American Apparel Ads
Objectification by the Male Gaze or Celebrating Female Empowerment?
Recently, a new trend in popular culture has emerged: the celebration of the female body, as well as the autonomy females have over their own bodies. This is mainly thanks to strong female entertainers like Beyonce, Miley Cyrus, Lena Dunham, and Mindy Kahling, all of whom promote girl power. These women come from all different racial backgrounds and body types. These women, and the trend they have catapulted, are inspiring young women to accept their body and to be as sexually free as they want, regardless of whether a man is around to praise or view them. These are strong women, who love men, but do not let themselves fall to objectification. Both these women and advertisements from the clothing brand American Apparel display sexuality as a way to celebrate the self, and take back the power from the viewer to the viewed. This paper will focus on different American Apparel ads (a company whose target market is young and hip consumers) and whether or not they utilize the male gaze or celebrate the body.
The Male Gaze
Laura Mulvey first officially introduced the male gaze as a concept. Her landmark paper “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” outlines the male gaze as the way men “project [their] fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly.” She goes on to state that through this gaze “women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness (Mulvey 19). Today, the definition the term has taken on is “to describe when the audience is put into the perspective of a (heterosexual) man. Female characters are sexualized, and the camera may zero in on female body parts considered sexual (GeekFeminism.Wikia.com).
The gaze is represented everywhere throughout visual media – art, film, print advertisements, etc. The male gaze is the main tactic utilized to laminate the advertising theory of “sex sells”. Critics of the male gaze often argue that the male gaze objectifies the female model being looked at.
An experimental analysis was conducted of young women’s attitudes towards the male gaze following exposure to explicit, centerfold images. The authors define explicitness as to what degree the model was undressed. The analysis concluded that women who are more exposed to explicit centerfold images of other women are more likely to accept the male gaze (Wright 7) and are “less likely to support feminism and more likely to believe in rape myths” (Wright 3). But this was an analysis of human reaction, not of human habit or opinion. The study also states that women purposely consume media that is explicit, citing that almost 1 in 5 readers of Playboy magazine are female, as well as 29% of the 2012 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition were female (Wright 2). This proves that women are a part of the audience that consumes explicit female images, and willingly. Those women were not part of a controlled study measuring the male gaze’s effect, but rather they are women who want to appreciate the female form, not sexually objectify it like the gaze.
There is, of course, the idea of internalizing the male patriarchal gaze, and how it can supposedly manifest itself onto modern day women “through women’s adherence to, and acceptance of, socially and politically constructed notions of femininity” (Rejali 2). The theory also supposes “the modern woman, ignorant of her internalization of the patriarchy, celebrates her ‘individualism’ while she has, in reality, become to herself her own jailer” (Rejali 2). But this idea has some problems, and even as the author states, “Through internalizing the gaze of the male ‘Other’—namely, the traditional sexual and patriarchal view of men—the female becomes both the ‘seer and seen’” (Rejali 4). If the female can become the seerer of her own body, as well as being aware that she is what is being looked at, does that not give the female power over her body, as well as the image?
Objectification vs. Celebration
The Objectification Theory was popularized by Barbara Frederickson and Tomi-Ann Roberts in their paper “Objectification Theory: Toward Understanding Women’s Lived Experiences and Mental Health Risks”. They claim that through sexualized gazing (the male gaze) there is the potential for sexual objectification (Frederickson 175). They go on to define sexual objectification as when “women are treated as bodies—and in particular, as bodies that exist for the use and pleasure of others” (Frederickson 175). But this paper was published in 1997, and major strides have been made to reclaim the male gaze in a way that celebrates women’s bodies, not strictly objectifying them.
Rosalind Gill states in her article “Supersexualize Me! Advertising and ‘the midriffs’” that the idea of objectification is central to the feminist “lexicon” because of its ability to “speak to the ways in which media representations help to justify and sustain relations of domination and inequality between men and women (Gill 3). Her article continues by claiming that a number of strides have been made in the realm of representation in advertising that objectification may no longer applicable when understand contemporary adverts. “Increasingly, young women are presented not as passive sex objects, but as active, desiring sexual subjects, who seem to participate enthusiastically in practices and forms of self-presentations that earlier generations regarded as connected to subordination” (Gill 3). Gill states that an active subject is one that is knowingly playing with her sexuality. This concept builds upon the notion of objectification, but questions its relevance in a more modern society.
