Feminism and the ‘Male Gaze’

This week’s reading by Debra Merskin (2006, p. 202), asks the question that is clearly on everyone’s mind: ‘Where Are the Clothes?’ The text explores the sexualisation and pornographication (my spell check agrees that this is a made up word) of modern advertising, and its secret agenda to ‘maintain the sexual subordination of women and keep us men thinking of them as sexual objects. While this short little introduction might paint me as an antifeminist, I assure you I’m just trying to have some fun here. Merskin’s article radiates with the ‘us vs. them’ feminist mentality that is used to make themselves feel victimised. The way I see it, feminism needs a constant stream of proof that women are less important than men, they feed on this stream and draw their power and strength from it. I will make a point here that I agree with Merskin’s (2006, p. 203) contention that ‘female identity in advertising is almost exclusively defined in terms of female sexuality’, this is almost impossible to disagree with as we are constantly bombarded with sexual advertising, after all ‘sex sells’. This reminds me of a scene from the Simpsons where an attractive woman is posing in front of a car that can be won in a competition, after Homer puts his competition slip in the box he asks her ‘Do you come with the car?’, she giggles and the next manin line puts his slip in the box and asks her the same question (Xxoveruledxx, 2010).

 This Simpsons scene, though comical in nature, hints at the not so humorous reality of advertising that Merskin discusses. Is the woman selling the car or is she selling herself? Obviously the car, but it seems that men typically associate the two things as being one in the same, they think that by owning the car, it’ll eventually attach itself to beautiful women. Merskin (2006, p. 203) states that this is due to modern advertising being more involved in selling what the product stands for rather than the product itself. Merskin’s article is centred on the idea of the ‘male gaze’ which is defined as the way men look at women in a voyeuristic fashion. Men have and always will have this gaze when it comes to women; it’s a part of our evolutionary code, after all we are men! Jerry Seinfeld says that ‘Looking at cleavage is like looking at the sun, you don’t stare at it. It’s too risky. You get a sense of it and then you look away’ (Glorby, 2009), advertising has clearly decided to cash in on this risky and frowned upon male gaze by making images of women available everywhere and on everything, for men and women to look at without risk of embarrassment. I’m sure these days even cooking magazines will consist of a few teaspoons of sexually suggested images. The only beef I have with Merskin’s approach is she’s writing about old news, trying to making it seem fresh and new, we don’t need more reminders about what has happened to advertising, as we see enough of it every day, and we certainly don’t need to read 10 pages of advertisements being vividly described. Considering I haven’t seen any of the ads she is describing, it’s difficult to picture what the ad actually looks like, and after the 15th description you just surrender and say ok I get it, I’ll take your word on this ad, it’s about sex. Merskin even dedicates a paragraph to explain the difference between ‘hardcore’ and ‘softcore’ pornography and just for fun throws the word ‘snuff’ into the mix, but what does all this mean? Am I supposed to be reaching for my pen and paper to write an angry letter to Gucci or Calvin Klein? What does snuff have to do with advertising? And where is my sandwich!?

 The Calvin Klein jeans commercial by Brooke Shields in the 1980s (PaceysGirls, 2008) is a perfect example of the duality present in modern advertising. In the commercial Brooke Shields is shown putting on a pair of jeans whilst talking about genes and ‘selective mating’. Even though the ad is about jeans, and the word gets said a lot, it is actually talking about genes, natural selection and sex. This is the typical formula of modern advertising, the duality of selling both a product and sex at the same time. While Merskin’s article does point the flashlight at an issue of concern in today’s advertising, it is one that can’t be solved by complaining about it, and especially not by over exaggerating its danger, which is most evident when Merskin (2006, p. 213) contends that rapists should not be the target of assault prevention, but the media for its portrayal of women as sex objects. Should we point the finger at violent movies instead of murderers as well? Besides, most men aren’t flipping through women’s magazines anyway, these advertisements selling shoes and belts are targeted at women, not men. Therefore I conclude that there is validity in Merskin’s article and her contention that advertising focuses itself on female sexuality to sell its products, but I don’t agree that these advertisements can be considered to be pornography, nor do they exist solely to maintain the subordination of women.



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