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Category: popular culture (page 1 of 7)

Pure XS & Impure Teacakes – The Problem With ‘Objectification’

The Narcissus myth about the beautiful, doomed youth who falls for his own reflection continues to be a mainstay of  this Millenium’s advertising – albeit re-written with a ‘happy ending’.

For example, this Pure XS Paco Rabanne TV ad set in a kind of Big Brother bathroom, stars a young, athletic and voluptuously beautiful man (Francisco Henriques) undressing/stripping for a bath, using the gold tap as a phallic signifier – while admiring himself in the mirror. All the while observed by young women through peepholes and two-way mirrors – admiring his admiration – and camply swooning to the floor as one at the end of the ad when he squirts the product at his groin.

Stinging nads to one side, the ad is a canny comment on – and exploitation of – the starring role of male vanity and ‘objectification’ in our 21st Century selfie-admiring, cam-show culture.

Thanks to a mediated world where everyone carries around a multiplying mirror in their pocket called a smartphone, Narcissus no longer wastes away unable to possess his reflection. He can reproduce himself on endlessly on social media, become a sporno hero – and find himself reflected in the gaze of others. Male beauty and male tartiness, once stigmatised as ridiculous or perverted, are the shining, Immaced inspiration of our age, the very symbol of ‘sexiness’.

Pure XS Paco Rabanne

Which makes it all the more unforgivable that I missed the ad when it first aired last year. I was probably fastforwarding to the latest instalment of Love Island or Bromans. But not to worry, some 120 people complained to the Advertising Standards authority about it, getting it into the news this week.

Shockingly, they weren’t complaining about the fact that it ends too soon.

It seems that most were upset about the Pure XS ad ‘objectifying’ the young sporno featured voyeuristically in it, claiming it was sexist and offensive for that reason. Apparently objectification is a bad thing.

Fortunately for the future of spornosexual advertising, the ASA rejected these complaints, and ruled that it was ‘unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence’ – which seems ‘objectively’ true.

However, the basis of the ruling was pure doublespeak. According to the ASA the ad – which like many ads today goes to enormous trouble and glossy expense to serve up the young man as a all-singing, all-dancing SEX OBJECT – even helpfully showing him being perved over by young women – ‘did not objectify the male character’.

But the ASA itself admitted that the commercial:

‘was heavily focused on the physical appearance of the male character. The ad featured multiple shots in which the male character was topless and his expressions when looking in the mirror suggest he was admiring his own physique and attractiveness. We considered that this and the reactions of the women to him placed a strong emphasis on the attractiveness of the male character.’

Well, quite. You could hardly say otherwise. But they then go on to say:

‘However, we noted the scenario depicted in the ad was not realistic and the tone was risque but comedic and farcical. We considered the ad showed the male character’s attractiveness in a light-hearted, humorous way, rather than in a degrading or humiliating manner… we considered, for the above reasons the ad did not objectify the male character.’

It’s certainly true that the scenario depicted in the ad was presented as comedic and farcical – as well as sexualised and objectifying. The ‘light-hearted’ presentation of the ad (and I’m not really sure that sexiness, or multi-million pound fragrance advertising, is ever really ‘light-hearted’) does nothing to change the fact that it glories in presenting the man as a (very willing) sex-object. The humour may make it more palatable to some, including apparently the ASA, but it does not do away with ‘objectification’. There would be no ad without it.

What the ASA seems to be saying is that the male model was not objectified because it’s not bad objectification. Good objectification, according to the circuitous reasoning behind what is anyway a loaded term, can’t be objectification – because objectification is necessarily bad. When in fact, objectification can be… wonderful. Which is part of the reason why so many young men today work so hard to turn themselves into sexy things.

Which raises the issue that got this ruling a lot of attention in some sections of the press this week, and alerting me to the existence of the ad. It seems likely XS was complained about by people who are not really offended by it but pushing an agenda, or as they might put it, concerned about double standards.

A double standard that seems to hold that objectification of men is either impossible or is good if possible, and objectification of women is bad – by definition. A double standard that, on TV at least, seems to now be the dominant morality – in part because TV tends to be watched more by women than men. Even BBC costume dramas these days are all about the gratuitous topless male tottie. Indeed, things have got so bad of late that I am tempted to actually watch one.

