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Drawing Beauty: Limits and Surfaces in Dove’s Social Experiment

In advertising, body politics, feminism, gender, girl culture, race, Television, Women's health on April 18, 2013 at 9:06 am

Chelsea H.

By now, you’ve probably seen that Dove “social experiment” that’s going around, but just in case you’re as behind as I am, here it is:

The premise here is simple and, if I’m honest, well-meaning: many women, as evidenced by the way they describe themselves, don’t recognize – or are reluctant to acknowledge – their own beauty.  Any flaws they have in appearance are magnified when they view themselves; every crease set by joy and laughter is a “crow’s foot.”  Every tiny, cinnamon-dust dot is a big ugly freckle.  Chins protrude invasively.  Cheeks that don’t have flesh-slicing angular edges are chubby.  These flaws are captured when they describe themselves, all unseen, to a trained forensic artist who draws their portraits to match their descriptions.  And really, this shouldn’t be terrifically surprising.  Women are hard on themselves.  We’ve been taught to be.  Lines, wrinkles, creases – these are harbingers of mortality.  Any freckle, any spot, even the hopefully named “beauty mark” is looked upon as a flaw.

But then the tables are turned: earlier on the day of the experiment, each woman met and chatted with another participant.  Each is asked to describe the other person, and again the sketch artist draws the face that is described.  Results are, as you might expect, startlingly different: faces described by their owners as fat are simply pleasantly oval in shape.  Chins that are claimed to protrude are “nice” and “thin.”  Noses are “short and cute.”  Each woman is then shown the two portraits: one “drawn” by her own eyes, one by the eyes of a stranger.

Most of the women stand in stunned silence.  Some tear up.  Some smile ruefully, and some seem – not ashamed – but a bit bashful at their own perception of themselves.  The one older participant, Florence, who is given a lot of face time, says “I should be more grateful of my natural beauty.  It impacts the choices in the friends that we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children, it impacts everything.  It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.”  The images of the women standing in an otherwise empty gallery gazing on the sketches send a powerful message, the tagline of the whole campaign: you are more beautiful than you think.

At first viewing, my impulse was that this video rocked.  I got a little teary.  I said some affirming things to myself.

But then I watched it again, and I started asking questions.  Yes, the message is good: women should celebrate their beauty, but what is really being said about beauty in this depiction?

As blogger Jazz has said perhaps more eloquently than I can, there is a disparity in the types of woman being represented here.  Most are white – and not just white, but blonde.  Most are young.  All are thin-to-average in weight and build.  The women of color who are shown are featured less – say less and receive less screen time – than their Caucasian counterparts.  The one Asian woman represented, as Jazz points out, says nothing at all.  Beauty is, then, a young, thin, white woman.

Bitch Magazine has also picked up this issue and paraphrases it perfectly: “The hearts of conventionally beautiful women can grow a little warmer today.”  And really, isn’t that what’s being shown here?  While Florence is a bit older than the other participants, she barely tips the scales at middle aged.  She talks about her wrinkles and crow’s feet, but she’s barely got any to worry about.  All the women featured have feminine hairstyles, all wear make-up, all are dressed in casually stylish but unremarkable ensembles.  Women should consider themselves beautiful, then, but the depiction of beauty we are told should be celebrated fits within a stiff, traditional mold.

Dove, I commend you for selling us a vision of much needed self-affirmation.  I commend you for acknowledging this tendency in women and encouraging a move away from it.  I commend you for resisting the urge to sell us your skin care in a promise to enhance the beauty we already having.  As Bitch notes, there is no product schilling in this ad, and that’s nice.  But this video does sell us something.  It sells us a standard: while telling us to celebrate ourselves – we are more beautiful than we think – it sells us what beauty means, and what we should do with it.

