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Stocking Stuffers - De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
Stocking Stuffers
After reading the comments to my last entry, a late-night rant on the Anthropologie holiday catalogue, I decided I needed to follow up with a more sober-minded reflection on my response to it. First, I should note that I never doubted the aesthetic interest of the image itself. The photographs throughout that catalogue are both sumptuous and unsettling. As I tell my students all the time, the way to learn something about both yourself and what you are studying is to focus precisely on those things that provoke, disturb, and perplex you.

To the extent that the image I posted manages to elicit that sort of reaction, it represents, not only an aesthetic success, but a commercial one as well. While the claim that there is no such thing as bad publicity in the advertising world may be exaggerated, I'm sure that Anthropologie would rather have people discussing their catalogues than not. And then there's the possibility that my getting riled up has as much to do with the realization that part of me is captivated by this sort of imagery as it did with my high-minded assault on patriarchal property relations.

I looked through the whole catalogue again this morning, trying to make sense of the sense of outrage that hit me when I first set it aside to scan. Anthropologie's catalogue is an extreme example of the sort that, rather than simply showing the items for sale as neutrally as possible -- think the classic Sears Roebuck tome -- seeks to immerse them within a scene that cannot be reduced to what can be purchased, where there is always a remainder of what I like to tell Skylar is "for display purposes only." Actually, in the case of the Anthropologie catalogue only some items are given this treatment. The scene-setting pages alternate with close-ups of shirts, sweaters, accessories and household goods. But because these human-free shots are color and background-matched to the ones presenting staged scenes of human interaction, they are still bound to a particular context.

What disturbs me most about the image in my last entry and the ones I share above and below is the way that the remainder of that which is "for display purposes only" works together with the posing of the grown-ups and children in the photos to blur the line between property and person. Believe it or not, the only thing technically for sale in the "Visions of Sugarplums" image is the blonde woman's jacket. Everything else is there purely for show.

As I'm writing this, I'm thinking of new wrinkles smoothed out by my initial polemic. Significantly, the males pictured within the Anthropologie holiday catalogue are not wearing anything for sale. On the one hand, the fact that it is only the woman who serves as a mannequin reinforces the blurring of the line between property and person in a gender-specific manner. Her appearance can be "bought" in a way that the males' appearance cannot. This interpretation reinforces my conviction that the catalogue promotes a patriarchal vision of women as property. On the other hand, the fact that the males function as mere props within a circuit of consumer desire routed through the woman's body could be read as a sign that they have been even more thoroughly reified than she has.

In my last entry I mentioned thinking of John Berger's Ways of Seeing -- actually, he makes a point of noting that it's a collaborative venture with Sven Blomberg, Chris Fox, Michael Dibb and Richard Hollis -- which devotes a good deal of attention to the representation of women in Western art. I was thinking of passages like this one:
[NOTE: The reproductions of Titian's Venus of Urbino and Manet's Olympia stand in for the B+W ones in the original text, itself based on a BBC television series]

In the art-form of the European nude the painters and spectator-owners were usually men and the persons treated as objects, usually women. This unequal relationship is so deeply embedded in our culture that it still structures the consciousness of many women. They do to themselves what men do to them. They survey, like men, their own femininity.

In modern art the category of the nude has become less important. Artists themselves began to question it. In this, as in many other respects, Manet represented a turning point. If one compares his Olympia with Titian's original, one sees a woman, cast in the traditional role, beginning to question that role, somewhat defiantly.

The ideal was broken. But there was little to replace it except the "realism" of the prostitute -- who became the quintessential woman of early avant-garde twentieth-century painting. (Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso, Rouault, German Expressionism, etc.) In academic painting this tradition continued.

Today the attitudes and values which informed that tradition are expressed through other more widely diffused media -- advertising, journalism, television.

But the essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed. Women are depicted in a quite different way from men -- not because the feminine is different from the masculine -- but because the "ideal" spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him.
Written for a broad audience, attempting to distill complex theoretical points into accessible language, Ways of Seeing opens itself up to criticism from those who are willing to zoom in close enough to see the cracks in its surface of well-meaning generalizations. From my perspective, though, the argument still works as a polemical "establishing shot." For all the changes in gender relations over the past three-plus decades since the book was published, I still think it safe to say that most images of women, particularly in the commercial sphere, still presume an ideal spectator who is male, even if their actual spectators are going to be primarily female. "They do to themselves what men do to them." Not every woman. Not always. But often enough.

