It’s hard to escape Dove’s “real women” advertising campaign. I don’t even watch TV (and I have 99% of internet ads blocked), but I’ve seen displays in the mall and on the street. The gist of it is this: instead of using underweight models to sell their cheesy wares, Dove got a group of “real” women (read: meatier women) to pose in their underwear in the hopes of identifying with their target market better. Women who aren’t young twenty-somethings with eating disorders are apparently getting smart enough to realize that using Dove’s assfirming cream or gentle exfoliating thigh wash or whatever the hell they sell isn’t going to make them look like models with eating disorders (and why would they want to anyway?). Instead, Dove is giving them the hope that using the advertised assfirming cream, they can look like these “real” women: heavily made-up, busty, curvaceous women specifically selected for their ability to look good in underwear.
It’s official, feminists: you’ve won the fight against sexism, objectification, and inequality. I mean, look! Dove isn’t employing rail-thin smack addicts anymore!
Jill at Feministe takes on the heart of the matter (the desire for ass-firming cream).
Of course, we have to deal with the root causes — why do women feel that they need to use ass cream in the first place? How have we created a culture which points to just one body type and labels it as singularly “beautiful”? How can we get to a point where beauty is one characteristic among many that are valued — and where it’s a characteristic that is valued less highly than things like intelligence and creativity? These are all issues with ties to advertising. Ideally, women wouldn’t buy ass cream in the first place — there would be no demand for it, and so it wouldn’t be advertised or sold. But that clearly isn’t what’s happening here. So while attacking the demand is key, in order to do that we have to deal with the ads. We have to recognize that beauty ideals aren’t going away, and so we should work to reshape them. Relatedly, beauty advertising isn’t going away (at least not anytime soon), and so we have to reshape how we want beauty items advertised — and yet we have to remain critical of the items themselves. [...]
So yes, the Dove ads are pitching a shitty, problematic product. But at the very least, they’re putting different bodies out there. They’re still using women’s bodies to sell things, and one can argue that it doesn’t matter what kind of bodies they’re using — they’re still being used. But I think it does matter what kinds of bodies are being used, because that use both reflects a beauty ideal and reinforces it. And I see no good reason not to expand that beauty ideal as widely as possible.
Jill views this ad campaign as “tenative start” in the fight against sexist advertising. I’m a bit more cynical. While I believe that the end result of such a campaign may be a net positive for the decontruction of this risible beauty myth that we’ve created, I think that the impetus behind it (and hence the “root causes” that Jill talks about) were still just as profit-driven, if not necessarily sexist. No muckity-muck behind a desk at Dove’s HQ told his boss one day, “Let’s liberate women from their oppressive sexual shackles by firing our current models and hiring some sexily thick women. [insert 'baby got back' joke here]” Of course not. But some someone in marketing thought to himself, “Hey, we need to appeal to bigger women.” It’s still invoking the same emotional reaction from consumers (I want to look like that), it still springs from the same desires (Let’s make money), and still relies on the same devices to work (Let’s show a bunch of attractive women in their underwear).
Cosmetics companies can set themselves up as dispensers of self-esteem, they can even tell you that pictures of size 10 women in underwear are empowering you, but they are fucking lying in order to sell you stuff. That’s because in our society all women are sex objects, whether they agree to it or not, until they are too old to make money or excite boners when shown in their underwear, and then god help’em.
Now, we all know that without pandering to our basest instincts of wanting to be pretty and skinny and rich and laid, there wouldn’t be an advertising industry. I can’t foresee a future in which such a thing doesn’t exist. What is the real evil here? That advertising is by nature exploitive? Or that it perpetuates beauty myths and negative stereotypes? That consumers have these readily-exploitable insecurities to begin with? It would be easy to blame the entire thing on a corporate male hegemon that farms women as Iowans do corn, but the existentialist in me must place some blame on women themselves, both the marketers (I’m sure some of them must have been women) responsible for the ads, which pander to better ideas but the same insecurities, and the women whose insecurities keep Dove in business. I place the same blame on the men responsible for beer commercials involving bikini-clad half-plastic bulemics. I place the same blame on both men and women who spur the pornography industry on to more degrading heights every year.
As much as culture is a factor in determining the sensibilities of people who subscribe to it, ultimately these sorts of things are self-determined. If a woman buys ass-cream so she can meet a guy who’ll find her attractive, who do we blame? The man who only likes fictional buttocks? Or the woman looking for a guy who only likes fictional buttocks?