What beauty means here, beyond an image of a thin, fair-skinned, young woman, is a physical appearance.  There is no acknowledgment of personality.  There is no discussion of inner strength or kindness or courage or wisdom.  We see chins and cheeks and eyes and hair.  We see surface.  What is revealed about these women’s thoughts is appearance-based as well: each woman is made to think, and think deeply, but her thoughts are all – every one of them – about how she looks.  Everything is about the surface.

So beauty means what someone looks like on the outside.  And knowing our surfaces meet a standard makes us feel good which, as self-affirming messages go, is bad enough already: the right kind of beauty = happiness!  Let’s look again at Florence’s conclusions: “I should be more grateful of my natural beauty.  It impacts the choices in the friends that we make, the jobs we apply for, how we treat our children, it impacts everything.  It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.”

Do I really want to live in a world where my physical appearance and how I interpret it impacts what choices I make when I seek friends?  Friends, I can tell you with certainty that neither my looks nor your looks were what drove me to desire your friendship.  Are my own looks really going to impact how I treat my children?  My wrinkles and laugh-lines, as they develop, will somehow influence the way I love?  Beauty as Dove defines it – how I look on the outside – is not, and should not, be what is most critical to my own happiness as a person.

But that’s not all.  In the final scene of the ad, one of the women’s voices tells us “We spend a lot of time, as women, analyzing and trying to fix the things that aren’t quite right, and we should spend more time appreciating the things we do like.” As she speaks, the scene changes from a reflective moment in the gallery of portraits to an outdoor setting.  Against a bright beam of sunlight, she is suddenly enfolded in the arms of – judging from what we can see of him – a young, conventionally attractive, well-dressed man.

So, it’s not just that women should celebrate their own beauty, it’s not just that the women in this video are what beauty looks like, but part of the message is also about heteronormativity.  That’s disappointing, even though it’s not strange.  But what really bothers me here is that even as we are told that women should stop worrying so much about how they perceive themselves and concentrate on more important things, we are told exactly what those more important things are.  The couple depicted here at the end of the video embrace each other, her hand grasps at the bottom of his jean jacket as they walk, and the video closes with this image of her tucked under his arm, almost disappearing against his body – providing a clear interpretation of what it is that we should “spend more time appreciating” and what it is that, at least in her case, “we do like.”

What we get here, then, is suggestive.  Beauty suddenly isn’t an idea in itself; we are shown what appreciating our own beauty does for us.  When we aren’t so worried about our fat cheeks and pokey chins and gross freckles, we can devote our time not to building our self-confidence or learning new things or celebrating our independence, but to hooking, hanging onto, and demurely all but fading into the protection and strength of a man.

Now that’s a message I want to send to my friends and my children…

The Dating Obsession

In books, fashion, feminism, gender, reality TV, Television on January 9, 2013 at 1:42 pm

Chelsea H.

The summer before my junior year of college, I worked at a family-owned business that sold paint, spas, and above ground pools.  Strange combination, I know.  The owner of the store and I got along  well: he was a good boss, he and his wife paid well, and sometimes he shared a beer or two in the back with his employees after closing.  It was a great summer job.  But it, like my then-single situation, wasn’t to last.  My boss, for one, was determined to change the latter.  He told me once that I was “too great a person to be alone.”  He then advocated that, if I wasn’t finding men to date in my classes at school, I should look elsewhere.  I pointed out that the bar scene was not really my thing.  He asked “don’t you buy food?  There are men at the grocery store.  Don’t you do laundry?  There are men at laundrymats!”  I noted, always the pragmatist, that with laundry machines in my garage, I wasn’t about to sacrifice my quarters just to find a boyfriend.  I would rather save them for a soda machine.  Quarters, that is, not a boyfriend.

But his comments made me think.  Yes, I was single.  Yes, admittedly, I was lonely.  But why did being a great person mean I ought to be half of a couple?  Couldn’t I be just as great being just me?  And why is it “just” me?

Why not – me – ?

