Erotic depictions of women in drawing, painting, sculpture and photography from the dawn of man to the present.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Advertsing Venuses: The controversial advertisements of American Apparel

American clothes manufacturer American Apparel have had one of their regular brushes with controversy over one of their recent advertisements.  In fact, this recent shot, advertising a mini skirt, isn't from one of their print adverts at all but was featured on their website.

Needless to say, the increasingly vocal anti-objectification of women group have been up in arms saying things like: "Porn-like", "pervy", "sexist", "sinks to new low" etc.  One website asked "what kind of "model" would agree to be in an ad like this...and where are her parents? Surely, she knows what kind of message that's sending to girls and is that really where our society is?"  

Oh dear!  American Apparel, who produce, unusually, their own  advertisments in-house (just as they, equally unusually, do just about everything related to the design and manufacturing of their clothes in-house) must be laughing all the way to the bank.  They have developed a particularly risque style for their advertisements and once in a while one pops up onto the radar screen of the mass media.

Subtle they are not

Their photographic style has a number of recurring themes: assertively spread leg poses, bottoms, crotches and bare breasts, all of which are deemed shocking, especially in conservative America.  The other criticism regularly run out is that their models look very young, ignoring the fact that that is their target market.

In fact American Apparel should be applauded for presenting largely amateur, un-digitally enhanced women in their advertisments. Many of them had actually written in to the firm wanting to model for them.  There's is a much more realistic representation of what women look like than you see in any women's fashion magazine.

There are a number of key criticisms of the mini-skirt one.  Firstly, that it doesn't even showcase the skirt.  This completely misses the point of fashion photography. If this was its purpose Vogue would be full of pictures of women standing bolt upright to best showcase the clothes.  What this is saying is, here is a girl looking sexy.  If you are a young girl and want to feel sexy, wear this.  It is as aspirational as most other fashion photography.

Secondly, it's porn or "like porn".  Ignoring the fact that something is either porn or it isn't, there seems to be a move now to label anything that has any air of sensuality as porn.  Recently, following the performance by the Polish competitors at the Eurovision song contest, British soprano Laura Wright accused it of being "like soft-core porn".  It wasn't.  It was suggestive, mildly risque (as was the song itself) and, perhaps, faintly ridiculous but it wasn't soft-core porn.

The key thing is that, increasingly, in parts of the media porn is being demonized; it's "bad" and "evil" and therefore its an easy derogatory term to use; like "Nazi" or "racist".  What many of them have failed to realise is that for many people (men and women) porn is now an acceptable and enjoyable part of their lives.  Equally, and more interestingly, women are enjoying it in a way that they have never done before.  Watching sexual situations makes people feel sexy.  There is nothing wrong with that.

Porn has, therefore become much more mainstream than it was since any time since the nineteen seventies when it threatened, briefly, to cross over into the mainstream.  Does this then lead to unreasonable pressure on girls (the press hardly ever comment on the effects of it on boys) to perform sex acts and do those in a certain way.  Possibly, but much of this is inextricably wrapped up in a discussion (which is never entered into) about how youngsters learn about sex.

The real problem the media have with porn, and by extension, American Apparel advertisements (and we wouldn't deny that they are highly sexualised) is that for parents (and American Apparel clothes are solidly aimed at teenagers) they can't, since the internet, control the sexual content of their children's lives any more.  And if parents don't educate their children properly about sex there is a resultant vacuum that is, today, easy to fill with genuine porn, or by porn-inspired music artists like Miley Cyrus or Rhianna.

When Triple P was first becoming interested in sex (at the age of about eleven) there were no DVDs, no internet, no ability to pass material easily by data stick, no sex or nudity on TV.  The latter changed a little during the seventies in Britain but not by much.  You might catch a glimpse of bare breasts on a late night film  on TV but, of course, if you were living at home with your parents there was only one TV set in the house and you didn't control it.

Porn, as it was hardly ever referred to in the UK, did not, essentially, exist if you were a teenager.  There were adult men's magazines, of course, but you had to be eighteen (or look eighteen) to buy them.   There was always someone at school who could obtain them (luckily for Triple P one of our classmates father worked for the Paul Raymond organisation) but there was a huge risk of being caught.  For girls, there was nothing.  Hard core porn was illegal in Britain until comparatively recently, with videos only being permitted to be sold (and only in licensed sex shops) since 2000.

So, in Triple P's day you learned about sex and female anatomy from the likes of Penthouse and Men Only.  Girls learned nothing.  Sex education at school was totally ineffective.  For a start it didn't begin until it was too late.  Triple P remembers that we had one sex education lesson (at our all boys school) at the age of fifteen, which consisted of a short film which was made up of stills.  It included a photograph of a very hairy naked women who, we all agreed, was really unattractive and not a patch on the girls in Men Only and a photograph of a man with an erection, which was the first one any of us had seen, other than our own.  He was really ugly too. We all hoped that these two ugly people might go through their paces in photographs but, disappointingly, the rest of the film used very dull diagrams instead.