The double standard appeared to be underlined by the ASA’s simultaneous ruling – after just one complaint – that an ad featuring an attractive young female tennis player was ‘objectifying’ and therefore upheld the complaint.

The poster ad for Tunnock’s tea cakes (which was placed near a tennis tournament in Scotland) showed an athletic young female tennis player holding a tea cake in place of a tennis ball at the top of her thigh with her skirt raised at the hip. Text underneath stated: ‘Where do you keep yours?’ Then beneath an image of the product the endline: ‘Serve up a treat.’


Explaining why they upheld the complaint the ASA said:

‘We considered the phrase “serve up a treat” would be understood to be a double entendre, implying the woman featured in the ad was the “treat”, and considered this was likely to be viewed as demeaning towards women…’.

‘We considered that although the image was only mildly sexual in nature, when combined with the phrase “serve up a treat” it had the effect of objectifying women by using a woman’s physical features to draw attention to the ad.’

‘In light of those factors, we concluded that the ad was likely to cause serious offence to some consumers and was socially irresponsible.’

The Tunnock’s tea cake ad is, like the product itself, very 1970s. It is not nearly as glossy or expensive or indeed as playful or as knowing or well made as the Paco Rabanne ad. And it isn’t, for my money, very funny. I’m not sure though that any of these points are sufficient reason for calling it ‘socially irresponsible’.

You could perhaps argue that it is ‘more’ objectifying than the Rabanne ad because of its disembodied nature (the shapely thigh has no face) – and because of the history of female objectification.

But the ASA doesn’t argue this. It doesn’t accept, remember, that the Rabanne ad is objectifying at all. Difficult not to conclude that the main difference that the ASA seems to be interested in here is that one objectifying ad features a man, the other a woman. Indeed, if the tennis player had been a man wearing a kilt with the same text and the teacake in the same place I have a hunch the ASA would not have upheld the complaint. Or at least, I certainly hope not.

It upheld the complaint about the Tunnock ad on the grounds that it ‘uses a woman’s physical features to draw attention to an ad’. But that is precisely what the Paco Rabanne ad does with a man’s physical features – and at greater, HD length. Though granted without the cringe making copywriting.

Perhaps the strongest grounds the ASA has in censuring the sticky ad and not the smelly one is that it ‘bore no relevance to the advertised product’. Paco Rabanne, like most fragrances, is associated – or tries very hard to associate itself – with sensuality and sexuality. But this doesn’t seem to be a major part of the ASA’s ruling. And anyway there are all sorts of products pushed in prime time by attractive, mostly naked young men in ads that don’t bear much relevance to the product – or tin mining in 18th Century Cornwall.

Interestingly, some of those 120 complaints about the aftershave ad claimed it was ‘sexist’ because it ‘depicted women as powerless and weak and therefore reinforced stereotypes’.

These complaints were also not upheld. The ASA’s explanation points out that the women are ‘in a position of power over the male character’ because they are voyeuristically watching him, possibly unseen. Again, admitting in effect that the young man is objectified – despite asserting in their first ruling that he is not.

‘We considered because the women were seen to be watching the man, perhaps without his knowledge, it suggested they were in a position of power over the male character. We noted as the ad progressed and the male character was in various stages of undress, it was evident from the reactions of the women depicted they were increasingly being overcome with excitement. We further noted during one of the final scenes, all of the women were seen to have fainted and collapsed at the sight of the man spraying the fragrance towards his groin.’

The ASA ruled that the surreal and farcical nature of the ad meant it was unlikely to reinforce stereotypes of women and concluded it was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence. Which essentially means: only an idiot would take the fainting seriously.

I would add that the women’s voyeuristic enjoyment of the young man and their very visible arousal over him show that

a) The ad is depicts the women as having very active, almost perverse, sexual appetites, which is about as contrary to stereotypical portrayals as you can get

and

b) Their ecstatic response to his tarting shows that being ‘objectified’ can be very powerful. Which of course further undermines the ASA’s notion that it’s necessarily ‘bad’.

I’m not sure that I should be bringing any of this up though. All drawing attention to the possibility of a double standard here is likely to achieve is the banning of male objectification as well as the female variety – for the sake of ‘equality’.

And that would be horribly cruel. Narcissus really would wither away then.