That fall, I met the man who became my husband.  And I have to admit, I can’t imagine being alone again.  I love our partnership.  I would feel lost without him.  But that’s because we’ve grown together and learned to rely on each other in a way that makes both of us more, not collapses us into co-dependent halves.  I accept, but do not love, when people ask me where my “other half” is.  I love living with, spending time with, and traveling with this man, but that doesn’t mean I have to be with him constantly, and his is not the only relationship I feel desirous of cultivating.  As society would see me, I’m ridiculously heteronormative.  And that makes me fit in perfectly.  Because society demands perfectly paired coupledom.  And though I recognize that this is not the only state of being in which individual human beings can be content, it is the most accepted, the most belabored, and the most advertised.  And I think this is a problematic, stagnant way of thought that stigmatizes and discriminates.  It’s a too-expected, too-relied upon binary we need to break.  I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite being in a happy relationship saying coupledom is a bad thing.  It’s not a bad thing.  It’s just not the only thing.

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A Thursday Survey: What Gives, Girls?

In feminism, gender, girl culture, Girls, music videos on September 20, 2012 at 8:46 am

Chelsea H.

Yesterday as I drove into the parking lot at work, Pat Benatar’s growly, joyfully combative “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” was playing on my Subaru’s radio. I sang along, rejoicing in her toughness, knowing this comes out of a tiny, petite woman whose lungs must take up 45% of her insides, until I got to this line: “Before I put another notch in my lipstick case / You better make sure you put me in my place / Hit me with your best shot…” I stopped singing. Here I was, barely conscious of my feeling that this was a female emancipation kind of song, and then this line. And I know, she’s being facetious – she really thinks his best shot is going to miss, or deflect off of her amazing woman armor – but it still bothered me. “Try your best to make me act like the demure, fragile, modest little woman your interpretation of society demands I be.” What kind of message is that?!

Crimes of Passion Album Cover, courtesy of Wikipedia

I turned off the radio. Somehow, for all the years I’d been listening to that song, I hadn’t thought about the fact that it was about a woman’s relationship with a man. As I’d applied it to my own life, singing along, I had been sing/yelling to job interviews, to tough days looming before me, to challenging classes, to physical labor, but never to a man. It bothered me that this powerful voice was consumed by her relationship: not only “Hit Me,” but “Love is a Battlefield,” “Heartbreaker,” and “We Belong.”

As the day progressed, I found myself continually coming back to this dilemma: I can instantly call up dozens of songs sung by men which are NOT about their romantic relationships: songs by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Green Day, Michael Jackson, Boston, Chicago, Blitzen Trapper, Steve Miller Band, Audioslave, Nirvana, the Monkees, Journey, Pearl Jam, Johnny Cash, Guns ‘N Roses, Billy Joel, even Neil Diamond, amidst “Sweet Caroline,” “Desiree” and “Cracklin’ Rosie,” has “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show.”

But when I tried to do the same for women, I could only come up with a few (apologies for the ads that lead into some of these videos):

Amy Winehouse’s brilliant, stubborn throwback anthem “Rehab,”

Carole King’s “Smackwater Jack,”

maybe Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel” which, though it’s not about a romantic relationship, is a story of a woman dependent upon a male figure (no offense meant, of course, I’m certainly not critiquing having a relationship with God, only pointing out how prevalent this theme is).

Four Non Blonde’s “What’s Up,” which was always one of my favorites in high school, seems to fit this short list (also, how awesome and 90s are their outfits?!) .

Of course there are also the smaller number of songs by women about women, like Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl” and, though it’s not terrifically explicit (and though it admittedly deals with deeper, more complex issues), Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” but these still fall into the theme of women singing about their relationships.

And I’m not saying this trope doesn’t appear in songs by men. There are plenty of male singers whose songs tell the story of relationships with women. It’s just that there are so many that don’t.