In the online article titled “How Can You Tell If You’re Being Sexually Empowered of Objectified?” the answer lies in who has the power. The author, Ronnie Richie, delves further into the answer by asking, “Who is controlling a person’s presence in the sexual situation? If the person being ‘looked at’ has power in the situation, then they are sexually empowered.” But what type of power is Richie speaking of? “Power is often the power of consent – which means that he person entering into the sexual situation [is doing so] willingly… If you put on sexy clothing or take a selfie, you have the power because you chose to do that.” This argument is one of the few written expressing this idea. Women owning their sexuality should not be determined as self-objectification or falling to the patriarchy, it should be celebrated as a step towards gender equality.
Another online article about American Apparel ads titled, “Are American Apparel Ads Sexist or Empowering?” begs the same question as the argument above. The article starts by explaining how American Apparel embraces sex as an integral part of its brand image. Then the author, Victoria Ulaj, presents the term empowerment as awareness of making yourself into a physical object, by intention. In a way, the author is claiming that if the model knowingly sexualizes herself, the male gaze is not objectifying her. She further states that American Apparel ads are a form of sex-positive feminism, which can be simplified to the thought of sexual freedom as women’s freedom, or women can, and should be, just as sexually free as men, as well as being proud to have sexual desires, just like men.
But two of the articles sited above are not academic, and this can be in part because the concept of female sexual liberation through suggestive advertisements is not well scholastically studied. And according to Rosalind Gill, this is because the current mainstream feminist ideology isn’t supportive of this idea.
History of American Apparel
Dov Charney founded American Apparel in 1989 in Montreal, Canada. He first came up with the name American Apparel while at Tufts University majoring in American Studies (DovCharney.com). He quit Tufts to move to South Carolina and began manufacturing t-shirts until the company moved to Los Angeles; it’s current residence, in 1997.
The company’s business model is vertical integration, so they manufacture, market, and distribute all from the same Downtown L.A. warehouse. The company is known worldwide for its “Made in the USA” slogan. The brand is also politically active. The campaign Legalize LA is about immigration reform, and the campaign Legalize Gay is supportive of gay marriage rights. On top of this, the company sources its models organically, with most being found through online submissions, word of mouth, and while shopping within the brand’s 270+ retail locations worldwide. The company also supports multiple environmental initiatives such as installing solar panels to the roof of the Downtown LA complex, as well as offering an “Organic Collection” composed of the brand’s most popular styles made completely from 100$ USDA Certified Organic and pesticide-free cotton (AmericanApparel.net).
However, American Apparel is no stranger to controversy. The brand has been in the media for everything from financial issues, to sexual harassment claims, to the CEO Dov Charney being fired from his own company. But the most controversial thing about the clothing brand is its advertisements.
Before diving in to analyze specific ads, it is important to keep in mind why American Apparel creates the ads that it does. In a 2006 New York Times piece titled “And You Thought Abercrombie and Fitch Was Pushing It” Dov Charney explains that American Apparel ads like to “challenge conventional notions of beauty” and the models are “women with asymmetrical features, imperfect bodies, blemished skin and visible sweat stains” because it captures the essence of their customer.
In a way, American Apparel ads can be compared to the famous Dove Real Beauty campaign advertisements, as well as the British retailer Debenhams who in 2010 stated the purpose of eliminating the technique of airbrush was “to make women feel good about themselves—not eroding their self belief and esteem by using false comparisons” (Duffy 224). The author of “The New ‘Real Women’ of Advertising”, Brooke Duffy, states, “Such initiatives seemingly indicate a movement away from entirely aspirational ad appeals to a promotional culture which is increasingly accessible” (Duffy 224). With this belief, then American Apparel is promoting greater acceptance of different types of bodies, as well as making itself a mecca for real and natural beauty within the advertising world.
It is also important to note that American Apparel features most of its advertisements on the Internet or in alternative publications like Vice magazine, The Village Voice, or The Onion because the majority of the brand’s target consumer is reachable through these publications. Within the article, Charney also notes that the brand goes after “Young Metropolitan Adults” whom he believes have embraced a more sexualized world and who can appreciate a more “degenerate aesthetic”. And the aesthetic is what keeps the brand popular and authentic.