This brings me back to the Anthropologie holiday catalogue, which I characterized as "pornographic" because it doesn't even need to present the woman in a state of undress in order to expose her to the gaze of what Berger and his collaborators call "spectator-owners."

Like the caption for the image in my last entry, this one raises interesting questions. Taken literally, the injunction to, "stuff stockings at anthropologie.com," functions as run-of-the-mill advertising, somewhat like those tiny ads that used to run in the extra space at the bottom of newspaper columns. But since this image doesn't show any potential stocking stuffers, that call to purchase must compete with other calls. Given that the woman in this image is the same one presented throughout the catalogue, more than once recumbent, in a manner that calls Manet's Olympia -- as the image above indicates -- and other classic paintings of attractive women to mind, it is fairly likely that someone reading the catalogue closely will take that injunction to "stuff stockings" as a call to engage in the pleasures of the flesh beneath the $128 plush pullover and $118 shirred solstice skirt depicted here.

In one of her comments on my last entry, _luaineach noted that she disagreed with my characterization of the woman in the image as a mother. "For one, she's way too young. For two, she's wearing jeans. And no mom that would be making her kid put on a tie for wherever they are going would be wearing jeans there herself. So, from my perspective you've got the 15 year old sister coaxed into the family picture when she's in a pissy mood because she doesn't want to go spend the day with relatives in the first place." At first, I was inclined to reply that the rest of the catalogue makes it clear that she is, in fact, a mother figure, adding that the fact that she appears "way too young" powerfully strengthens the image's troubling undercurrents. But then I thought about it some more and realized that, though there is plenty of evidence -- evidence which _luaineach hadn't seen until now -- to support my conclusion, there is no way of being certain. When I showed the catalogue to Kim, she commented that it looked to her like the new wife, mistress, or au pair of the man pictured, dealing with the tensions that come with a new family arrangement. This is another example, in short, of the way that images resist the imposition of a single meaning.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that _luaineach's "way too young" provided a shortcut to what makes the images in the Anthropologie catalogue so unsettling. She could be an older, teenage half-sister, but that would raise the specter of incest:

She could be an au pair, unsure of her relation to the man whose family she is serving, regretting her decision to accompany them "over the hills & through the woods" to their rustic family estate:

Or she could simply be a disconcertingly young-looking mother, so preoccupied with doing to herself what men do to her that her caregiving impulses have frozen into empty ritual:

And these are just a few of the many possible interpretations that the catalogue's artfully choreographed images suggest. I'd love to hear your own take on them.

The longer I think about the images in the Anthropologie holiday catalogue, the more I have to say. But it's time to move on to other tasks. I suppose what continues to eat away at me is the thought that there are plenty of people out there who find this sort of scene stimulating, both to their consumer and sexual desire, without ever stopping to think about the why and how of that response; who may be unsettled -- every stimulation represents a disruption of the status quo, after all -- without being conscious of that change of state; who settle all too easily into the slot prepared for them by the marketing division at companies like Anthropologie. Maybe there are fewer people who fit that description than I fear. Or maybe those people who are stimulated by catalogues like this one are able to confine that stimulation to a small portion of their everyday lives. Maybe they know that they do to themselves what others do to them, but also know how to stop doing it when it becomes a problem. I certainly hope so.

Tags: , , ,
Mode: tastefully appointed
Muse: three happy girls squealing in the front room

10 comments or Leave a comment
_luaineach From: _luaineach Date: January 29th, 2006 11:16 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Tricksy photography.

What I *love* is that even pulling them up on screens side by side and accurately comparing every single detail I could (hairline, shape of nose, eyebrows, etc.) my mind *still* refuses to believe that the girl in the picture in the original post is the same 'girl' as in the last picture above. So, despite my *logic* saying "well, yes they are the same person unless they are, er, somehow *magical* identical twins, er, born 20 years apart!!!!" my non-logic eyes say "wow, they got a fabulous mom/daughter combo for this shoot!".

(in fact, in all the pictures above I go back and forth between "that's the mom, that's the daughter".

If she is supposed to be the mom in the picture from the other post, then they have lost my [already non-existent] business because of the tie/jeans thing. I can't think of any mom -- of all the different mom sorts I know -- who would be in that situation. ::brightening to the drama:: *Unless* she's the *black sheep* mom and the *dad* is the one making him put the tie and she's wearing jeans because his relatives can go hang! ::darkening:: But, if that were the case, why would she be wearing that hideous outfit in the *last* photo just to give a haircut?

