April 25, 2008
Sexualized Ads Become "Obscene" When Guys are the Objects
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.
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)