American Apparel Ads (a selection)
I will now analyze different American Apparel ads, some of which were print ads and some Internet ads. With each ad, I will attempt to argue both sides – objectification through the male gaze or an example of female-body empowerment.
Clearly, this advertisement is taken from the male gaze perspective. The model is looking down onto her partner, which can be assumed to be male because of the hairy legs and masculine-looking feet. The model’s breasts are visible and the position is suggestive of sex. The ad is advertising American Apparel’s Micro Mesh, which is a line the brand still produces meant to be worn as a basic layering piece.
But, who has control in this advertisement? The model is looking down onto the other model, which suggests superiority and dominance, two characteristics usually exempt from sexist ads. She is in physical control as well as mental. The male is submissive in this advertisement, as if to relay to the female viewer “While wearing American Apparel’s Micro Mesh, I can allow him to view my body, while still separating him from what he wants (her naked, submissive body).”
This advert is one of American Apparel’s most frequently listed “controversial” or “sexist” promotional pieces. But is it controversial because it displays female sexuality and the pleasure derived from it?
The advertisement is employing most of the tactics the male gaze embodies. The model is looking up at the camera and is chopped into sections on the left. But what is interesting, and what goes against the usual aesthetic of the male gaze, is what the square boxes on the left are revealing. The model is captured midway through some type of sexual pleasure – unknown to the viewer if it is self or partner derived. Explicit images of female pleasure are usually exempt from advertisements targeted towards men due to the fear of female sexuality and expression.
The advertisement can be viewed as sexually empowering through the idea of sex-positive feminism mentioned earlier. The advertisement is almost suggesting to female consumers that American Apparel socks are what give her pleasure, not a man. This advert is also more pulling towards women, than men, as the viewer because the part of her body being sectioned is her face, not a sexual organ, which connotes a more intimate feel, rather than explicitly erotic.
This advertisement is part of one of American Apparel’s Legalize Gay campaigns. The image depicts two women kissing. Neither of their faces is shown straight on, and while one of the models is topless, the point is not to sexualize, but to abolish gender codes of masculinity and femininity. Having the model with shorter hair be topless, as well as not fully embracing the other, implies masculinity while leaving the male absent. Her breasts are shown the way men’s nipples are- non-sexually, and just another part of the human body.
The male viewer could potentially imagine himself within the ad, but not in a consenting way. The two models are closed off, not posed to look inviting. The advertisement is not welcoming hetero male fantasies that men usually, and mostly, incorrectly derive from the scene of two women together. The image is of no resemblance to pornography, and if anything, resembles relationships not sex.
If the image above was of a female and male, and the male model was topless, the image would not be viewed as controversial at all. Mainly, it can be argued that this is because homosexuality is still too marginalized from the mainstream advertising space. American Apparel is breaking down that notion by celebrating the relationship, rather than sexualizing it.
The image on the left is an example of American Apparel celebrating female sexuality and the body. The photo, which created tons of online buzz, depicts a female model wearing a cream-colored sweater and American Apparel lace underwear. In comparison, this advert for American Apparel underwear is extremely tame, but it still utilizes and destroys the male gaze to its advantage.
Female pubic hair is often airbrushed off of models in any type of advertisement for underwear or swimsuits, but American Apparel believes the exact opposite of that. Yes, the model is in a suggestive pose, her legs are open towards the camera and she is lying down, and that is necessary to draw attention to her pubic area. Rather than sexualizing the model into an adolescent girl, the pose is spotlighting what references maturation in humans. She is hailing the male viewer to her crotch area as if to prove that she cannot be made into a prepubescent fantasy that other adverts suggest. She is aware that she is being viewed, and making the viewer focus on what is real and natural about the human body, not just what function it can serve and how males would prefer to view it.
This advert is the pinnacle of American Apparel advertising. It is sexual, suggestive, bare, neutral, and illusive. The ad isn’t explicitly selling underwear, even though that is the intended purpose, but it seems that the advertisement is closer to what the American Apparel brand hopes, and sees, for its customers.