Bah. Now I'm going to have to order Anthropologie catalogs just so I can follow them like a soap opera!

cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: January 30th, 2006 12:46 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: Tricksy photography.

Not just a "black sheep" mom, but a shape-shifting one who is able to pass as her own daughter!

Seriously, I think that you're right about the fact that the model looks much younger in some photos and am pretty sure that part of what I found so unsettling before I sat down to write about the catalogue was the realization that, while it was clearly the same model, she was being asked to perform double-duty in male fantasy and/or its female "doing to themselves what men do to them" shadow, namely as the super-hot mother and the teenage brat in need of an attitude adjustment.

Maybe this is a version of the famous virgin-whore dichotomy: sexy mom-sexy daughter.
kdotdammit From: kdotdammit Date: January 30th, 2006 12:42 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
This and the first one are such great posts and stuff I've been thinking about a lot lately. For one thing in that book I'm reading, What The Body Cost (that you gave me), it talks about how women performance artists were taking on this traditional construction of female as property in art, removing it from the frame and taking ownership of themselves. Berger is quoted extensively. Now that you put these other photos up, I realize why I had my initial response to your post when I said, "That's not his actual wife and the mother of the children. It's his 'new' second younger wife." In other words, it's his newest aquisition -- mistress or au pair or whore. So indeed, to me the framing and construction of the woman in these photos is that of property that is for sale. And in the stuff your stockings spread, my interpretation is that it is saying, "stuff your stocking with her" again enforcing your view of this as softcore porn -- offering men the possibility of owning and stuffing their stocking with this female commodity. Further, the photo of her sitting on the stairs actually invokes a slave on the block (to me). But again, this is all my subjective conjecture and my personal interpretation and certainly advertising leaves a lot to personal interpretation. Seems to me the goal of these ads is two-fold: some women will want to buy these clothes for themselves (perhaps unconsciously)so they can indeed be the Prize Possession of the man/men in their life. Men will want to buy the clothes for their women so they can own the Prize Possession. The ads appeal to both sides of the gender market. But they sure in the fuck don't appeal to me.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: January 30th, 2006 02:14 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I keep thinking about the double meaning in the word "property." On the one hand, a person's property is what he or she has the power to dispose of as he or she will. On the other hand, it is a characteristic, a quality in a philosophical sense. The men who indirectly purchase women's favors by paying for a lifestyle that those women desire, end up with "property" in this double sense. Their women function as possessions like cars, stereos, art etc. But they also become "property" in the sense that one's hair color, height, or weight are properties.
elizabeg From: elizabeg Date: January 30th, 2006 08:16 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
It's funny but I've been writing a blog entry in my head for several days now (I know, I know) about something rather like this question about what happens in instances where that philosophical sense of property refers to something visible/displayed. I've been thinking about a conversation I had about what possessed me to crop that party pic with my reflection in the window for this lj-icon. It's one of very few I've ever had that show even a flash of my own skin--and it's quite a flash I guess (at least it was to him) of skin, but then to me that's always also doubled over with the camera flash. It isn't just my body that you see. That flash changes a number of things for me--insists on the reflection angle, that my barely pictured face is looking not into the camera but in the direction of the snapping of the picture, my body turned partly away. As if I couldn't even see the camera--and I couldn't or at least I didn't see the camera.

But so I haven't written what I hope to write as yet but these are notes toward. Gist of the conversation is he says are those your breasts in the icon. I'm confused and say that it's me in the icon so I guess that that means yes? I'm not exactly defensive but I tell him I do not think it's a picture of my chest as in just of my chest. He says no but it is a picture in which the dominant feature (read property?--I don't remember just what noun he said) is breasts. And I could have said something snarky about how people see what they want to see or something but instead I said I hadn't really thought of it that way and that now I was thinking of how I had snagged the pic from tropicopolitan and cropped it and everything, posted it, and what that said about my implication in his seeing the image a particular way.

