22 October 2006


Here I was just talking about the penetration of feminist ideas into mainstream culture without folks recognizing them as “feminist,” and I see another example making the rounds on the blogs.

It's an advertisement for Dove soap that's both compelling in its execution and a cracking good piece of feminist propaganda about our screwed up conception of “beauty.” I'm making it sound like eating your vegetables, but check it out, it's cool, I promise.

This is an ad with a cultural agenda. It's a feminist agenda, one that I favour, but I want to take a moment to remark on the squidgy frustrations I nonetheless feel with it.

First, as I said in the previous post, it's annoying to see feminist ideas being coöpted and not even recognized as feminist. Remember conservatives suddenly discover that Afghan women were oppressed by the Taliban? Having feminist ideas unrecognized as such is, in a certain sense, a victory, since it means those ideas have become pervasive. But it also is frustrating to feminists who know people around us who embrace feminist ideas but refuse to call themselves “feminists” because they somehow have it in their heads that feminists believe ... uh ... something bad ... about women being victims ... or something like that.

Second, it's disconcerting to see this in the context of advertising. Especially in the context of advertising for a company that's in the beauty products business. As Ampersand at Alas, A Blog observes about the earlier “Real Women Have Real Curves” Dove campaign:

The essential purpose of Dove’s campaign is the same as all ad campaigns for beauty or diet products: to make money by convincing people that they are unattractive and insufficient the way they really are. In Dove’s case, what’s being sold is “firming cream,” which as Lindsey at Majikthise points out, is just another word for snake oil. So Dove is trying to exploit women’s insecurities to convince them to waste money on products that don’t even work, but because they’re using models who are not actually anorexics, we’re supposed to see this as a feminist victory?

That, certainly not. But the fact that advertisers see speaking on feminist terms as a good way to reach people itself signifies that a victory has taken place in the culture.

Still, Ampersand is right on about flaws and limits in this feminist-influenced tactic, also criticizing the recent Nike print campaign that riffs on the way that buff women are a violation of common standards of beauty: “My butt is big.” “My shoulders aren't dainty.” “My knees are tomboys.” “I have thunder thighs.” Which is good, but buff women ain't the whole world.

Nike’s “my butt” ad features a picture of a butt that you could bounce a roll of quarters off of .... No loose, unruly fat running around here, no sir.
These ads aren’t about body acceptance, so much as they’re about regulating the borders of what bodies are and are not acceptable.

Roger that.

Still, let me rise in at least partial defense of these ads. There are interesting double-edged swords here. We get a physical standard offered, but it's an alternative to a pervasive and more destructive standard. We get nice big photographs of extraordinary-looking models, but we get copy that is an explict rejection of the judgements of the gaze of either gender. That ad says it in so many words.

My butt is big and that's just fine. And those who might scorn it are invited to kiss it.

And I think the “thunder thighs” copy is the wittiest, and takes us to a genuinely feminist perspective.

I have thunder thighs.
And that's a compliment
Because they are strong.

A woman's body not as an object for the gaze, but as something which serves the woman herself. Which brings us to another Nike ad, the “If You Let Me Play” TV spot which ran in '94, with images of little girls on the playground and a voiceover saying:

If you let me play sports
I will like myself more;
I will have more self-confidence,
If you let me play sports.

If you let me play,
I will be 60 percent less likely to get breast cancer;
I will suffer less depression.

If you let me play sports,
I will be more likely to leave a man who beats me.

If you let me play,
I will be less likely to get pregnant
before I want to.

I will learn what it means to be strong.
If you let me play sports.
If you let me play sports.

That's the case for Title IX right there. That's a vision of women and girls as something other than pretty dress-up dolls. Nike isn't exactly standing up for this across the board, but their advertising is selling the ideas.

Little victories, maybe, but good ones.

Update: Adding to this 2006 post in 2012 with a new Nike ad in the spirit of “If You Let Me Play”:

Update: Jenna Sauers at Jezebel finds a cosmetics ad featuring a bodybuilder and makes some interesting comments about the symbolism.

