April 25, 2008

Sexualized Ads Become "Obscene" When Guys are the Objects

Posted in advertising, ideology, mass media, objectification, sexual politics, Sexuality Blogs and Resources at 10:39 am by LB

So this video and news issue is a wee bit old, but the idea it raises isn’t at all.

Apparently an in-store Abercrombie ad campaign (see video below) received complaints for being too sexual/obscene. Abercrombie has been doing this for years, for example, depicting cartoons of topless girls (yeah, they looked awful young) in pools and having threesomes in their catalog back when I worked in the mall 10 years ago. And in this day and age of hypersexualization of women’s bodies and the general pornification of everyday life, you would think these ads must be awfully revealing to be so scandalous.

The thing is, the ads aren’t that revealing. Not by far, and especially not compared to most ads we see everywhere. we. look.

Except that most sexualized ads we see are of women’s bodies (I said most-I am well aware of the sexual and homoerotic tones of several cologne ads). However, the Abercrombie campaign includes some sexy images…of guys. And the marketing target is upper-middle class, heterosexual teens, both female and male.

via msnbc.com:

This is the part that struck me most:

“there’s half naked guys running around–it’s obscenity–is Playboy able to hang naked pictures in their store?”

Um, sorry dude, but the half naked men shown in Abercrombie ads is not the same as fully naked Playboy pictures. Like, at all. It’s more like Victoria’s Secret ads (and even then not quite the same there either)…and oh yeah, they are able to show those, and not only in their stores, but on billboards, the sides of buses, every f*cking magazine you pick up, not to mention, the goddamn TV!!

The ads are only ‘scandalous’ because guys are being (mildly) depicted as erotic objects of heterosexual desire. And this just doesn’t happen. Even when there’s male (frontal) nudity in movies, it’s typically either goofy or is not eroticized. Women as sexual objects, as seen as serving a sexual function for men (being sexually desirable rather than having sexual desire) have functioned in a particular way in western patriarchy, along with wife/mother, to produce female ideals whose value relies on seeing women in terms of how they function for men’s benefit. This is the very definition of objectification–defining (a person) in terms of how you already see them to be, in how they’re useful for you, rather than seeing them on their own terms. Men are really only able to objectify women in this way because such narrow and all-defining judgment is never returned to them; they are rarely, if ever, made the objects of female-centered desire. It’s awfully hard to objectify someone when you recognize they have their own desire–and that you might not be up to their standard.

I’m getting a bit off track, and I’ll continue to blog about that in the future, but getting back to the anxious guy…his comments are screaming male privilege. The fact that these images bother him so much can be attributed to him rarely having to be faced with the eroticization of his own body, even in the mild Abercrombie images of guys in jeans showing a little buttcrack. What’s fascinating is that he is so bothered by it. I’d like to say that he’s finally getting a small taste of what women go through, but that’s not even close to the truth: he has the luxury of being able to avoid dealing with the images by walking out of the store. These kinds of images (and so much more) are simply unavoidable for women–we can never just walk away, because they’re there whenever we turn around.

Another fascinating thing about his comment was his analogy of these images to Playboy images. On an obvious level, he’s so wrong, because, um, come on, they’re nowhere near close: they’re not the same degree of nudity, not the same degree of sexualization (there’s little about the Abercrombie poses that are seductive or vulnerable), and not the same intent. On another level, they are similar, because sexualized women’s bodies are so commonplace these days, that we wouldn’t even blink an eye if we were to replace the guy in the Abercrombie ad with a woman. We probably wouldn’t even think it was racy, or even that sexual. So his analogy, in a way, speaks very much to the ubiquitous sexualized female body and the rarely eroticized male body.

Finally, what I’m also quite interested in regarding this video news story, is that the campaign included images of girls, depicted in much the same way as the guys are…yet he never mentioned being bothered by the “obscenity” of those! When we take this reaction, and think about the male anxiety around male nudity in general, and especially gay male sexuality (but of course, not lesbian sexuality), it it very clear that, in popular culture, sexuality becomes ‘obscene’ when it does not reinforce heteronormative masculinity. Images are only seen as improperly sexualized when it’s the male body on display for a (presumed) het female audience.

(Cross-posted to The Reaction)



  1. Arkhilokhus said,

    The thing that struck me about this post is how men aren’t used to having their bodies enjoyed by others. Obviously we want everyone to be appreciated for more than their looks – your phrasing that women have bodies, but aren’t their bodies is a great one – but it makes me sad that there’s not really a space for just the simple enjoyment of each other’s bodies, both male and female, outside of intimate relationships.

