A simple game to take back our construction of beauty from the mass media.
Recently, I wrote about the impact of our culture’s obsession with models and how our collective construction of beauty can be damaging to our personal relationships, causing us the miss the wider ranging forms of beauty that are standing right in front of us.
But there is more to the discussion. It does not and should not end at how we passively experience these images, because we can choose to actively engage them in playful and powerful ways.
Living in our culture means being bombarded 24/7 by images of narrowly defined, highly sexualized beauty, both male and female. It’s so ubiquitous that images of gorgeous models have become the visual equivalent of low level background noise. We are under siege by an army of pouting women and sleek muscled men. These images are directly associated with almost every financial transaction in the retail marketplace. Accordingly, we have been trained to connect retail products with a sexual thrill. This Pavlovian response mechanism manufactured by armies of ad men and women is coming at us in every possible visual medium—pouring into our homes via our video screens and our mailboxes and plastered across bus stops and billboards. You can’t turn your head without seeing flawlessly airbrushed twenty somethings in various states of undress.
The Stories We Create
And when we see them, we automatically create a fantasy narrative in response. Flip through a magazine and be present to the little movies that race by in your mind as you look at photo after photo of beautiful men and women. We’ve had so much practice, we create these sexualized stories without conscious effort. This endless supply of images flows through our daily perceptions in a stream of mostly half-conscious assumptions about what they mean culturally, sexually and oddly enough, in terms of the brand they are paid to represent. The end result? We see the sexy model and the beer seems right for us.
The sexual charge is the product. After three generations of advertising, the line between the cell phone and the sexy man holding it has been blurred beyond repair. We understand intuitively that we trade our brand loyalty for little sexual thrills. Products are “sexy’. Products are “hot”. And the culture we live in will continue to push that button from here on out. Unless the Taliban takes over. Or the Amish. Cause the cat’s out of the bag. And it ain’t going back in.
Look at my body. Now supersize that Coke.
And because this has all become so normalized, there is a significant degree of callousness that rises out of it. That women should all just be sexualized play things. That men are not real men unless they have six pack abs and a sneer. And when all this goes on without any conscious effort to deconstruct it, it creates a baseline of inadequacy that underpins our collective perceptions of ourselves.
Hence, the Candy Bar Game.
My seven year-old son and I have a game we play with the models on posters here in New York City. And its predicated on the idea that even a seven year-old can spot the purpose for a pouty model’s come hither stare. They may not sexualize it in the way an adult would, but they see that this person clearly is, in his words, “being sexy.” So, we pretend the model in the ad does have a target of their affections. And its a candy bar, floating somewhere just out of frame. “Oooooh, candy bar,” the models are saying. All that manufactured longing and artifice of the crooked eyebrow and the pouty lip is aimed right at an an indifferent and unattainable candy bar. “Oh, candy bar. Oh, candy bar. Why do you break my heart like this?”
We point at ad after ad. “Ooooooh, a candy bar,” we declare. And in that moment, it turns the tables on all this mass market desirability and leaves the lofty and unattainable supermodel longing for something he or she can not have. We mean no harm to the actual model. We mean to deconstruct the vast amount of assumptions that this kind of advertising is pumped so full of. We like to deconstruct and disempower the intent of the marketing director and the ad men who are paying to put these ads up, to become conscious of the artifice. Because if we’re not conscious of the artifice, the cynicism and the photoshopping that lurks behind all this beauty propaganda, we can easily fall into despair at how little we have in common with it all; this supermodel fantasy we’re supposed to want.
The fuller expression of true beauty, beauty born out of actions as much as appearance is in danger of being drowned out by all these Madison Avenue ideas about what is beautiful. Ideals of beauty that are so weirdly distorted and narrow that they guarantee themselves to be unattainable.
So, we play the Candy Bar Game to remind us that these images are MANUFACTURED and that we can exercise the power to hi-jack their limited narratives and replace them with playful new narratives of our own. And when we go from passive observers to active participants, the house of perceptual cards comes tumbling down, and we exercise our power to make new meanings of the world around us.