We then had to do homework which included doing a drawing of a woman's sex organs. We weren't asked to draw a penis, probably on the basis that it might turn us homosexual (the term gay was not then is use - "mo" or "bender" were the terms used at school). At this point the depiction of labia in men's magazines in the UK had not begun so all we had were the rather basic diagrams in the text book.  Triple P, however, who was the best artist in the school, was able, discreetly, to borrow one of his father's sex manuals and produced, as a result, a full-page beautifully rendered pencil drawing of a vulva, which engendered controversy (among his teachers) and admiration (among his classmates).  The real issue was that we had access to this sort of "material".

There was no sex education talk from Triple P's parents who assumed that it would all be left to the school.  Things are different today, of course, and in Britain sex education at schools is a compulsory subject but only from the age of eleven, which with earlier sexual maturity these days is too late. A few schools do cover this at junior school.

One key problem is that the biological aspects of sex are part of the science curriculum and are compulsory but parents can opt their children out of the relationship aspects (which wasn't taught at all in Triple P's day - sex was just biology).  In a survey conducted in the UK in 2008 70% of girls said that there were no relationship aspects taught at their schools at all.  So, in essence children are still just getting biology lessons.

What has changed in the last twenty years or so is that now they can just go and look stuff up on the internet, which is what children do.  This causes great concern by those who want to "protect" children from sex.  The logical extension to this, for them, is to ban pornography or, make it impossible for children to access by insisting on legal controls over under-age access (the internet equivalent of putting men's magazines on the top shelf of a newsagents).  The Daily Mail has been leading a campaign to this effect for some time now, whilst simultaneously filling their newspaper with stories of celebrity affairs and pictures of female stars in as few clothes as possible.

This then, brings us to the strange situation where the media is fascinated by sex but thinks naked bodies are rude.  This bizarre attitude is compounded by censoring photographs by covering "naughty bits" with black blobs, or what have you, if the subject is, for example, a topless woman on the beach.  If a woman is topless on a beach (which for women is not uncommon, and legal, even in Britain - it's only our dismal weather which prevents more of it!) then anyone can see her, so why censor her body in a photograph of the same scene?  It's a non-sexual situation of a perfectly natural thing.

We are still lumbered, however, with this puritanical attitude to nudity (and this is not the case in other European countries) which seems to be getting worse because of the influence of three increasingly influential key groups.  Firstly, religious groups which, in Britain, includes a rapidly increasing Muslim population and in the US includes ultra conservative Christians.

Why religions think nudity is bad we have never been able to fathom.  If you believe in a God then surely anything he created, such as the human body, should be celebrated not demonised.  But a lot of what appears in religious writings (much of which was written well over a thousand years ago) was designed to keep women in a subservient position.  So we get situations where women have to keep themselves covered up or, even in Britain, there are objections to women becoming priests.  All men are equal under God?  Yes, but only men, not man.

Secondly, parents alliances.  Modelled on the US organisations these are all about "protecting" children and keeping their innocence.  Given that Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in the Western world it might be better to address better sex education than try to hide anything sexual from them as they grow up.

Feminists, who believe that anyone who appreciates a nice body is disrespecting (a horrible word) and ignoring women's real achievements. Recently, the debate about bare breasted women appearing on page 3 of The Sun newspaper has ignited again in Britain.  The opponents of Page 3's arguments are not, it has to be said, anti-nudity (although how many of their supporters think the same isn't clear) but are principally about: objectification of women, the pictures appearing in a family newspaper and that women have much more going for them than just their bodies.

The objectification argument is at the heart of the criticisms of many of American Apparel's advertisements as well. We should not, we are told, look at women as if they were sexual objects.   This, however, ignores 4 million years of evolution where men are programmed to do just that.  It is fair enough to argue that women are more than just sexual objects but you cannot remove this aspect from men's behaviour without, perhaps, chemically neutering them (which is probably what some of the extreme feminists want).   This argument also ignores the fact that over the last few decades men's bodies have become increasingly sexually objectified.  This is fair.  Maybe The Sun could just alternate male and female images on Page 3.

The "family newspaper" argument is just another way of saying that naked bodies are rude and children should be protected from them.  Recently, Hugh Jackman said that he had failed to warn his nine year old daughter about a nude scene in the latest X-Men film.  The issue here is that it is surely very odd that he should be worried about his daughter finding it disturbing to see him naked (doesn't she do so at home?) and not worry about all the violence depicted in the film.  If children were brought up to realise that there is nothing wrong with the naked body (as they are in Northern Europe, for example) we wouldn't have to worry about protecting them from seeing it.