So I have been thinking of that, and you have me thinking all over again with the Berger on women doing to themselves what men to do them vs Manet using Olympia to break the ideal (which is not exactly the same, is it, as Olympia breaking the ideal, representing herself nude or otherwise). So I'm thinking. That is the point of all this. I was thinking and now thinking more and I'm glad for the intersecting of things.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: January 31st, 2006 08:26 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
The most salient feature for me is the flash. Then come the brigher side of the shirt and the light color of your hair, then the odd way your arm sticks out into the center of the frame. Not that any of that matters. . .
elizabeg From: elizabeg Date: January 31st, 2006 05:49 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Of course it matters. Maybe I'll conduct a poll? I always end up thinking about how really odd my arm looks and how it would have been impossible to plan that sort of thing.
From: (Anonymous) Date: January 30th, 2006 03:28 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

From JZ

Charlie, it is amazing how you can still be teaching and commenting on my life from so far away. I have now been working at anthropologie for almost a year and am constantly struggling with my interpretation of the store. It becomes even more interesting when you work there and have to sit through hour long meetings about our marketing and what each concept is supposed to represent ( I can go into this more if you are interested). Your idea of nostalgia as pornography is a pretty accurate description of what they are trying to sell, yet it is a past that was no one’s reality. At one point they had wanted us to come up with one liners from our childhood memories and the phrases would be painted on the windows; example, I remember the gray and the big floppy bows on the little girls holding their father’s hand (a memory of mine from when I was seven and in Russia). When I flip through the catalogs I find myself listening to White Stripes or Portishead and the fake nostalgia seeps deeper. I always seem to find myself maybe a little too deeply engaged in the things I want to critique; when taking feminist theory I was working in a strip club and now that I am a young professional amongst other mid-20-year-olds obsessed with new money and consuming I seem to work right in the heart of it as well as participate in it. I believe I did know that the company donated to the Republican party, but the majority of people who work for the company are amongst the most liberal in comparison to other retailers, which is depressing in a way because all of us there know we are selling out somehow, but yet it is still more attractive then working at the GAP or waiting tables. Our store manager was a creative writing major at the University of Iowa. I think for a lot of people it is a way out of their home towns too. We have about five people who have moved to DC with the company and left places like Minnesota or Kansas. I guess I am still a firm believer that I can create change from within the system. When we close the store at night I always seem to start a conversation with my co-workers about politics, most recently Alito. It was also a bonus when Senator Biden’s senior staff member came in and I could casually talk with her rather then schedule a meeting on the hill. During the holiday session the company also lets each store pick a charity to donate proceeds to and my store sent their money to an AIDS foundation in the city that was starting by a lesbian and gay activist group, I provided the contact. I have also gained an appreciation for people in the services industry, I do not work full-time and probably will never be in the service industry full-time, but it is amazing how often customers treat me like I am dumb because they think I work at a clothing store full-time. I find myself more intrigued by our clientele then the company itself, it always amazes me that people fall for the marketing shit and DC provides a base for a very diverse upper middle class, I say diverse in that we get a lot of foreign diplomats and international wealth along with US wealth from all over the states. The prices are outrageous and I try to exploit my employee discount as much as possible.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: January 30th, 2006 03:43 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: From JZ

I remember you talking about what it was like to work there in July. I'm so glad you decided to comment here. I couldn't ask for a better response. It strikes me that the story arc you describe, simltaneously working in the belly of the beast and contemplating it from outside, is one that would make a great piece of creative non-fiction. And, yes, I'd love to hear more about the marketing schemes!
From: (Anonymous) Date: January 30th, 2006 08:18 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: From JZ

The idea behind the marketing is to focus on a particular type of consumer instead of focusing on a specific product. The target demographic is ages 30 to 50-year-old women who are educated and are middle to upper class. So, we try to sell everything *this woman* would want, so we have clothes, furniture, home things and body products. When a new line or season comes in there is a whole back story. Right now we just got in a line we refer to as Lota. She is an architect who has lived in Italy and France, she likes to travel and take pictures and speaks at least three languages. She likes solid colors or bold patterns and straight lines, she usually keeps her hair short. She has a tom-boy flare and is athletic. Each line of clothing gets a woman like this to be associated with. When they introduce a line to their employees we learn all about *this woman*, this story line does not necessarily translate to the customers, it’s so we can better understand the concept. We are also shown a board of where the inspiration came from, usually some top designer and theme like nautical. At times I have wished I could write for the company. In a catalog a while ago there was a caption next to a girl that said, “Someone will write my memoirs.” This is embarrassing when a customer notices and I have to crack some joke about how they just wanted to see if people were actually reading. I think you might enjoy hating our summer and spring catalogs even more because those usually picture tall white models amongst indigenous people of Africa and South America. When I flip through these catalogs you almost might think they are doing a satiric social commentary on class and race. In some ways, this company is daring because they seem to make the connection between globalization and consumerism very obvious and one would think this would be a turn off to the consumer. I mean, do people really want to look at the model in pretty clothes who they want to be like standing among the people who made her clothes for less than $.10 an hour?
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