The ad is comprised of two shots, one of just the female model’s back from the neck down and the other of the female model waist up, lying between the legs of a male model, with her mouth and tongue on his genital area. The ad cuts the female in half and the photo is taken from the viewpoint of the male. This ad is the definition of the male gaze, but it is also showcasing female sexual power. The female model is aware of the male gaze, she is looking into the camera. Her body language is telling the viewer that she has the control. She is being idolized, sexualized, and celebrated by the male gaze. The images are reminding the male viewer that this is a reality, but only with a consenting partner.
It is imperative to remember that women do not dress for men, but dress for ourselves and other women. This changing, new millennial perspective of womanhood and what it means to a feminist is under researched and not yet appreciated by academics. This is not a post-feminist era, women still have not gained the same basic pay as men, but there is a newfound sense of entitlement and power we have over our bodies, and over men.
One of the former creative directors of American Apparel, Marsha Brady, was quoted saying, “When there’s a group of people attempting to shame female creativity, female beauty, female pride under the auspices of protecting women, it is really, really scary.” The group she is referencing is the group that does not believe in female sexual expression or female autonomy. American Apparel is making incredible strides for feminism. By continuing to make controversial ads depicting human sexuality and celebrating the female body, the brand is demolishing the male gaze as a way to objectify women and creating a creative outlet for sexuality and gender to be expressed.
In a way, Victoria Ulaj’s piece on thoughtcatalog.com can completely sum-up this argument in one quote. “Objectification should not be seen as having anything to do with women being able to do what they want with their bodies. It should be seen as society projecting roles onto women that they feel they have to fulfill. Sexual objectification is a debatable subject and there is no absolute way to determine what demeans women or not, but what if that perfectly waxed asshole is playing an essential role in women’s empowerment and sexual liberation?”
“American Apparel | Fashionable Basics. Sweatshop Free. Made in USA.” American Apparel | Fashionable Basics. Sweatshop Free. Made in USA. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2015.
Duffy, Brooke E. “The New “Real Women” of Advertising.” Remake, Remodel: Women’s Magazines in the Digital Age. N.p.: U of Illinois, 2014. N. pag. Print.
Frederickson, Barbara L., and Tomi-Ann Roberts. “Objectification Theory.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 21 (1997): n. pag. Web.
Gill, Rosalind. “Supersexualize Me! Advertising and the “midriffs”” Mainstreaming Sex: The Sexualization of Culture. N.p.: Taurus, 2007. N. pag. Print.
“Male Gaze.” Geek Feminism Wiki. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 May 2015.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen (1975): n. pag. Print.
Rejali, Saman. “Post Feminism, “Femininity”, and the Internalization of Patriarchy by the Modern Woman.” Thesis. University of Toronto, 2014. Web.
Richie, Ronnie. “How Can You Tell If You’re Being Sexually Empowered or Objectified? Ask Yourself This Simple Question.” Everyday Feminism. N.p., 14 Apr. 2015. Web. 22 Apr. 2015.
Ulaj, Victoria. “Are American Apparel Ads Sexist Or Empowering?” Thoughtcatalog. N.p., 18 Feb. 2014. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.
Wolf, Jaime. “And You Thought Abercrombie and Fitch Were Pushing It?” The New York Times Magazine. The New York Times, 23 Apr. 2006. Web. 1 May 2015.
Wright, Paul. “An Experimental Analysis of Young Women’s Attitude Towards the Male Gaze Following Exposure to Centerfold Images of Varying Explicitness.” Communication Reports (2014): n. pag. Web.
I will be better with this blog this summer.
But, I’m excited to be writing my final paper for an advertising class about the Male Gaze and whether or not American Apparel ads objectify or celebrate the female. If anyone has any content I should be exposed to, please let me know!
So, Time magazine apologized for allowing “feminist” to be on the list of banned words. I actually have nothing else to say about their attempt at damage control. That is all.
Emotions suck. Especially when you feel like you’re not able to express them openly. There’s few things worse than having to hold something in.
I guess this might be the point of therapy, but a human being cannot/ shouldn’t have to wait until a specific hour, once a week, to discuss all of the emotions that they have felt the other 6 days and 23 hours.
