Every now and then, you see something that stops you cold. Something beautiful or terrible or awe-inspiring. Or something that tells you exactly what those who set the tone of our culture think of us, and what they think arouses us and that we respond to.
My most recent encounter with the latter was the new ad for Chanel’s autumn 2007 cosmetics collection in the July 2007 issue of Vogue. Part of a woman’s face, from nose to chin to outer corner of lips, no more, in semi-profile, wearing impossibly smooth and shiny lip gloss, biting on a large pearl strung on a chain. The reference to a ball gag is unmistakable. For those few of us untouched by the pornification of America, a ball gag is used in S&M sex.
The House of Chanel was founded by Coco Chanel, who famously and truthfully proclaimed fashion is for those who have no style. Coco Chanel changed how women’s bodies felt—to ourselves and to men—and thus the way we looked at and thought about ourselves, by liberating us from corsets and grotesquely structured dresses. Her work has stood the test of time: her dignified suit is, still, the standard for women’s business wear, just as her little black dress is the standard for women’s evening wear. And if you have had the good luck to see her actual work at an exhibit, such as that at the Metropolitan in 2005, the sheer quality of the design and execution is still fresh.
Today, Chanel is owned and closely controlled by the brothers Alain and Gerard Wertheimer, whose net worth was estimated by Forbes at 5.4 billion dollars in 2004. While Chanel’s makeup has the most amazing colors and textures, Chanel’s financial strength rests even more on its gorgeous fragrances than it does on its exquisite couture. Worldwide, there are only a few hundred women who have the means and desire to purchase couture, especially haute couture, but Chanel No. 5 is one of the world’s most popular scents, and with reason.
In short, Chanel has no need to use soft-core porn in its advertisements. But it has, in the full knowledge that we will get the reference to the ball gag.
One could say, cynically, that isn’t fashion about novelty and advertising about pushing the edge?
But Chanel—none of the several employees I spoke to were able or willing to tell me who authorized the ads, which are created in-house—is now following the pornification trend, not leading it, here. More and more female reporters and anchors—educated, intelligent women—are compelled to dress like expensive call girls (it’s ugly to say this, but there is no other way to put it): cleavage, stretch lace tops, short skirts, lots of lip gloss to hint at perpetual lubricity. You wonder how many of these women are embarrassed by how they are told to present themselves: they’re journalists, practitioners of the free press, and yet too often they are required to look far more like soap opera actresses than their attractive, dignified female colleagues on PBS. Fox News was probably first to lead this trend in the United States, but other news organizations were not slow to follow. Consider the Time Magazine cover photo of Jessica Lynch, glamorized, lip-glossed, lips slightly parted, an even more explicit allusion. Usually when we see pictures of prisoners of war (even females, at least fifteen years ago; consider Major, now Colonel, Rhonda Cornum), their faces show what they’ve been through. Or we see them in full-dress portraits, like that of Admiral James Bond Stockdale, their medals and their pride decently concealing their wounds. The photograph of Private First Class Lynch, who suffered horrifying injuries at the hands of the enemy, was nothing short of obscene.
As a designer and couturier, Coco Chanel pushed the edge with a dignity, grace and beauty that still retain all the power of her vision: a vision that shows us just how much she thought of men and women and, yes, sex.
It has been true for a long time that little in this country has been sold without reference to the female body, but the reference to female attraction and desire was part of a package of male quality: being respectable, respected, and competent. But the unnecessary, vulgar, cruel references to sex are something different. These aren’t beer and deodorant commercials. These are ads for great fashion houses, and the increasing depiction of female reporters and anchors as expensive whores.
There is an advertising cliché, a cliché because it is the truth: some of the people making the ads are fully as stupid as the people they think they’re talking to. They are telling us: this is what you think men want women to look like, even when they have something to say that is of the highest importance to you. And this is what you think women want to look like, even be: even when women at their professional peak, even when they have behaved with courage and dignity as a captive of the enemy.
In short, they tell us, this is what matters to us: not, for example, the real human beauty I saw in an old woman of 84, her intellect and character shaping her features every bit as much as her clear skin and proud bones. But to be perpetually available to whoever wants us; to want whoever is available without discrimination. Never mind that most of us do not live or feel this way and those of us who do inhabit that narrow band of ground between the pathetic and the criminal. And those who have imposed this standard on us are less fashion houses like Chanel, or even Gucci, than the marketers who increasingly dominate the news media and corporate publishing. This is what they think of us because they can’t imagine anything better. They literally can’t think of any better way to appeal to us.