So here are my two questions:

  1. Ladies, why do we do this? Don’t we have other, equally important things to sing about? Why are we so focused, as musical artists, on the men in, out, and around our lives? Is it that women are singing songs written by men, or is it that women’s songs about men sell better? Is it that these are “safe” subject matter and therefore more playable? Why aren’t we singing about the other parts of our lives – the parts that are not longing for, begging for, dependent on, or grieving over men?
  2. I’m sure I’m missing some – after all, I’ve only thought about this for a day or two – and I want to be wrong about this. What other songs are out there sung by women (and not just covers of songs originally sung by men) that are not about their relationships with men? Let’s make a list. Let’s make a big list, if we can, and prove me wrong.

Reality TV and the Privacy Problem

In Food, Food Network, reality TV, spoilers, Television on July 11, 2012 at 11:46 am

Chelsea H.

Several weeks ago, my favorite Food Network Star contestant went home (obviously, if you aren’t caught up this is going to be a spoiler…).

Emily Ellyn’s promo photo (courtesy of Food Network)

Emily Ellyn: she of the ham fascinator, of retro rad, of the best ’50s glam librarian glasses I’ve ever seen. The competition will not be the same without her. I’ve been trying to process this dismissal, and have come up with some surprising (to me) thoughts about Emily, Food Network, the show itself, and the phenomenon of reality television and how it deals with the personal, the private, and the public stage.

One of the big pushes on Food Network Star seems to be teaching the contestants how to tell stories (well, maybe “teaching” is misleading. It’s really about badgering them to tell stories). This is, the producers feel, the primary way an FN personality can connect with home viewers and keep them coming back. Contestant revelations – stories of weight loss, of self discovery, of childhood, of family – are richly rewarded even when the quality of food slips.

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Food Network Star, Branding, and Ethnic Entrapment

In Food, race, reality TV, Television on May 16, 2012 at 8:38 am

Chelsea H.

I love the Food Network, and I watch a lot of their shows. I use their website for recipes and for inspiration, and I am hooked on many of their brands of “reality” TV. I can’t get enough of “Chopped,” I am a devoted fan of both The Next Food Network Star and The Next Iron Chef, and recently Taylor and I watched Worst Cooks in America together. In the past year or two, I have been delighted to see new types of food show up on the Food Network website (i.e. more than grilled sandwiches, Italian specialties, and Emeril’s mix of Cajun/French/Louisiana fare). I am excited to try these new styles of food: Mexican food, Indian food, even some gluten free options. Things I’ve never made before but have eaten with utter gusto in restaurants.

But then I started looking at who was making these foods, and I noticed something that bothers me: the way the network seems, in the cases of non-white and non-black chefs, to match the ethnicity of food with the ethnicity of the host preparing it. This tickled me with significance on and off, and I’d almost forgotten about it, in fact, until Melissa’s post on the problems with ANTM’s representations of racial/ethnic identity (given the approaching end of my graduate studies and impending dissertation defense, this post has been in production for a while now…). Like ANTM’s racial stereotyping, the Food Network seems to be pigeon-holing its “ethnic” stars.

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Healthy Blindness: The Voice and Body Image

In body politics, reality TV, Television, The Voice, Women's health on February 27, 2012 at 9:08 pm

Chelsea H.

This is only the second time I’ve watched “The Voice,” and it intrigues me. I’ve never seen anything outside of the initial blind auditions. I don’t know what comes after that, I don’t know how the mentoring goes, I don’t know how eliminations work. But I have to admit, I love the idea of the blind audition part of the show: four music quasi-moguls choose contestants to nurture and mentor based only on their vocal performances. This eliminates a lot of what I hate about American Idol. There are no silly costumes, there is no jumping up and down and showboating and begging for second chances. There is only, until the moment one of the coaches decides to pursue a vocal training relationship with this person, a voice.

That means this is based on talent, not on appearance. There are times when it is clear a coach was expecting something totally different when s/he turns around. But the beautiful thing about this show is it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether the voice belongs to a tiny skinny petite girl or a muscular athletic guy or a full-figured diva. Once that person is chosen, it’s done. It’s based on the voice.