  2. Burning Prairie said,

    Nice catch! So the ads that really put the burr under the ol’ saddle were the ones with the half-dressed guys, not the one with full-naked girl? I’ve seen men in my neighborhood mow their yards wearing less clothes. Whaddya want to bet homophobia plays a big part in this?

  3. lindabeth said,

    burning prairie, I’d bet…LOTS!

    And welcome to the blog–thanks for jumping in!

  4. lizriz said,

    So I guess there’s no lingerie ads in that town or in that mall? ‘Cause I live in L.A., and I see large billboards of women in their underwear fairly regularly. Which makes me wonder if there’s a Victoria’s Secret in that mall, and what’s hanging on their walls.

  5. goingtomontreal said,

    This was a great post–and I think your last paragraph is one that rings very true… A lot of the fear that surrounds this man’s campaign against “obscenity” lies within homophobia and fear of being the object of erotic desire. Because, women OBVIOUSLY have no visual sexual desire towards men (the only sexuality we are granted is that which fulfills male pleasure) so than the erotic depiction of male bodies MUST BE only intended for homosexual viewers…therefore to support it is to play into gay male fantasy.

    This really bugs me, on so many levels.

  6. lindabeth said,

    good points, goingtomontreal, and welcome!

  7. […] mostly based on how the male body is not constructed as sexual for heterosexual women. See previous posts on the lack of eroticization of the male […]

  8. prometheustherebel said,

    It is almost as if you are my long lost more articulate separated at birth twin. Excellent.

  9. lindabeth said,

    prometheustherebel: thank you so much for your very kind words! Glad you’re enjoying my writing!

  10. […] for that sex minigame with guys? Ughh…I dont even want to think about it … “  Homophobic much?  Male-centered […]

  11. silver_blaise said,

    Nice ;) I’m doing a paper on this and this is so apt. Wish I could cite it haha.

  12. enhui said,

    Thank you for writing this amazing post! The points you on the double standards for men and women in advertising are highly accurate and insightful. Even though I’d like to think we have achieved (roughly) equal status in the schools and workforce, the amount of trashy adverts that denigrate women in my country (Singapore) are rampant and unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Open the page of any newspaper and you will see half a dozen adverts for slimming centres, bust enhancement services; turn on the television and see commercials where women are either cleaning the house or cooking dinner (for men). What’s more depressing is that my (female) friends in school do not see there is a problem with this trend and think such double standards are acceptable and the norm.

  13. tyaty1 said,

    You competely missing the point of this game.

    It is a Role Playing Game which plays in the middle age like fairly realisic fantasy setting.

    1. It is a sequel for a novel series, with a well developed stright male protagnosist(like in the novels)

    2. In the middle ages,were not gender eqality, feminism, and the way of thinking of people was incomparable with the people in present .
    If you found a man or woman with modern thinking, in a historical work, it is sign of bad writing.

    3. Geralt is sterile, ,like any other wicher, and it is a well known fact. So the woman can have sex with him, without consqences. He is an ‘exotic’ subject, the woman wants him, because he is different.

    4.Gays are disturbing either for straight men and women. They are neither masculine, nor feminine, they hav some weird body langeuge, which disrubes people by insinct, NOT by intentional exculsion. That principle concerns the real life encounters, mostly.(It does not works alwais with digital and written media fe. Yaoi fangirls)
    Just ry get some open-minded man to to stay in a gay bar alone for a while. He will be very uncorfotable.
    The same goes for woman.

    Homosexuality is a natural population limiting factor, which did not worked well in the case of humans.
    And while i disturbed by gays, irritated, by their ‘victim play’ ,i don’t hate anyone, just despise certain things.

    Marketing shows people, what are they like to see. If they were pleased with homsexuals, gays were shown, but they does not, even the numberous textbook liberal principle parrioting individuals didn’t.

    Sexuality is all about to attract strong males to healthy females, for the purpose of raising capable offsprings(Generalizing to humans and animals.)

    An we are the same human species, as were we 30 000 years ago, and the instincts are still working.

    My point is that heterosexeuality is the proper way to use the human body, by nature.

    And the differnces between men and women(different strengths) are filling out each other, and they are good in different fields(men are better pilots, while, women are better psyhologists etc…. )

    I am ready for dicusssion.

  14. Guy said,

    “I am ready for dicusssion.”

    OK… You’re full of it.

    “heterosexeuality is the proper way to use the human body, by nature”


  15. It’s hard to find well-informed people about this subject, but you
    sound like you know what you’re talking about!

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