The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

Your inner sexpot consumer

Posted by Nic Heath on June 24, 2009


american apparel

The image accompanying The Age article

A couple of Sundays ago The Age website featured “Cheeky ad campaign or sexploitation?” – an article about “a popular clothes retailer using highly sexualised images of young women – many of them company staff ” in its advertising.


There are tons of photos of women in provocative poses on the Models page of the American Apparel site. I’m not arguing for the complete removal of sexual provocation from advertising images – sex has a place in the public arena – however some of the photos have no discernible relevance to American Apparel products. In this slideshow, for instance, Hannah Lee is pictured topless, with no American Apparel clothing in frame. Sunday’s Age article describes Hannah as ‘very young’ and the pictures ‘all provocative poses and barely covered breasts.’

The DIY aesthetic of many of the photos – taken in front of door frames, on couches, but mostly on white-sheeted beds – gives the viewer a sense of the voyeur. The many pictures of Natasha look like they were taken by a lover. Sophia, on all fours, arches her back and cocks her hips. Veronica, looking over her shoulder towards the camera, juts out her buttocks. Many of the other photos stick with this soft-porn script.

It is not hard to work out why businesses such as American Apparel opt for overtly sexual images to advertise their product. As Daily Finance points out, this strategy has been very effective for Calvin Klein in the past. “Every year or so, Calvin Klein manufactures a fresh “controversy” with a button-pressing, taste-defying ad campaign calculated to generate stories on the evening news without quite crossing the line into outright indecency of the sort that would provoke the authorities.”

I followed the Daily Finance article to this early incarnation of teenage sexual innuendo as a marketing strategy, when Brooke Shields reminds us nothing comes between her and her Calvin Kleins.

Do these images constitute the “caricatures of female hotness” identified by Ariel Levy? Last year the Herald Sun reported that many women “felt the way they were portrayed in advertising and marketing harmed their ability to be taken seriously in the workplace.” Citing the results of a survey conducted by Splash Consulting Group, the article said “most of the 500 women surveyed said they would go out of their way to boycott a product or service if they were offended by an advertisement for it.”

While the sexualisation of women in advertising uses women as commodities, as Monica Dux and Zora Simic point out in The Great Feminist Denial, young women ‘make ideal consumers’. Will women use their buying power to render obsolete exploitative advertising?


6 Responses to “Your inner sexpot consumer”

  1. Nico said

    Mia Freedman’s take:

  2. MarianK said

    Yet again, we see the hijacking of this increasingly serious women’s/feminist issue by the ‘Is it or is it not pornography?’ cultural gatekeepers, to distract us from the real issue of ‘Is it or is it not sexist?’

    Instead of addressing the increasing and alarmingly IMBALANCED sexualisaton of women compared to men in the public domain, we are forced to take sides in an imaginary war against pornography – i.e. you’re either with us or you’re with the wowsers.

    Comments like Mia Freedman’s ‘Well lordy haven’t we taken a giant and somewhat prudish step to the right’ (at Nico’s link) are typical of this kind of emotional blackmail.

    Somehow feminists have to find a way around this. So far in Australia, it’s been left to conservative women’s advocates such as Melinda Tankard Reist to take this issue on in public, but unfortunately, her somewhat shrill conservatism alienates the more liberal progressive feminists among us.

    I’m not sure what the answer is, but we HAVE to do something.

  3. DearAudrey said

    Well Mia isn’t exactly giving a feminist analysis is she Nico 🙂
    Young women in porny poses, Mia isn’t offended so I guess she’s not a prude *rolls eyes*
    However, Dov Charney himself says his advertisements are ‘sexually charged’ so I guess that would qualify them as pornographic.

    I won’t be shopping at AA, Dov is a misogynistic prick. He sexually harasses his female workers, calls them sluts and invited at least one of them to masturbate in front of him. I wish women would use their buying power to boycott AA.

  4. Natasha said

    I agree with MarianK that it’s the imbalance involved in sexualising women and not men that pisses me off. I don’t have a particularly problem with pornography by consenting adults, and I also don’t have an issue with contextual sexual imagery (I would much prefer to see more sexualised imagery and less violence – especially on tv), but I do have a problem with sexualising women and leaving men to pose neutrally, suggesting that sex is fundamentally about women being available for enjoyment by men. That most definitely pisses me off.

  5. Nic Heath said

    Except Audrey that Mia Freedman calls herself a feminist (I think), and while I don’t agree with her view on this matter I suppose her perspective furnishes the the idea that “feminism” is a mixed bag.

    I think society at large is so desensitised to women depicted sexually that (some) people are immune to it. It is so common that it goes unnoticed, and if it is recognised – well, we can’t imagine it any other way.

  6. DearAudrey said

    Mia can describe herself as anything she likes, but there is no feminist analysis in her post on this topic (or if there is I missed it). It seems that any analysis of sexualised images opens one up to the accusation of ‘prude’ which we know means anti-sex and Mia wouldn’t want to be seen as that! Lordy no!
    Yes these images are offensive to me, not because the women are in varying states of undress, nudity is not offensive, it is the context in which women and men are sexually objectified and exploited to sell Dov’s ‘ethically’ produced clothing that is offensive. Dov thinks it’s fine to masturbate on women in his office and coerce them into modeling for his ads under threat of losing their jobs, as long as they are not in a sweatshop.

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