Obviously this means clear, appearance-free assessment for men as well as women. And I think that’s great, and it’s important. This is Girls Like Giants, but male body image is becoming a bigger issue than we think it is, as this disturbing article about rising male adolescent anorexia proves.  I’ve been considering body image a lot lately, and trying to step outside what I usually think. In a world – or at least a country – that is really anti-fat, with instant and vitriolic troll-hate on anything plus-size, a world where Rush Limbaugh can critique Michele Obama for eating ribs and yet telling America to try to be healthier even though she’s not the size of a Sports Illustrated cover model, we need to be forgiving of bodies that are bigger than model-skinny.  And yet we also live in a world where the weight demands on professional models are so extreme that models have actually died on the runway. And there is a lot of thin-hate out there too: sniping and poking and accusing visible ribs or vertebrae or knobbly boney knees of not being as beautiful as full-figured breasts and hips and thighs. And I find myself – an average size 8 who fits neither into the plus-size nor the “sample size” category – often committing the latter of these two forms of hate. Where are the “normal-sized” women, I find myself asking, forgetting that people with naturally skinny frames are also “normal-sized.” And that’s something I need to work on. And so does the rest of the world.

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A link worth reading: women’s clothing

In gender on January 18, 2012 at 4:45 pm

Chelsea H.

Been shopping lately?  Feeling cranky about what’s available out there?  Are you (like me) still trying to vault the awkward distance between the junior section and the “missus” or whatever the “young semi-professional adult who isn’t petite, doesn’t want to be frumpy or provocative, and can’t afford designer labels” section is called?

This article from cracked.com is a good read, I think, and addresses many of my cranky complaints.  I’m especially in agreement about #4: Arbitrary Clothing Sizes.  In pants alone, I wear a 10 in missus sizes from JC Penney’s, an 11 in juniors, a 6 at Ann Taylor, and at Old Navy, jeans advertised as the same size differ depending on the color.  What’s a girl to do?

Thoughts?  Similar issues?  Grievances to add?

Girls Like Giants Presents: Our 2011 Preferences (Chelsea H.)

In Uncategorized on December 19, 2011 at 7:42 am

Chelsea H.

In dissertation-land, I don’t even have enough free time or brain power to blog regularly, much less remember all of 2011 enough to make this list truly comprehensive.  So what you’re getting here is my favorite in each of five random girl/pop culture related categories.  It’s a bit of “me on a plate,” if you will.  Enjoy!

1.)   Best album: “Ceremonials” – Florence and the Machine 

I love a strong female vocalist, and Florence Welch is no exception.  The soaring vocals and the addictive rhythms of this album give me chills and make me want to sing, even though I don’t know all the words yet.  This is music for a road trip, for a dance party, for a steamy encounter, for a manic writing session.  It pounds, it thrills, it aches, and I move in and out of wanting to cry at the beauty of Florence’s rich, deep voice and raspy throaty warblings.  Also, Florence herself is (in my opinion) numbingly beautiful and has a really interesting fashion sense (she has appeared as both a fug and a fab on gofugyourself.com.  But okay, to be honest, mostly as a fug).

2.)   Best novel: The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

This series has received a lot of hype this year, but I must admit I think most of it is well deserved.  Collins has a wonderful, disturbing, dark and brilliant imagination, and her character Katniss is like my sister, my daughter, my best friend, and that wonder-girl I want to hate but just can’t.  She is admirable, she is clever, she is selfish, she is frustrating, she is glorious.  She’s a real person but marks the reasonable physical limits of what human beings can endure.  While I found the whole series entertaining, the first book is my favorite.  I sucked this book down with a desperation I couldn’t believe.  The book began with my husband reading a chapter aloud each night before bed.  That worked for approximately a week.  Then I couldn’t stand it anymore: reading aloud meant reading slowly enough for the mouth to pronounce the words.  My brain needed it faster.  I swiped the book away like a naughty child and chewed through the rest of it in the space of an hour or two.  From me, that’s a high recommendation. Read the rest of this entry »

Guilty Pleasure

In Uncategorized on October 19, 2011 at 8:11 am

Chelsea H.