There is, actually, a similar argument about having sex, although we admit that this is more controversial.  Why do we have to "protect" our children from seeing sexual scenes but are less worried about violence?  This is particularly true in the US where violence in films and on TV seems perfectly acceptable but sex and nudity does not.  Nearly everyone has some sort of sexual experience yet very few people experience violence, particularly the extreme violence habitually portrayed on the screen.  Girl of the moment Jennifer Lawrence finds it "disgusting" that pop singers are using sex to sell records to teenagers but thinks it is acceptable to appear in a film which features extensive scenes of violence between children and teenagers.

It all comes down to the fact that in some countries both parents and government are still failing to deliver adequate sex education. Increasingly hamstrung by religious zealots, extreme feminism and old fashioned views on nudity and sexuality it is no wonder that teenagers are confused by the mixed messages in the media.

Although US popular culture is atypical in its acceptance of violence but concerned about sexuality (especially in mainstream films which have considerably less sexual content and nudity than twenty years ago) it is on the other hand, due to its pre-eminent position in the entertainment industry, leading the increased sexual content of music acts.

Mainstream pop music is aimed, primarily, at teenagers and pre-teenagers but you can't help think that the criticisms by the likes of Jennifer Lawrence would be meaningless if children had a better attitude towards and understanding of sex than they do and they hadn't been failed in being better prepared for what is a sexual world inhabited by sexual creatures.  The sexual aspects peddled by the likes of Miley Cyrus aren't about real sex anyway.  They are a parody of sex, produced by a culture that is uncomfortable with the real thing.

Children only think nudity and sex (and the US seems to think the two are inextricably linked, which they are not) is wrong or bad if adults tell them so.  The internet allows them to explore these issues themselves only to discover an unpleasant, unnatural world largely created by Californian pornographers who take all the eroticism out of sex and replace it with the tawdry mechanical couplings of unattractive people.

The Daily Mail also maintains that online pornography largely consists of scenes of violence against women.  There is this material out there and very unpleasant Triple P finds it, but it is a tiny minority of what is available.  But by trying to ban all pornography rather than focussing on what actually can cause harm (e.g. the depiction of violence against women) you begin an unpleasant and dangerous process whereby well-organised, minority pressure groups can try to ban anything they don't like at all.  Most people would agree that scenes of men sexually abusing women, even if fictitious, do not provide a good example for younger members of society.  However, is watching people having normal sex in order to engender positive and enjoyable sexual feelings bad?  We don't think so.

Banned in Britain

All this, which was considerably more than we intended to write, brings us back to the American Apparel advertisements which we have used in this piece.  This manufacturer's target market is teenagers.  One of the criticisms laid against them is that most of their models look "too young".  Is a fourteen year old girl really going to buy into a brand where the clothes are modelled by twenty-five year olds?  Recently, several were banned by the UK Advertising Standards Authority (despite the fact that American Apparel had no intention of using them here) because they "objectified women" by using, in particular, a model who wasn't wearing knickers (above) and another where the advertisement was just a collection of shots of the model's lower body (below).  They did not like the fact that the woman's face was not in shot and this turned her into an object not a person.

Banned in Britain

Are American Apparel being deliberately provocative here?  Certainly.  Are they trying to appeal to a sexually burgeoning teenage audience with "naughty" images?  Yes.  Is their target market offended by these images?  Probably not, or they wouldn't continue to buy the clothes. Would these advertisements work on thirty year old women? Probably not. Sex sells but even more so when your target market has raging hormones.

Will these images cause harm to impressionable youngsters?  No, unless their parents and schools have provided such poor sexual education that they think that nudity and expressing sexuality is evil.  Triple P's concern is that this in now the direction parts of the media are going, whilst simultaneously wallowing in publicising the pre-packaged sex fantasies of record executives selling to what they know is a sexually curious market.  The media struggles to be repelled and fascinated at the same time: "Miley Cyrus wears porn-like clothes and engages in sexual displays on stage horror!  Here are seventeen pictures of her!"

Teenagers like people who their parents don't.  They like buying clothes from a firm who produces advertisements that will shock their parents. That's the whole point!  Here is another online upskirt picture from the American Apparel site.  Even Triple P was surprised by this one.  But don't get outraged, which the teenagers and the people who sell to them will love!  Everyone has an anus.  Get used to it. Some people find them attractive.  Some people don't but you shouldn't pretend they don't exist and try to ban them.

Most of these pictures are consciously sexually provocative (after all if they were not we wouldn't feature them on this site, which is entirely about celebrating arousing images of women) but they aren't harmful.  

Personally, Agent Triple P thinks that there are other things that need dealing with before a few girls flaunting their bodies to sell knickers.  Dealing with the constant Photoshopping of images of women which create unrealistic expectations in men and huge pressure on women is one.  Women's magazines are absolutely the worst in this area.  Stop teaching children that nudity and, therefore, their own bodies, are disgusting.  Start teaching them properly about sexuality at a much younger age.  You aren't protecting their innocence by not doing so, you are leading them to explore the matter, unsupervised and uncounselled, on their own.