Postscript: My chum Simon Mason helpfully pointed out something I’d forgotten – that the Pure XS ad is rather similar to a German ad I wrote about a few years back, which features a young sporno taking a bath, spied on by the camera/us, a voyeurism he seems to approvingly acknowledge towards the end:

Well-Oiled, Precision-Engineered German Spornosexuality

Royal Marines Directed by Visconti, Choreographed by Richard O’Brien – Sponsored by WKD

Funny Dance Royal Marines

(Be sure to watch all the way to the ‘climax’.)

“You people are insane!! These movies are TERRIBLE!!!”

What’s your favourite scene in Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, Bill Murray and Martin Landau’s best movie? (I’ve written an appreciation of Ed Wood for the new online arts mag Culture Kicks.)

Here’s mine.

‘Get Your Filthy Hands Off Me!’ Gorgeous George’s Glamorous Legacy

Rather than watch the Olympics, and all that noble, serious sporting uplift, I’ve been reading a book about a carny, corny, shameless 1940s-50s American wrestler: Gorgeous George: The Outrageous Bad-Boy Wrestler Who Created American Pop Culture, by John Capouya.

My American chum Chris Supermarky recommended it to me, thinking it would be of interest. He wasn’t wrong. It was nothing less than a revelation. It was like finding the Rosetta Stone of metrosexuality. Or at least, post-war male glamorousness.

George Wagner was a baby-faced brunette, pint-sized, somewhat unremarkable 1940s US wrestler who decided he needed a gimmick to get noticed. And boy, did he find one. By turning himself into Gorgeous George, a vain, primping, preening peacock who peroxided his hair, had it meticulously tonsured, fussily held in place by gold-painted ‘Georgie’ pins, and wearing flamboyant robes that were outrageous creations of lace and silk and chiffon in mauves and pale pinks, he succeeded in inventing perhaps the most persistent and successful gimmick of the post-war world: The glamorous, decadent, ‘effeminate’ male star.

Before Beckham. Before Boy George. Before Bowie. Before Jagger. Before Elvis. Before Liberace. Before Little Richard. Before James Brown there was Gorgeous George.

Under the shrewd guidance of his Svengali wife Betty (there’s no evidence, aside from his gorgeousness, that George was anything other than heterosexual), who made many of his most daring robes herself, The ‘Human Orchid’ as he liked to be known, had deduced that the best way to get ‘heat’ from a wrestling audience – and thus bookings – was to transgress 1940s gender norms. Wildly. And cheat. Equally wildly. Not for nothing was his favourite slogan: ‘Win if you can. Lose if you must. But always cheat.’

The Sensation of the Nation’s pantomime performance of sissyness was a kind of cheating in itself: in 1940s and early 50s America men, particularly the blue-collar kind that Wagner wrestled for, were not allowed to enjoy chiffon and affectation. George was bending the rules and gender.

To help milk his act, and multiply his crimes, Wagner would hold his pre-match press conferences in local beauty parlours while having his hair marcelled and employed a tail-coated valet (a device later appropriated by GG fan James Brown) who would snobbishly spray the ring with cologne before George would deign to grace it with his aristocratic presence. When the referee tried to search George before the match as required by wrestling rules he would recoil offended, shouting ‘GET YOUR FILTHY HANDS OFF ME!!’

Such were the passions aroused by George’s gorgeousness that his incendiary appearance often led to fights and sometimes mini-riots when incensed members of the public would storm the ring in an indignant fury and try to take him on themselves. The director John Waters recalls watching GG on TV as a kid, spellbound by this apparition of queeniness – while his offended parents yelled insults at the lacey freak. GG was someone that America loved to hate but ended up just loving.

Although largely forgotten today, GG was about as famous as you could get back then: a by-word for fame itself – even making an appearance in a Bugs Bunny Warner Bros cartoon (as ‘Ravishing Ronald’), and one of the first proper stars of the new medium of television. Wrestling had been taken up by the early networks as a cheaply-staged way of interesting the masses in this new-fangled gadget. The small screen turned out to have been made for GG’s big glam head.

Many claimed to have been influenced by GG (including Bob Dylan of all people) but perhaps his most famous disciple was a young, relatively downbeat Mohammed Ali, who decided to adopt GG’s vainglorious, provocative persona – to devastating effect:

‘I made up my mind after [meeting] Gorgeous George to make people angry at me…. I saw fifteen thousand people comin’ to see this man get beat. And his talking did it. I said this is a gooood idea!’

