Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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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," 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: advertising, cultural studies, gender, sex

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