Thursday, April 06, 2006

Now You See Her...

Have a look at this picture of model Kate Moss (being Marilyn-ish) from a photo spread for W, a women's magazine.

So let's say you're a woman, the intended readership for this magazine. The model is in lingerie, draped over a bed, staring directly outward.

Now, women, answer this question: When you first looked at the photo, who did you think she was looking at? You? Or someone else?

She's clearly sexy, and in a vulnerable position. She's waiting for something. Did you think she was waiting for you?

The largest audience for women's fashion magazines is made up of straight women under 45 years of age. So why the titillating, submissive images? Does W want to seduce straight women with other women? Is it a plot to subject all women to subordination? Or is there something else going on?

There's a fascinating (and fun) online essay by a semiotics professor at the University of Vermont called "This is Not Sex" that puts these questions and images under the magnifying glass, and his end analysis may be different than you'd think. I'd summarize his conclusions here, but given the nature of how he sets up the essay with photos and text, I'd be ruining a lot of the effect. The points are far more effectively made if you click through the essay from start to finish.

Check it out, and let me know what you think.

(And thanks to Metafilter for turning me on to it.)


Anonymous Darkhawk said...

I know someone who was a ways into adulthood before realising that she was bi, because she figured that it was normal for straight women to really like looking at photos of sexy women -- otherwise why would the women's magazines be so full of them?

4/06/2006 11:30 PM  
Blogger Cherrie said...

I think the writer of your linked piece has a valid point, but may have overstated it. Has he ever seen the boys in an Abercrombie catalog?

Nonetheless, I agree that the combined effect of advertising, television and society (which may just be a mirror image of the media) is to teach women that they should behave in a certain submissive way. The effect is so overpowering that we find strong female role models who don't bend to this convention to be a little strange and, for many men, objects of derision.

Yes, I find Kate to be sexy (though a little young for me), but then assertive, independent women are sexy too.

4/07/2006 12:30 AM  
Blogger Anastasia said...

Behind every image is a photographer calling the shots as it were, so yes it's interesting, moreover, the fashion world also features homosexual men (an example is Tom Ford who was quoted saying that he likes to reinvent women, something I find scary when it comes from the mouth of a man who prefers men in the sexual sense, and that may sound 'dumb' but it is what it is) who design or 'style' women, so there's another interesting element there. In regard to the Moss picture, for me it's only a picture, the typical overstylised model that is posed, she could be inanimate, a doll-like entity that is surreal to the point of being unreal, so no, she doesn't 'capture' me as a woman.

The other extreme of this is seeing images of powerful women like Condoleeza Rice. She's captured during candid moments and her poses aren't stylised or pre-planned, which is more realistic and yet people find her so intimidating.

So when the tag of Moss being 'sexy' is assumed, then why do people find it sexy? Is it because they're conditioned to conclude that it's sexy?

In the photographs (the link) there's a high amount of photograph showing women grooming themselves or assuring themselves body language wise (finger over mouth, finger hooking at the corner of the mouth, patting one's hair with the hand etc), in real everyday life observe people who do this and what is your impression? Usually people who are uncomfortable or wary, in short, insecure, do this.

From another level, the poses (especially the little 'girl' coy shots, with fingers in mouth etc) imply a girlish image, that's younger than the biological age of the 'woman'.

As long as women feed the coffers though, this will always continue

4/07/2006 7:54 AM  
Anonymous Hiromi said...

Thanks very much for the link, Miss Syl. Ver' thought-provoking.

I think it's all about the male gaze and women seeing themselves through men's eyes. Despite the advances made by feminism, a huge part of women's self-esteem is *still* determined by their perceived *physical* attractiveness to men - not mental, emotional or moral attractiveness, all of which had been emphasized in the past.

It is my theory that the loosening of "traditional" morals in modern society has indeed had a negative side-effect; not as the Christians would claim, but rather that the most effective tool left to control women is by manipulating their insecurity re: appearance. The hegemony of women-as-subordinate has evolved from a morally-based one to a phenotypically-based one.

This hegemony has been internalized, and it would have taken years to eradicate, but given the trends toward ever increasing superficiality, I don't see this reversal happening.

So why do women's magazines use these photos? To make money by tapping into this internalized hegemony.

My $.02.

4/07/2006 11:56 AM  
Blogger ArtfulDodger said...

As a person who has actually studied this issue, and issues like it, for the past twenty-years I have to agree and disagree with what the study said. I actually saw this self-same report years ago. And there have been many more like it. The problem with these types of reports are the narrow focus that they take. IF ALL photos in a magazine followed these rules, that would be one thing. But they don't. In fact I happen to have a new popular woman's magazine on my desk and I just flipped through it. I'd say 30% of the photos in this famous mag follow the rules laid down in this report, the rest do not. Any theory has to include all photos, not just the ones that fit a certain theory.

Now, that isn't to say that there isn't some truth to the claims made. But he fails to mention several factors that lead to these decisions, Ana brought up an important one in her comment, but even more important is the social relevance of the age in which the photos are taken. The issues of the day, as it were. Modern media is nothing if not responsive to current trends. In the '50's images of women as homemakers dominated media, in the '60's it was the "spirit" of womanhood, in the '70's the independance of women and so on. Does media drive society or is it simply a mirror? I think both. It is simplistic to see one without the other, they exist together and feed off of each other.

This will only continue to change and evolve. We are attracted to an image because it is an attractive image. We are being manipulated by our natures. This is the core truth no one seems to want to admit.

4/07/2006 3:58 PM  

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