Update: A new short video from Dove with some anti-Photoshop hacktivism.

Since the graphic designers who would see the results are only the point of the spear of systemic sexism, there's a level on which it's badly-targeted to deliver the message. But there's still some poetry to this.

Update: Another new piece from Dove.

I find that one particularly well-executed; I cannot resist being moved by it. There's some juicy stuff in there about how women absorb the ideas that it's important for them to be beautiful, and an entire Insecurity Industry exists to ensure that women think that they don't measure up. And yet, at the same time, Dove is unmistakably a part of that insecurity industry, and the piece does not challenge at all the idea that having others perceive one as beautiful is important ... instead it reïnforces it.

This one has inspired a bunch of web commentary. A critical commentary on the “Dove Movement” campaign and sharp critiques of the Real Beauty Sketches ad from Jazz at Little Drops and Autumn Whitefield-Madrano at The New Inquiry.

Did you hear that, ladies? How beautiful you are affects everything—from your personal relationships to your career. It could not be more critical to your happiness!

Kate at Eat The Damn Cake expresses her ambivalence too.

We don’t do this because this is just how women are. We do it because we have learned that doing this is a part of being a woman. We’ve learned that beauty is really relevant and also it’s strict and specific and cannot reside in a face with a pronounced mole, so we agonize over the mole.

Meanwhile Smibbo provocatively suggests that critics have overstated the case against Dove for this pice.

For now, I’ll sum it up thusly: One beauty company decided to change their strategy from offensive and demeaning to just subtly pressuring. I can live with that.

A later, damning take from The Last Psychiatrist, The Dove Sketches Beauty Scam:

Dove, et al sympathize with your powerlessness, so since you can't get anywhere near those impossible standards, ads give you a chance of making some kind of progress: a little moisturizing soap and a positive message and maybe you get closer to the aspirational images of the women in the ad. "Those women are aspirational?" Of course: they're happy, Dad told them they're good. It feels like improvement, it feels like change, and I hope by now you understand it's only a defense against change.

Update: Yet another from the folks at Dove:

I like that one's use of the tools of cinema to draw the connection between the beauty industry and women's self-image. It's still weird coming from a company that's part of that industry.

Update: Another example, about double standards in the working world from ... Pantene.

That one's via Jezebel. And from later, I have another:

Found via Jessica Valenti's post Beauty companies now want women feel insecure about our insecurities at the UK Guardian, which expresses mixed feelings about it.

It's hard to disagree with the premise — it's true, these women have nothing for which they need to apologize (and yet many women still do in those situations). The same goes for Dove's incredibly popular “real beauty” campaign — yes, all body types should be accepted and loved. But there's something incredibly irritating, and crass, about beauty purveyors instructing women to “stop apologizing” or “stop hating their bodies” when many such insecurities stem, at least in part, from these very companies' advertisements.

Update: Critiques of photoshopping have become familiar enough that they are a recognizable genre all their own. Here's a music video which plays it for whimsy:

BOGGIE: NOUVEAU PARFUM from studiolamb on Vimeo.

Update: Another ad campaign in straight-up propaganda mode like “if you let me play”. I think it's a little on the nose, but you'd have to be made of stone not to be moved by the bit where the kids “run like a girl”.

Update: Molly Crabapple reminds us that all photographs — all artworks — are lies.

Photoshop, the belief goes, takes a true record of a moment and turns it into an oppressive lie.

But fuck Photoshop. Photos are already lies.

I'm a former model and current artist. I've learned this every second I've stared into the camera's insect eye.

