about their company and their sales and creating a CLASSY image instead of a TRASHY one, they would advertise in a more productive manner instead of creating visuals that are deliberately disturbing and leave most of us with a gross icky feeling. American Apparel - ARE YOU READING THIS???? Stop presenting little girls as sex objects. Why the heck haven't they been arrested for this?

    1. I agree. This is all about shock. With American Apparel, they claim that the models are 18 years old, but they sure don't look it. I guess they have a right to freedom of expression, but their expression is about as far from tasteful as anyone can get. I won't set foot in any of their stores.