 

As a follow-up (of sorts) to Phoebe’s lovely discussion of communal TV watching yesterday, I’d like to offer this, sent to me by a friend (thanks, S!):

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2011/10/guilty_pleasures_why_i_watch_bachelor_pad_.html

As someone who felt relief in finding compadres with whom to watch my  “shameful” shows (ANTM, Project Runway), and someone who occasionally changes the channel lest her husband see which brand of reality she is watching while alone (What Not To Wear, Bad Girls Club), I can see his point.  Previous to finding my small show communities, if my little predilections were revealed in public somehow, I explained them by claiming to watch for aesthetic values (the photoshoots in ANTM, the couture in Project Runway, the food in Top Chef).

But I’m not sure I agree with his thoughts on why we actually watch reality tv: “We say we watch them because it’s like a “train wreck,” or because they “make us feel better about ourselves,” but really we’re perpetually intrigued by, and obsessed with, the lurid toxicity of fame, which is reality television’s only true subject.”

Thoughts?

Interlude: Just Bitten

In Uncategorized on September 24, 2011 at 4:58 pm

Chelsea H.

I generally like Jessica Biel.  I remember her from 7th Heaven, and it has been fun watching her mature from overalls to pencil skirts and super-sexy-but-still-innocent feel.  But now she’s in a commercial that bothers me.

Okay, as usual, this ad bother me.  First of all, we’ve got gorgeous Jessica Biel looking ethereal and semi-waif-y, but also overtly sexy with that lace top that emphasizes her top half.  And when she opens her (perfectly slicked, perfectly colored) lips, what comes out is a plug in a smoky, sultry voice for a product called… Just Bitten.

And that’s where my problem lies: what kind of name is that?  Biel asks us “Have you ever been bitten?”  What does that mean?  Bitten by… the guy floating around in the background, alternately kissing and creepily sneaking behind her?  Yes, she has delightfully flushed lips, but they don’t really look like someone… bit her.  Further, there is no biting in this commercial!  There is kissing, but the product isn’t called “Just Kissed,” it’s called “Just Bitten.”

So, all I can figure is that Revlon is capitalizing on the tremendous popularity and sexualization of vampires in today’s culture.  We are supposed to hear the phrase “Just Bitten” and think of Twilight, or True Blood, or Vampire Diaries, or something…  And yet no one bites her!  Why, if Revlon is going to reference a biting, do they not show the guy nibbling her neck or something?  Why doesn’t she bite her own bottom lip in that pouty/sexy way some girls do?  By the end of the commercial as Biel lies on the ground, shouldn’t she somehow be displaying bite marks? Instead we get this soft lighting and pale pastel and pastoral scenery, into which neither the bright lipstain shade nor the creepy vampiric name of the product fit.

Interlude: BIG SEXY

In gender, girl culture on August 27, 2011 at 8:25 am

Chelsea H.

I must confess, I haven’t seen this show yet.  In fact, no one has, because it doesn’t premiere until Tuesday.  I’ve only seen promos.  But I want to think about the messages this promo conveys, because I am both in support of and resistant to its potential impact.

What I like: These women love their bodies!  They have learned to resist, or ignore, or laugh at, the judgments American society makes about larger bodies, especially for women.  They, I would bet, would laugh just as hard at the idea of low-calorie brownies as I did in my last post.  They consider themselves beautiful and sexy and worthy of fulfilling relationships, or just flings, and that is wonderful.  Good for them for loving themselves and having a strong support group to hang with.  Their lives look like a lot of fun, and I think their decision to take on the problematic, thin-obsessed fashion industry in New York is a brave, and needed, attempt.

