Sunday, June 1, 2008

Sexualized Violence Against Women in Advertising

It might be easier to look at media advertising that depicts sexually violent scenes and simply place a label on it. In fact, we can stamp everything in the collective culture with some sort of label of moral approval or disapproval and believe this labeling is enough. Somehow by creating polarities in the society around “good” and “bad,” members of a society may feel that as long as they belong to the “good” category (which is debatable) all is well. With regard to sexualized violence portrayed in advertising, we would like to encourage members of the society to look passed morally biased value judgments of “good” and “bad” into the context and content of the ads. How do advertisements involving sexualized violence impact the culture? Or, are these advertisements merely the response to a culture in which violence and overt sexuality are normalized?

It would be impossible to understand the intent of each ad without engaging the creators and advertisers in an in-depth, sociologically analytical dialog. In an interview with the designers of the sexually violent Dolce & Gabbana ads, Diana Price reported that Stefano Gabbana claimed that in spite of being forced to retract the ads from print, he did not feel the ads were too extreme and instead stated that these ads, "[do] not represent rape or violence, but if one had to give an interpretation of the picture, it could recall an erotic dream, a sexual game" (Price, Young Feminist Programs, 2007). Mr. Gabbana’s point could seem quite empty of thought or could be echoing Wendy McElroy’s sentiments that fantasies that portray violence are not necessarily harmful but that that such violent sexual fantasies may be “benign and beneficial” (McElroy, XXX: A Woman’s Right to Pornography, p. 137). McElroy goes on further to say that “one of the most common fantasies reported by women [is] the fantasy of... being raped” (p. 137). In short, McElroy believes that sexual fantasies of any sort are liberating and empowering to the people (specifically women) who are able to act them out or, at the very least, are able to be visually stimulated through mediated portrayals of such fantasies.

The portrayal of the women in the poster for the film, Grindhouse, supports McElroy’s notion of creating fantasies for women that empower. The woman on the left side of the poster is wearing a short black skirt and a small black top, exposing her midriff, cleavage and most of her thighs. As well, the woman in the film poster has an automatic weapon for a limb, which represents her power through a very phallic object. Her stance is one of courage and self-assuredness which resonates with female audience members because, as McElroy suggests, all women fantasize about being in positions of power (citation). What is missing in McElroy’s examination of power-based fantasy are the reasons why power for women (based on this movie poster) can only be gained through sexual seductiveness and the use of phallic objects as the source of their ability to destroy an enemy and maintain a position of power.

Such an examination of the Grindhouse poster leads us into a perspective of sexualized violence that is in contrast with Gabbana and McElroy and that is one of cultural concern. Rather than the blanket judgment of weather an advertisement is “good” or “bad,” this perspective asks the artifact reader to analyze the content and context with a keen critical eye. It is through this critical lens that bell hooks views cultural controversies. hooks’ concern has to do with power, privilege, and oppression and how each member of the socio-political landscape is accountable for maintaining the power structure or the status quo. hook’s states that “the politics of domination inform the way the vast majority of images we consume are constructed and marketed” (get info from Jill R.) Looking at these sexualized violent advertisements it is not hard to question the deeper meaning behind them. Are these advertisements a reflection of the culture or is the culture a reflection of mass marketing?

The Grindhouse poster reflects much of the same messaging that the Charlie’s Angel film poster, examined by David Roger Coon, intends to say. With out the context of the film, a consumer looking at the poster sees, as we stated previously, the woman in the Grindhouse poster is wearing a short black skirt and a small black top, exposing her midriff, cleavage and most of her thighs and has an automatic weapon for a limb. Coon might say that, “with no existing narrative, the [woman is] presented... as pure spectacle” (Coon, The Selling of Charlie’s Angels and Alias, p. 5). Looking through a lens that aims to critique the social and cultural messaging from this image, we invite a contrary feminist viewpoint that challenges the ideas that in order for a woman to be powerful she must be dressed in a sexually provocative way (adhering to the societal norms of beauty) and present some aspect of herself that is male, such as a phallic automatic gun. This means to say, in essence, that women cannot be powerful if these two qualities are not present.

Why is critical analysis of sexualized violent messaging in advertisements relevant? Critical analysis is not only relevant, it is vital, because without it dominant ideologies manifest exponentially. This is not to say that all dominant ideologies are inherently bad, it is, however, meant to say that dominant ideologies are the result of power, and that those in power positions control what is moral and what is not. By analyzing the sexual and violent content of a Dolce & Gabbana ad or a Jimmy Choo ad critically, we spark an imperative conversation about the health and well-being of a society. Again, we strive to refrain from morally biased judgments and rather talk in terms of how these types of advertisements serve the community. Moral judgments result in shame and shame rarely transforms into anything remotely positive.

bell hooks explains that critique (of anything essentially) must, “interrogate, challenge, and confront” (Littlejohn and Foss, 2008). Critique should not leave anyone out of the loop, but rather invite anyone and everyone into the process, especially those who are upholding the status quo by participating or remaining silent to that which is controversial. Controversy is also not a “bad” thing; it is merely a break from the norm. By its very nature, controversial topics, such as sexualized violence in advertising, should automatically invite critique. What does a reader of the Jimmy Choo ad feel as an immediate response to its portrayal of a murderer and his victim? For some, the ad might ignite shock and awe but more importantly, what does this type of messaging do to the society that absorbs it without question? And, maybe even more painful a question – what does this ad say about the culture that inspired it?

