This weekend, I found myself engaged in an impassioned conversation over Twitter with several women, among them Australia’s “Bra Queen” Renee Mayne, about a 2004 Elle MacPherson Intimates ad which resurfaced online. The image, which was reportedly made for print, magazine and newspaper ads in Australia, depicts a woman in lingerie, thigh-high stockings and high heels lying on a shag rug on the floor. The photo is snapped either through a mirror or a door, only showing the woman from her shoulders down as she lays on the ground. Her head, which is hung down or bent over, is hidden from view. Given her headless-ness, it’s fairly objectifying as far as lingerie images go —compared with, say, Victoria’s Secret ads which depict smiling women looking directly into the camera.
My main complaint about the ad was that it’s voyeuristic. As a viewer, you’re not entirely sure the subject is aware she’s being photographed while sexily dressed because the image was taken either through a door or a mirror. That’s too creepy for my liking. But a lot of women saw this ad and thought it implied a victim of rape or domestic abuse.
In our Twitter conversation, Mayne called the image “demeaning, not sexy” and said the “body language and angle screams [abuse].” Nicolette Mason, fashion writer for Marie Claire, joined in the convo, pointing out that “She’s on the floor and alone, no?”, her implication being that whatever was happening prior to/after the image was not consensual. Over at Jezebel, blogger Anna Breslaw wrote about the ad, adding:
“When’s the last time a voyeuristic shot of a woman lying crumpled in her underwear on the floor in a defeated position, as if she’d just been thrown there, facing away from the camera, made you go “Ooh, I should order that demi cup!” Never? Yeah, me neither.”
Hold on a second. I’m sorry, but does every single advertisement for lingerie have to depict the female subject in an aggressive way or else it is unfeminist? Does a woman portrayed in a passive way automatically mean she is weak and “defeated”? Of course not. Women in lingerie ads don’t have to be explicitly empowering or strong to be sexy; instead here, being caught in a sexual moment, just as she is, is what is sexy. In fact, my read on this Elle MacPherson Intimates ad was that the woman wasn’t about to be raped or beaten but was instead either leaning over to kiss someone’s face or body and that person is obscured from view. To me it screams “blowjob,” not “rape.” (A Jezebel commenter helpfully suggested she might even be snorting coke or looking for a lost contact lens on the tiled floor. Amelia thinks she could be very involved in a jigsaw puzzle.) The model’s bra, panties, stay-ups and heels are all still on, suggesting to me that she’s waiting for her partners(s) on the shag rug and the sexy main event hasn’t even started.
Could she hypothetically have been thrown on the floor in some sort of violent, abusive scenario? (Say, for instance, these images from Calvin Klein Jeans and Dolce & Gabbana which are suggestive of gang rape?) Sure, but that’s a big hypothetical to draw from one image, especially given the context-free image shows no sign of struggle. Of course I know that domestic abuse and sexual assault do not need bruises or cuts in order to be real, but for what it is worth it should be noted that there aren’t any physical signs of violent struggle on her. (Here’s an example of a high-fashion image that showed a woman with a black eye.) Those are big leaps to make without further evidence to support it.
All this ad shows a woman on the ground; it leaves the rest to interpretation. And it’s a troubling sign of the caliber of feminist media critiques to choose the worst possible, heavy-handed interpretation of something ambiguous. Because a lot of erotic imagery, including advertising, is ambiguous. In fact, there is plenty of porn/erotica that depicts women’s legs, butts and breasts in various poses without their head included in the picture and those images are not depicting weak or abused women either. Those images, objectifying as they may be, are sexy. Not all passive objectification means the subject is in grave danger. There is real rape porn on the Internet. There are real women who are physically abused for other people’s sexual gratification. This Elle MacPherson Intimates ad is merely a whiff of such an interpretation. It’s not helpful to feminist media analysis to find sexualized violence existing in places where it is, in fact, ambiguous.
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