What I don’t like: I want to say this cautiously, because my intention is not to offend.  I don’t think judgment based on body size is good, I don’t believe in cookie-cutter shapes, and “normative” is a word that shouldn’t even exist because pretty much no one is.  However, I can’t avoid, and nor should anyone watching, that this is a reality show, and therefore these women are on display.  Maybe they want to be – maybe part of their aim is to bring attention through showing themselves – but there is the same kind of potential for objectification that occurs with every reality show: they are on TV, being watched and judged by people who they can’t see, can’t know, can’t respond to, and probably can’t even imagine. What does that do to the message they are sending?  Does it glamorize their lifestyle, and does it do that in a healthy or unhealthy way?  Does it make them desirable and admirable, or does it make them products of voyeurism?  I can’t decide.  Judging only from the promo, there seems to be a equal promise of girl-power, body-image-busting positivity, but I wonder: is that too good to be true?

So the question is, and I put it to you gals: is this a promise of empowerment, or is it just a new direction of objectified sexuality?  Is Big Sexy positive or not?  Would you watch it?  Why?  Why not?

Interlude: Brownies, Diets, and the Women who eat them.

In gender on July 28, 2011 at 9:10 am

Chelsea Narr Henson

Hi, GLG!  Sarah kindly allowed me a spot to write a guest post, so let me introduce myself.  Like these other awesome ladies, I’m a PhD student in English lit.  I also write about food and recipes elsewhere on the internets.  I don’t usually write about television.  I prefer to yell at it.  Unless there is food on it.  And then I’m typically more interested in the food than in the medium from which it is displayed.

But here’s the thing: unless I’m watching FoodNetwork, the place where food shows up more often than not is in commercials.  And that means, as I tell my students all the time, that there are going to be biases associated with it.  Sometimes it will flat-out be representing the food as more eat-able than it really is.  But sometimes, as in this case, it involves the way the commercial is written and shot.  I couldn’t find the commercial posted online, so we’ll have to work from my memory of it.

(Nota bene: I’m not a film scholar chick, so forgive my lack of appropriate vocabulary for particularly film-y things…)

The ad begins with a determined-looking, pretty blonde woman, probably early 30s, walking quickly and purposefully through a grocery store.  She’s wearing a pencil skirt and heels, and doesn’t stop to take anything off any shelves.  She heads straight for the end of an aisle where a beefy looking guy – a bouncer, of sorts – stands with his arms crossed in front of a ceiling-to-floor red curtain.  He seems as though he will stop her, but she waves him aside and goes through.

While this scene of what seems to be female empowerment is going on, the voiceover for the ad announces that now, something formerly off-limits, something that could never be thought about before, has become approved for consumption for people on diets.  As the woman pushes her way through the curtain, the voiceover reveals this secret taboo, this wondrous, mysterious no-no, is a brownie.  A 90-calorie brownie.  The shelves on the other side of the curtain are stacked with boxes containing these snacks, and we can see them pictured on the boxes: tiny squares that look more like foam rubber or molded plastic than delectable fudgy chocolate treats.

Once within the curtain, we see a club scene: people dressed up, jumping around and dancing, multi-colored lights flashing and disco balls hanging from the ceiling.  There is at least one tray full of the brownie treats being held up and passed around.  The woman we’ve been following happily joins the dance party, and the voiceover tells us encouragingly, no, joyfully, that brownies are back on the dieter’s can eat list, and they can be found in your local supermarket in the granola bar aisle.

Does this seem innocuous?  The first time I saw it I thought nothing of it.  The second time I saw it I started noticing some things that bother me a little.