Dolce & Gabbana received immediate feedback from members of the National Organization of Women when designers released an ad essentially depicting a gang rape of a woman. As Diana Price reports, repulsion to the ad was international in nature. She writes, “Spain's response was uniquely with-it. The D&G ad made its debut just as Spain was dealing with a rise in violence against women—ten women had been murdered in the months of January and February, one on the same day the ad hit headlines” (Price, Young Feminist Programs, 2007). As a response to this situation, “The Spanish government introduced a law protecting women from violence, as well as a law against sexist advertisements” as inspired by the United Nations and the World Health Organization (Price, 2007).

Is the Spanish government saying that advertising depicting sexualized violence towards women is liable for sexual assaults and female-focused violence and therefore, should be banned? The answer is no. What the Spanish government recognizes is that if advertising is powerful enough to get someone to buy something as insignificant as a shoe, then there is a high likelihood that the same advertisement could inspire reenactment of the message within the ad itself. And when ads depicting sexualized violence similar to Jimmy Choo and Dolce & Cabbana become the norm, the readers of such media artifacts will take in those messages with out critical analysis and be desensitized to the severity of the ads’ contextual messaging.

Critically analyzing the movie poster for Black Snake Moan, again without the context of the movie itself, the message sent is one of sexualized violence towards women. The poster places an older black male towering over a frail, sexualized young, white woman, who sits on her knees wrapped in a chain. This image alone sets the man in a position of power and control over the woman. In part because he takes a dominate standing position in the poster and because he is the keeper of the chain, which is tied around the captive girl. The message of the poster, less the captions, is one of the taboo (often used in pornography) of a white woman being “taken” by a black man. Adding the captions back into the poster, “Black Snake Moan” and “Everything is hotter down south,” the consumer is given the idea that the girl in the poster is the man’s sex slave.

Why should the sexualized and violent message of the Black Snake Moan poster matter? Isn’t it “just” a movie? Similar to the Grindhouse poster and the ads from Jimmy Choo and Dolce & Gabbana, this movie poster is both a reflection of the society and an influence on the society. It would seem for many that sex and violence are opposing concepts. Sex, biologically speaking, creates life, while violence seeks to destroy life. What does it say about a culture when sex, the act that is seemingly most sacred and intimate, is infiltrated with violence merely for the sake of entertainment? For proponents of free speech at any cost and for those who try to remain unbiased and critical, it could mean that the culture is undergoing a shift and is in the process of crossed wires and chaos, which is neither bad nor wrong. On the other hand, for the victims of sexual crimes and interpersonal violence, the cultural issues that create and arise from sexualized violence in media are a matter of self-preservation and psychic survival.

The high majority of victims of sexual crimes and interpersonal violence are women. And it could very much seem as if advertisers and producers of content depicting sexualized violence (towards women) are mocking the serious nature of sexual brutality and interpersonal violence towards women. By discounting one’s design as erotic, rather than a gang rape with no further thought, such producers of this media are saying that the safety and health of women is significantly less valued in society than are designer shoes. As a result of this dominant ideology, women must constantly be aware that at any moment they could become the victim of a sexual assault or interpersonal injury. Andrea Dworkin states, “[P]ornography functions to perpetuate male supremacy and crimes of violence against women because it conditions, trains, educates, and inspires men to despise women, to use women, to hurt women” (Dworkin, Pornography and Grief, p. 42). This idea can be applied to sexualized and violent media as well. And as a result, it could seem that such advertising is being thumbed at women and intends to belittle the female experience of sexual violence as insignificant in comparison to capitol gain.

Important to note is that the fashion ads of Jimmy Choo and Dolce & Gabbana are being marketed to women, not men. Short of evaluating designers of such ads for psychiatric imbalance, critical analysis of the women reading these ads is imperative. Is McElroy correct in her claim that these ads might rouse the female consumers’ desires to be raped or murdered? For each consumer the cause of attraction to these types of ads is different. We imagine that much of the draw has little to do with the message and everything to do with the sensation that results from owning designer products. The ads may be lost on most consumers all together as weird art, but unworthy of critical analysis.

Continuing to refrain from judgment and shame, the most important elements in the discussion about sexualized violence in advertising are the effects it has on the culture, what it says about the culture and, what it says about those who are being victimized within the culture. If it is true that a culture often imitates media, then are women buying products from designers that advertise the abuse and objectivity of women? It is important to ask consumers of these designers and films as well as the models and actresses to spend some time critically reviewing the messages they are supporting with their silence. “The recognition that representations of violence against women in the media are inextricably tied to how women and men perceive, accept, internalize, and otherwise relate to actual violence against women is unquestioned by the international community of development and human rights organizations and experts” (Price, Young Feminist Programs, 2007). So whether an individual finds such images “good” or “bad” is less relevant to the possible harms such messaging may be sending. It is vital a community examine impacts and effects of sexualized violence in advertising on its members and not disregard anything as “just” an ad.