Anyone who's been at a photo shoot knows that even untouched photos bear only the scantest resemblance to a subject. A photo is frozen. A model sweats and bloats, ages, and dies. Framing is a lie. Lighting is a lie. Cropping is a lie. When you suck in your stomach, or turn your head so the light washes out your laugh lines, you're lying as much as any liquefy tool. Untruth is baked into the process: Photographer Syreeta McFadden writes how the chemical makeup of some films is biased against dark skin tones. Even snapshots often don't look like you, because you are not static. You are a three-dimensional being, torn by time. Photos are pixel ghosts.

Update: A couple of music videos spend some time looking at women in ways that step outside the sphere of media conventions of “beauty”.

John Legend's song “You & I”:

For Colbie Caillat's song “Try”, whose lyrics are about the burden of the artifice of femininity, we see women removing their cosmetics and shaking out their hair, reflecting the song lyrics. Though I'm confident that Molly Crabapple would remind us not to mistake this for artlessness: someone has made careful choices about lighting and film stock and countless other factors that shape what we see to what effect ... including choosing whom we will see.

Put your make-up on
Get your nails done
Curl your hair
Run the extra mile
Keep it slim so they like you, do they like you?

Get your sexy on
Don't be shy, girl
Take it off
This is what you want, to belong, so they like you
Do you like you?

You don't have to try so hard
You don't have to, give it all away
You just have to get up, get up, get up, get up
You don't have to change a single thing

You don't have to try ....

Get your shopping on, at the mall, max your credit cards
You don't have to choose, buy it all, so they like you
Do they like you?

Wait a second,
Why, should you care, what they think of you
When you're all alone, by yourself, do you like you?
Do you like you?

You don't have to try so hard
You don't have to, give it all away
You just have to get up, get up, get up, get up
You don't have to change a single thing

You don't have to try so hard
You don't have to bend until you break
You just have to get up, get up, get up, get up
You don't have to change a single thing

You don't have to try ....

You don't have to try so hard
You don't have to, give it all away
You just have to get up, get up, get up, get up
You don't have to change a single thing

You don't have to try ....

Take your make-up off
Let your hair down
Take a breath
Look into the mirror, at yourself
Don't you like you?
Cause I like you

This again reads as a little too on the nose for my sensibilities, but the fact that this reads as necessary and even radical for some people tells us something, doesn't it?

Update: A friend on Facebook offers this comment:

You may be stunned to learn that I have some stuff on this. Here's how to cope: Get to know someone who works in advertising — as soon as they show you two different magazine covers of Angelina Jolie, in which her bones are literally in different places, you'll be over it. (Also, the war stories are priceless: Someone I know once got a note on a photo of a very famous actress which said, “Remove drool from corner of mouth. Fix stupefied expression.”)

Part two: Get involved with someone whose body is the walking picture of media-sanctioned perfection, and watch them lose their mind from the constant scrutiny, criticism, and perceived need to defend themselves.

Three: Cancel those magazine subscriptions, except for Allure and/or Vogue, because the Monica Bellucci Dolce & Gabbana cosmetic ads are spectacular. But see One, How To Cope, and don't buy that mascara. You know it won't make you Monica Bellucci.

Four, if you're into it: Actually, zero. This is critical: Surround yourself with people who truly love you and are into something other than all this. If you're me, that's the ladymonsters. Food, witchcraft, love, mental health, deep breaths, physical comfort, great books and movies, and tons of laughter are the best beauty treatments.

Back at four: Decide what you will and won't do. I love my dermatologist, but I'm never going to do an injectable. Remember that there are no miracle cures. Products will slow the process, but nothing halts the effects of time. You're more beautiful now than you were five years ago.

This from a self-professed former beauty junkie who has had to fight really hard to learn just this much.

It may be relevant to the reading of this comment that it comes one of the most glowingly beautiful women I have ever met. The Womens' Insecurity Industry remains very powerful, and the On The Nose responses remain relevant and powerful.


Lasara said...

LOVE it. You're so smart. :-)

Thank you. Always a pleasure.


Fable said...

Little victories, indeed. Great post.

Anonymous said...

Two words that could complicate & extend this essay: Hazel Dooney.