As far as I can see, there is one man in the dancing scene of the ad.  One.  Everyone else rejoicing over this product is a woman.  Further, they are all relatively young and dressed to the nines.  Does this mean only women like brownies and would therefore care about them being available in a low calorie incarnation?  Not true, I say: my husband loves a big, chewy brownie.  Does it mean only women go on diets?  The very next commercial might be for Hydroxycut or similar, which would disprove this one as well.  Here’s where I think it gets more insidious.  Does it mean only women have to restrict themselves to certain types of food?  Or does it mean that if you’re a woman who enjoys an occasional brownie, you ought to start thinking of yourself as doing something wrong?  Really, the commercial seems to urge, if you’re taking good care of your body and keeping it thin and trim, brownies should have been off limits to you until now.  The man in the party scene, incidentally, is about as far in appearance and habit from the uber-masculine bouncer as you could get.  He might be a hipster, he might be metrosexual, but more likely (I think), he’s styled to look somewhat effeminate, so it turns out it’s a “girls’ night” complete with a token gay guy – and lord knows he hasn’t had a brownie in ages either… until now, that is!

Further, let’s consider the big bouncer that the woman steps casually past at the beginning of the commercial.  Sure, he plays into the club vibe the ad wants to invoke.  It makes sense for him to be there, guarding the red curtain, but what does that mean from an over-analytical perspective?  This woman wants to do something taboo.  She wants to eat this delectable snack hidden away.  He is there to prevent her from indulging, even though, as the commercial so helpfully reveals, what she’s after is only 90 measly little calories.  So here, it would seem, even though we now know this dessert is not so bad for the woman in search of a trim figure, this guy still doesn’t want our girl to have any.  He would rather block the door than allow her this small indulgence.

Finally, there’s the issue of placement.  The voiceover tells us not only how fantastic it is that these brownies are 90 calories a piece; it also tells us where we can find them in the grocery store.  They are shelved with the granola bars.  It’s like that final wink: even if you’re a woman, and you’ve not eaten a brownie in 3 years because you’re trying to stay trim for your next upcoming high school reunion, so that Joe Quarterback will finally, finally notice you after all these years, but now you feel like it might be okay to indulge by picking up a pack of these 90 – just 90! – calorie brownies, they don’t get shelved with the cookies or the baking mixes.  No, they hang with the granola bars.  Now, on top of being delicious and formerly forbidden and reserved for those women who can’t resist partying over chocolate, they are also a health food.  Don’t worry, girls, they aren’t really even brownies!  They’re just like granola bars.  They must be good for you, because stuff with low calorie counts is good for you, since it helps you be thin.  And thin is good.

To sum up, what this commercial teaches us is as follows:

1.) most young attractive women either are, or should be, on diets.

2.) indulgence is a bad thing, because it means you won’t be following your diet.

3.) men wouldn’t want you to indulge, because then you wouldn’t be as attractive as you could be, since you’d probably gain weight.

4.) men don’t need diet brownies, unless they are those kind of men (by extension, perhaps, men don’t go on diets?  And why not?  Surely they, too, feel the pressure from society/people they want to seem attractive to?).

5.) even if you are going to indulge in this new godsend, no one will judge you, because in addition to being low calorie, it’s actually a healthy snack.

Girls!  Can’t we just feel beautiful and accepted AND enjoy some good old dessert if we want to?  Come over.  I’ll make brownies.  And they won’t come from a 90 calorie box.

Now you know why I yell at the TV set.

 

Addendum:  Just saw this commercial again and noticed something I forgot to mention.  As the dance party progresses, the curtain is moved aside slightly and who peeks through?  Two teenage boys dressed as supermarket janitorial staff.  They look in voyeurs to the scene, seeming both slightly shocked and a bit bashful about their actions.  Are they turned on by these dancing, brownie-eating women?  Are they horrified at the taboo being broken?  What does it mean that they are staff members with somewhat undesirable jobs?  I can’t decide what effect this additional moment has on the message of the commercial.  How would this be different (or would it?) if the voyeurs were attractive male grocery store customers instead of janitor kids?

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