And so Ali became the mouthy black boxer who bragged about being the ‘prettiest thing you’ve ever seen’ – ‘The Greatest’. Ali really was gorgeous. Facially and bodily. Wagner on the other hand… slightly less so. I’m not suggesting of course for one moment that GG was ugly – but at 5′ 9″, with a Roman nose and a bit of a pot belly his gorgeousness was perhaps more aspirational than Ali’s. Particularly in the latter part of his career George’s appearance puts me in mind of Freud’s famous phrase: ‘His majesty the baby.’

There was a dark side to all this glamorousness. Wagner reportedly began to believe his own publicity and insisted his own children refer to him as ‘Gorgeous George’, or ‘GG’. He was also, even by the standards of the time and his profession, a hardened drinker. After both his marriages failed he took to drinking even more. And as TV fell out of love with wrestling, and the years – and the boozing – took their toll, he of course drank even more.

By the late 50s early 60s Gorgeous George was reduced to novelty fights in which he was billed as forfeiting his lovely locks if he lost. And of course, he did – submitting to the indignity of being clippered seated on a stool in the centre of the ring, like a latter day Samson. A great box-office success the first time, this ritual humiliation became less and less so the more he repeated it. Even seeing Gorgeous George finally getting what had been coming to him all these years wasn’t enough of a draw second or third time around.

When the final bell rang in 1963 and George Wagner died of liver disease and heart failure, aged 48, all the large wedges of cash that had passed through his hands during his stunningly successful career had vanished without trace: he was penniless. But family and friends made sure he was given a glamorous send off.

The Human Orchid was dressed in his favourite purple satin robe (the ‘George Washington’), his hair was tonsured and pinned one last time and he was exhibited in a highly polished purple casket – before being ‘planted’ in the ground.

While he may have been largely forgotten, George’s glamorous ‘gimmick’ of course took root in the culture, and lives on.

 

 

Shameless Slashiness

I’m not much of a Robbie Williams fan. ‘Bromance’ leaves me cold. And I hated Brokeback Mountain. But perhaps I’m a big softy really because I rather like this video for Williams’ single ‘Shame’ which brings all these themes together, adds a hairy Gary Barlow, Robbie’s once-reviled Take That collaborator, and takes its top off. What was it Dusty said? ‘The best part of breaking up is when you’re making up’

Yes, the ‘Toys R Us’ line is a real clanger, a reminder of Robbie’s gurning, annoyingness, and the song is a little bland. But the video succeeds, just about, in bringing it alive. Despite the complaints of some gays that the promo ‘mocks’ Brokeback Mountain there’s a real sense of longing and intimacy in the way they look at one another that is almost more convincing than much of what appeared in the movie it’s ‘spoofing’. Or, to be honest, in many gay male relationships.

Actually this promo’s not really ‘bromance’ at all, which is almost defined by its sniggering, paralysing fear of anything physical – it’s a knowingly slashy pop promo video: manlove for the ladies (and the gays). It plays on both the ‘gayness’ of Take That, who, despite the leather harnesses, disco and baby oil – and the fantasies of many of their fans – were probably all straight (more or less), and the famously passionate love-hate and now love-again affair between Barlow and Williams. Though of course, for all the looks and stripping off they don’t ‘take the plunge’. Which is a bit of a relief, frankly.  And in its way rather less cowardly than ‘gay cowboy romance’ Brokeback Mountain’s five seconds of darkly-lit tent sex.

But that ending to ‘Shame’, in which Robbie and Gary run to the top of a cliff to jump into the water below (but chicken out) seems to reference a much older and better cowboy romance – the famous scene in Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid where Robert Redford and Paul Newman laughingly jump into the river together to escape a pursuing posse.  Butch Cassidy was a favourite of early slashers – ‘strange’ ladies who liked to bring out the homoerotic subtext of mainstream movies, TV shows and bands, and perhaps of male heterosexuality itself, and make them the text, sometimes with eye-popping illustrations.

Forty years on, the auto-slashiness of the video for ‘Shame’ seems to illustrate how mainstream and accepted slash itself has become in pop culture.

Tip: William Godwin