  1. Again a great article. The controverse about American Apparel was new to me.

    You raise a lot of valid points. The coalition of neo-feminism and the religious people is scary, especially as you don't see a lot of effort to defend our freedoms.

    But I don't know if, as you wrote "especially in mainstream films which have considerably less sexual content and nudity than twenty years ago" the cause of this is really a reaction to concerns with sexuality. If you look at current tv and especially at popular cabe like HBO, Starz and the rest, there is more nudity on screen then in movies ever were. Thanks to the efforts to maximize the profits more movies are getting the kid-friendly treatment in terms of ratings – and mature content, unfortunatly -, as movies for adults are seemingly just not as profitable any longer. Tv productions like Showtime's Masters of Sex for instance would have been impossible to produce 10 years ago.

    "The sexual aspects peddled by the likes of Miley Cyrus aren't about real sex anyway. They are a parody of sex, produced by a culture that is uncomfortable with the real thing."

    Well said. Their "provocation", if you want to call it so, is so painfully devoid of content. If they really wanted to "shock", maybe they should invest themselves in things like a better sexual education. The lives of a lot of young people could benefit from this.

    1. I agree about certain TV shows on certain cable (not network) channels but wonder if network TV was allowed to be more adult whether the cable channels would have gone so extreme.

  2. Excellent summary.

  3. I think you are missing the point. The controversy regarding American Apparel isn't that they are showing nude bodies or that they look like porn.

    It's because the images convey that women are *just* objects. In your own words, "it is fair enough to argue that women are more than just sexual objects". So why put up with pictures that argues the exact opposite?

    You also fail to see that a lot of the pictures are styled as so-called "rape fantasies". That is, male rape fantasies. The pictures are shot in stylishly bare rooms -- or are they cells? A lot of the models are also sexually used by the photographer who many times just happens to be the owner of the company.

    1. The objectification point is arguable. I don't agree with it but it is arguable. In fact, many of the American Apparel advertisements tell you other things about the models. thereby not solely concentrating on their bodies. More than advertisements in women's magazines do where the woman really is just an object.

      I don't agree about the rape fantasy point. I fail to see any elelments indicating rape. The poses are sexually provocative, yes, but the strength of the images are that it is the woman who is looking sexual (which she wouldn't in a rape situation) in a society which still believes women should be ladylike and less assertive about their sexuality than men.

      The point about the models being sexually "used" (do you mean assaulted or are u=you talking about consensual sex) by the photographer is no more than gossip. All actions against the company and its proprietor relating to harassment have been thrown out by the courts.

    2. I'm a chick and I am not offended by the pics. None of them suggest rape to me except *maybe* the Asian chick, only because she looks sad. I am a lot more offended by women trying to make themselves invisible by covering themselves up. Btw, as I'm commenting, I'd love to see a post that specifically celebrates chicks with full on curves (and I don't mean fat chicks by that).

  4. Very well written, yep.

    There was a picture in comments under that criticizing article:

    It is amusing how feminists are the same or even more aggresive and sex obsessive than christians or muslims.

    1. All extremists are the enemy of the majority.

  5. It's interesting to contrast these with 70s car advertising (British Leyland MG adverts spring to mind). The women were passive looking and quite often there was a sexist by-line. The implication being that you would buy the car and acquire a 'dumb blonde'. The women pictured in these advertisements do not look passive. Quite the opposite in fact. They look like they are in control, the two girls kissing shot in particular. I like the images, particularly the dark bush in the mesh knickers shot. I first noticed the company when they used a 61 year-old lingerie model, which they should be applauded for.

  6. The older lady modelling lingerie:-

  7. One thing i have to say is i appreciate that they show women with pubic hair. Maybe, just maybe, we can see a return to at least some pubic hair, rather than the bald look. Something i miss from the 80's and 90's

  8. Excellent article - linking some great images (interestingly most seem to be US or French adverts, less from the UK). There is an increasingly distressing trend from the left to attack some perceived sexism in the UK but manifestly ignore the sexism rampant in other cultures for fear of 'offending'. Even phenomena like female genital mutilation seems to attract far less opprobrium than Page 3 when it is manifestly far far more harmful. As an aside on Page 3 - I heard a funny comic on the radio recently suggesting that Page 3 become some form of Nudist Jury Service, rather than focussing on an attractive young lady and some pithy comment on Syria, it could be a page where anyone and everyone could be offered the chance - in this post Calendar Girls and Full Monty era - to display their base beauty...

  9. Some recent AA mannequins in the US actually have artificial pubes, in addition to the surprisingly mainstream erect nipples on mannequins