Anyone who doesn't live under a rock understands that companies, from perfumers to maternity apparel, use sex to sell their products. This we know and, for the majority of Americans, it's accepted. Not many of us write letters to the heads of television channels or editors-in-chief of magazines, decrying the oppression of women. Surely some do, but for rest, we generally just flip the page or change the channel when an ad fetishizing a faceless woman or showing her as nothing more than a vagina crosses our path. Sometimes, we don't even realize an ad is spewing subtle bursts of racism...or bat an eyelash when an anti-gay message is shoved down our throats (remember this Superbowl ad where two men accidentally touch lips as the gnaw on the same Snickers bar, only to freak out and, in an effort to appear "manly," rip out their chest hair?).
I tend to fall in the middle of the "do something" spectrum, perhaps a bit towards the proactive end. For my own sanity, I specifically avoid TV shows and publications known for ads showing pin-thin models, women lying in bloodied heaps on the floor, women as nothing more than a body part that needs to be whittled down. There was a time where I actually tuned into the Howard Stern show -- why, I have no idea -- and it was only once I realized and said the words out loud, "Hey, this show makes me feel like crap!" that I switched channels forever. I also speak publicly about the effects ads and airbrushing can have on American women and men alike, and a hush falls over the crowd as recount a story from a psychologist colleague of mine: She was treating a woman for an eating disorder -- a patient who, coincidentally or not, worked in the art department for a major lingerie company (I won't name names...it's a secret). She said everything, from wiping away cellulite to lengthening navels to elongate the torso, took place via retouching software, only to be transmitted to thousands of consumers as "real."
My anger over this kind of false advertisement and objectification of women was recently refueled, when American Apparel made headlines for its gigantic billboard ad in NYC's Lower East Side (directly about a bakery, in a sweetly ironic twist.) The 50-foot tall canvas depicted a topless woman clad only in tights, bent over some sort of ledge or shelf. Her long, slim legs were spread in a wide V. There was no copy accompanying the image, except the company's name. (See the ad here.)
No copy, that is, until someone scaled the ad and defaced it. In all capital letters, for all of New York to see, the ad now read "GEE, I WONDER WHY WOMEN GET RAPED" with a question mark spray painted near her crotch. (See graffitied ad here.)
At first, people were outraged: How could someone be so cruel, so barbaric as to insinuate that women are responsible for being sexually attacked. That it is our fault, that we asked for it? Not that such a belief is unheard of -- such shaming and blaming constantly occurs in our society, where the victim is assaulted a second time in the courtroom or police station, bombarded with questions about how she was dressed, whether she said "No!" loudly or convincingly enough. Indeed, as writer Jessica Bennett wrote in a in a newsweek.com piece on the American Apparel controversy, "A woman never asks for rape, but some would say that flaunting a model in such a vulnerable position could feed into that sordid interpretation." Bennett, who explored both sides of this issue, interviewed Steve Hall, creator of Adrants.com, you put it like this: "It's basically like, 'Here's my a--, f--- me,' if you want to be as blunt as possible."
But upon further consideration, the tag came to represent so much more. Perhaps, the public surmised (hoped?), the person responsible for the graffiti was not some misogynistic prick or a dumb kid with a can of paint but an outraged feminist, taking matters into her or his own hands. After all, the "GEE..." label could be read as statement, as the previous paragraph discusses...but this billboard got a question mark. You can almost picture a professor of women's studies or a defense attorney in a rape trial sarcastically positing the question in regards to the overt hyper-sexualization and objectification of women in advertising and its impact on us at the individual level: "Gee, I wonder why women get raped?"
American Apparel founder and CEO Dov Charney has a history of relying on sexually provocative ads -- take a look at the clothing company's web site, which features a gallery of "evocative images captured by our staff," including pics of barely legal-looking girls and boys sprawled across hardwood floors (Krystal -- unitard; Dan -- men's briefs), spread-eagled on beds (Valeria -- bathing suits), posing on all fours (Sophia - shiny leggings). Oh, and twins Ashley and Lindsay, posing in compromising positions. Of course.
Charney is known for a few other things -- some positive (AA is fiercely anti-sweatshop; workers get paid well and are privy to health benefits; the models are "real women") and some positively gross (he has been involved in three lawsuits related to sexual harassment -- two settled out of court, one still pending. And in a legendary Jane magazine interview, reporter Claudine Ko described how the self-titled "Jewish Hustler" masturbated in front of her on numerous occasions -- he did request permission first, which Ko granted -- including one interview as he explained, "Masturbation in front of women is underrated. It's much easier on the woman. She gets to watch, it's a sensual experience that doesn't involve a man violating a woman, yet once the man has his release, it's over and you can talk to the guy.")
Does sex sell? Yes. But it's reached the point where good old-fashioned subconscious imagery has flown out the door and retailers are relying on the most obvious, explicit images possible. At best, it's lazy and at worst, it hurts women. (Although I must admit, I was shocked to read that when Newsweek's Bennett interviewed Kyung Chung, 24, the woman in the billboard ad causing all the commotion, she learned the picture was actually a self-portrait; Chung was surprised by the attention and believes "the fact that some people chose to project 'victim' onto that image -- an image that I took of myself -- is only an indication of their own distorted perceptions about women and sexuality.") Do we really want our young girls growing up in a culture where ads show women decapitated, lying at the feet of men or with perfume bottles shoved between their legs? In the case of American Apparel, the legs belong to real women, which in some twisted way might be a step up from idealized supermodel gams. Thank God for small favors.
Follow Leslie Goldman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/LeslieGoldman