Ben Cake wonders why advertising is filled with so many submissive men.
There’s a scene in the movie This is Spinal Tap that occurs after the band members receive criticism for the cover of their latest album, Smell the Glove. They’re unclear why their rival’s album cover is considered all right when theirs isn’t:
Ian: No, I don’t think I have.
David: It’s a rather lurid cover. I mean, it’s like naked women and…
Nigel: He’s tied down on this table…
Nigel: And they got these whips, and they’re all semi-nude.
David: Knocking on him. It’s, like, much worse.
Ian: What’s the point?
David: The point is, it’s much worse than Smell the Glove.
Ian: Because he’s the victim. Their objections were that she was the victim. You see?
Ian: That’s all right if the singer’s the victim. It’s different. It’s not sexist.
Nigel: He did a twist on it.
Ian: We shoulda thought of that.
To enter a conversation about gender roles and advertising with a reference to a farce is fitting, because so much about the advertising industry is absurd. I’d say almost everything, in fact, except for the values that end up getting reflected in our culture.
The scene from this movie, which was released in 1984, conveys the sentiment that still exists today: The abuse of men is acceptable. And the depiction of how the industry arrived at that notion is legitimate as well. It’s as if advertisers got tired of having their hands slapped by decency groups and, lacking the inventiveness to create original content, said,
—Let’s make men the victims. Not only will it avoid the whole sexism thing, but we could act like it’s a call to female empowerment. We can be boosters, and sell more, because women will think we’re on their side.
As someone who worked in advertising for a brief period, I can tell you the most important element among my associates was product. Creatives and brand representatives would huddle over the images and say things like,
—Can we see the product?
—Is there a better shot of the product?
—We need to convey that it’s napa leather?
Moral issues, by comparison, were almost never brought up. A platform heel could be rammed in a rectum, à la Mapplethorpe, but as long as the reader could tell it was made of napa leather, reps would be like,
But an image is given its power by both the creator and the audience. And just because the people who send it into the streets might be oblivious, the person who sees the billboard of a woman, say, stepping on a man’s head can’t help but wonder, What are they trying to tell me here?
That’s easy. Scroll through these images. The claim is clear: Women are meant to dole out abuse, and men are meant to take it, again and again, without complaint.
Begin with the ad from the early nineties: The message can be seen in Michael Bergin’s arch as Kate Moss climbs him. His head is yanked back as if pulled by the hair. He appears a mere prop, a pedestal for her fame.
Move to the Vuitton ads with Jennifer Lopez. She walks all over Andres Segura—covers his mouth to keep him quiet, plants a knee in his back to both surmount and repress—as if broadcasting that men are merely tools to be used, just another accessory, like that prized monogram bag.
And it’s not crazy to think ads like these might run in a magazine a few pages from a story with the title “The End of Men” or “All the Single Ladies.”
Continue on to the series of head-stepping, which I’m not even sure how to approach other than by asking, How did this become an industry convention?
They’re almost too dumb, too awkward, to take offense at—except for the Jimmy Choo ad, which depicts a level of incapacitation and was later protested by a domestic-violence coalition.
Yet even with the backlash, Giuseppe Zanotti thought it wise to continue the meme, believing a woman might look at it and say,
—Look at her mash his face. Kinda looks like it could hurt. Let’s go buy some shoes.
Late last year, an ad by Marc Jacobs featuring Dakota Fanning was pulled from newsstands. In the image, Dakota sat on the ground with a bottle of perfume in her lap. That’s it. Just a girl with a bottle of perfume. Censors called it suggestive, said that it fostered the sexuality of a minor. Perhaps the reaction was because of Juergen Teller’s grainy, Lomo aesthetic. But still, she was by herself, and there’s nothing particularly lurid about it. Creepy maybe. But hard to call sexual.
One can almost start drafting the dialogue for a new farce. An ad executive slams a magazine down on his desk,
—What were you guys thinking with this fully clothed girl? Pull it. Now. And get me some more of those head-stepping photos.
The last image is for Tom Ford men’s wear. Now Ford is known for provocative ads, once going as far as to be shave the letter G into a woman’s pubic hair (for Gucci). An interpretation of which could be,
—Let me show you how to be sexual…Branding!
In the nutcracker image, however, Ford seems to be equating sexuality with ambivalence. The lust of rough love, maybe even hatred. It seems to advocate attracting a woman that wants to both screw and destroy you. (As if that’s a healthy thing.)
The photographer for the campaign was Terry Richardson, a man for whom much ink has been spilled over his perversity and tendency to take advantage of young women. From his work, a kind of dirty-uncle-in-the-basement style—overexposed, immediate, high flash on the forehead—one gets the impression he lives to mix harsh sexuality with showmanship. Even when he plagiarizes iconic images by artists like Cartier-Bresson, they become gratuitous.
And yet he’s all but replaced Leibovitz as the magazine and advertising world’s most used photographer.
Here, he turns the lens to men. And the best he can offer is well-dressed S&M.
So whose fault is this?
The world is not governed by talent and values. People are paid to the extent that they give the world what it wants. This is to say Terry Richardson is successful and popular because, on some level, the majority of Americans want to see things the way he does. That’s a shitty thing to admit, but there’s no other conclusion, no other way of reconciling his ubiquity.
So when pointing a finger, I point it at myself. And at you. And everyone else in the room. Until we make a tangible act of rejecting these images and ideologies, no progress will be made.
The choice is ours, because we have technology on our side. In this age when bloggers command so much clout, we as individuals have the power to effect change. If we don’t, then we know a combination of sexuality and abuse is secretly what we want.