I’m a strong believer in confrontation and telling the truth and being open. I understand not everyone else is like me, and that’s perfectly okay. But why do people avoid confrontation? Is it to curb conflict, or because they’re scared things might change? Is the point of life to be comfortable or to be open and good? Comfort isn’t worth shit if you hate the people you’re around or the situation that you’re in. Yeah, it’s harder to confront things, but that’s what allows emotions to un-stick.
Why is it taboo for some females to be closed off?
I semi understand the masculinity issue with why men don’t show emotion, but that’s obviously not what I’m speaking about.
Females, Women, Girls- we should feel good about our emotions and be open with them. Bottling them up does actually guarantee yourself an extreme explosion.
Find other females who will allow you to express yourself openly and unjudged. Your tension and hate of emotions will subside and you won’t have mental breakdowns every six months.
I want to apologize for being lazy about posting. I also want to take the time to apologize to any female that I have ever belittled for my own gain (middle school&highs school). I’m sorry.
I’m sorry that I felt the need to cut you down so that MAYBE I could feel a little bit better about myself.
I’m sorry for judging you because I was jealous.
I’m sorry for calling you crazy.
I’m sorry for calling you a bitch.
I’m sorry for not standing up for you.
I’m sorry for blaming you instead of my ex-boyfriend.
I’m sorry for spreading rumors because I wanted someone else to feel my pain.
There’s a line in the movie Mean Girls that Tina Fey’s character says to all the girls in the gym.
“You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores.”
Why do women call out each other? How often do men actually call each other “dicks” or assholes”? I also understand that today the words bitch and slut and whore can have multiple different connotations, but connotations can be lost or forgotten when a word is transferred to a group that it did not originally belong.
I love being called a “bad bitch”. I think it’s empowering. But there’s nothing that I hate more than hearing that word come out of someone’s mouth negatively. Especially a man’s.
If there’s power in numbers, why are women still negating each other? We’re all women. We all are institutionalized. We all have tons of obstacles permanently set in our way. Why should we cut each other down on top of this? We need each other more than we individually need to feel better than another.
Stop slut shaming, stop shit talking, stop unnecessary rude actions for your own personal gain.
Feminism is the most talked about F word in present day media. Last week the UN had its meeting where Emma Watson gave her powerful speech for feminism, the HeforShe campaign was launched, and normal, everyday people still weren’t listening.
Feminism seems to be a trend within the media, but also within the “underground/youth/hipster/subculture” groups. Is feminism only getting full attention on the internet because that’s where people spend a majority of their time and can “safely” proclaim their yearning for equality? Feminism is spotlighted in the media, yet why are there not more people coming forward in the daylight to join the revolution? Are people still ashamed of being labed the F word?
Women like Petra Collins and Lena Dunham are celebs from the underground or on the fringe, and they openly fight for the cause. Beyonce put the word in all caps behind her during the MTV awards! Why are there no feminism shirts like there are eqaulity shirts? Is marriage equality more important than basic human equality? Is it seriously easier to say in public that you support two men marrying each other rather than stating that you believe women should be granted equal pay for equal work? I want a “Equalize Women” shirt. Where is that?
For feminism to be a trend, it’s a pretty underground one. Why are people scared to say that they love women and believe that women deserve the same as the other 50% of the population? I really don’t think it’s the untrue connotation that still follows the word. Society is so indifferent about everything. When Emma asked, “If not me, then who?” she wasn’t actually pondering the question!
For feminism to rise above the subculture, it needs all of its internet supporters to back away from the computer and take action. If all the mothers, daughters, sisters, and PEOPLE decided to actually care and do something, feminism would surpass trendom and maybe actually enter the political conversation. Obama and Biden pressing for the decrease in sexual violence on college campuses is NOT the same thing as the Equal Pay Act being passed.
Media coverage and public opinion create trends, legislation and time create change. But you do not have to wait for the next election to come around- call your congress rep now. Rally in the streets now. Demand equality now. Never think of human rights as a trendy topic of discussion.
Never, ever, feel inferior or bad for bringing home the bacon. Plus, if your significant other complains that they feel under-valued or sub to you because you earn more income, kick them to the curb! In this day and age, where women still do not recieve equal pay for equal work (Thanks Senate Republicans), we should celebrate our earnings, not have to listen to someone whine about “unfairness”. You work hard and deserve everything you recieve! To hell with envy.
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