Genuine Sexiness Not Allowed: Layne Bryant Banned from ABC
By now you’ve probably heard that ABC networks are refusing to air Layne Bryant’s ad for its Cacique Intimates Collection during prime time program Dancing with the Stars. Jez mentioned it yesterday, as did Bree at Life on FATS. The basic story is that Layne Bryant has a lingerie commerical*, which features a “plus-sized” model being sexy, thinking sexy thoughts, and doing sexy things. And it is apparently considered inappropriate material for the innocent eyes that watch all the gyrating and skin exposure on Dancing with the Stars every week. Nearly everyone who has written about the controversy has also mentioned that ABC has no trouble airing ads for Victoria’s Secret in the same time slot. So there’s clearly some bullshit going on here. Clearly.
ABC has refused to explain their reasons for pulling the ad, leaving everyone to speculate (which, note to ABC, is probably not the best idea. We can conjure up some pretty heinous reasons for you if you aren’t willing to tell us the truth and own up to your bigotry.) The most obvious reason, as Bree says, is that “ABC just doesn’t want to show a pretty plus-size woman in a bra and panties.” Or that they’re reacting with the sort of “Oh Noes! You’re promoting FATNESS!!!111” Brand of ignorance that comes in waves every time anyone dares to suggest that big women are sexy. And both of those reasons are, of course, absurd and fat-hating.
What this really brings up for me, though, are questions about the American notion of “indecency.”
Generally when an ad or a show is pulled from prime-time hours, it’s because something about the spot is considered too “racy” or “indecent” for anyone but “mature” audiences. Supposed “indecency” has nothing to do with the level of morality, acceptability, sexuality, violence, or anything else related to the content of an image or an action. It has everything to do with how unusual the image is – how much the image is a part of something our culture has chosen to bury rather than express.
You know what’s not shocking at all?
Know what else is not at all shocking or unusual?
I have seen these women and their bodies approximately ten trillion times. And so has everyone else with a television or a computer.
Why? Because these women and their bodies are culturally approved. We are allowed to look at them. Know whose body is sort of shocking, but shouldn’t be?
Ashley Graham, the Cacique spokesmodel:
There’s no reason why Graham’s body should be shocking. It’s a female body. We look at female bodies in various states of undress all the time. But so few of those bodies look like Graham’s that she can be termed “indecent” or “risque” by a television network. Bodies are only “indecent” if they are bodies that are culturally expected to be covered. Like ankles in Victorian England, Graham is only banned from primetime because she’s doing something that the culture says she’s not supposed to do. No one expects the angels to cover themselves, and so they aren’t given a second thought. We’d be more surprised and shocked and scandalized if we saw one of them wearing a housecoat than if we saw one of them walking around downtown Manhattan in a bra.
There’s also an element of private vs. public in the commercials that says a lot about how we view “acceptable” sexuality vs. “scandalous” sexuality. In any given VS commercial, the Angels are clearly parading around for cameras. The ads generally have the feel of a magazine photo shoot, of women in ridiculous outfits (bras and wings??) parading around for the cold, hard eye of the cameraman. When the Angels are portrayed as obviously sexual, it’s because they’re dancing/moving/gyrating in a way that seems – to my eyes at least – to be clearly about men’s pleasure. Take, for example, the ad for the Very Sexy Extreme bra. Model Alessandra Ambrosio** walks through a jungle, slides provocatively down a wall, and runs the juice of something (a fruit?) down her chin. All of her moves look like something you might expect to find in a by-men-for-men porn – she is performing pleasure, performing sexiness, for someone else’s eyes.
In the Cacique commercial, however, there is a suggestion that model Graham is acting on her own behalf. The implication of the ad is that women should buy Cacique so that they, themselves, can feel sexy in their own worlds. Graham’s character is inside her own home, preparing for a date with her own, personal boyfriend (I presume, from the text about meeting Dan for lunch). Unlike Ambrosio, she does not perform with one eye constantly on the camera/audience. Her sexuality, although it is on display here, is clearly private – clearly something for herself rather than for a spying voyeur. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned from pop cultural perceptions of women’s bodies, it’s that the only time female sexuality is really considered obscene is when it’s performed strictly for a woman’s own pleasure.
No matter what their reasoning, the execs at ABC are real asshats for this one. I’m glad to see that the story is actually getting some coverage, but I doubt that the coverage is really going to change all that much about the cultural landscape. We may see a few more bigger bodies in ads and magazines, but we’re far from fixing the problem of how and when and why women are labeled “scandalous” or “obscene” or whatever other adjectives get applied to ads ripped from prime time tv.
*As a side rant, I would like to point out that it took me freaking FOREVAR to find an untouched version of this ad, because douchebags everywhere are posting their own “edits” of the ad to make it stupid and fat-hating! For example, in one oh-so-clever “edit,” the text message that in the original reads “Lunch with Dan” is altered to read “The McRib is BACK!” Big ladies like to eat! Har har! People on the internet are totes hilarious! (Actually, had a feminist made that edit it might’ve been sort of subversive and funny. Because really, you CAN be sexy and eat a McRib, and even be excited about the presence of a McRib in your life. And it cuts out the heteronormativity of the original message. I would hate getting the sauce all over my new lingerie, though.)
** The fact that the You Tube videos for VS commercials generally contain the names of the models is, I think, further proof that the adverts are intended for the male gaze. I had a boyfriend once who knew the names of each and every VS model, and who would see the ads, look them up on you tube, then search for further – and more naked – pictures of the models as masturbatory fodder. I’d love to believe that the inclusion of a name is a way to give credit where credit is due – to put an identity on an otherwise anonymous body. But I doubt it.
UPDATE: When I first posted, I had completely missed Amanda Hess’s coverage (ha!) of the issue, in which she makes yet another very important point: often the difference between “obscene” and “acceptable” is simply the size of the woman’s breasts and cleavage. As a (fairly) buxom woman, this is an issue I faced up to periodically when – as Hess points out – shirts that looked “cute” on my friends looked highly sexified on me. (Of course, I’m still small enough that I can hide the tits if I REALLY want to. I have other friends who don’t even have that option, who are in the DD or EE range and whose breasts are constantly considered fodder for public discussion.)