Masturbation, y-fronts and breasts: American Apparel & advertising

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2012/07/31 by admin


Photo by on Flickr

Emily Moxon

Amongst the overpriced packs of knee-high socks and lace bras available on American Apparel’s website sits a neat and surprisingly efficient photo archive.

Alphabetically organised by the name of the model involved in the shoot, it is a veritable wank-bank of slim, natural-looking women showing a variety of AA’s products. You can look at the pictures, and, with the click of a subtle button, be taken to buy them online.

The multi-ethnic women stand, cloaked up, in balconies in Rome, or do stretches in jeanshorts on a moonlit tennis court. More often, they are pictured on nothing but a white mattress, in little but American Apparel’s underwear range. Their glossy hair is a riot devoid of high-fashion styling, their faces caught in a moment – speaking, pouting, climaxing.

It is this natural, snap-shot aesthetic that is central to AA’s advertising campaign, the award-winning examples of which are also available on their site. These women are part of the USA-basic, home-grown, made in Downtown LA ‘integrated business model’ philosophy of American Apparel.

What lifestyle are we being sold by these pictures, how do they shape the concept of a sexually attractive woman any further than those already splashed across the public eye?

The question is, for who, and what purpose, are these photos taken?

The answer to this should be fairly logical: the photos are for young, trendy things aspiring to look as naturally beautiful, and for selling expensive jersey to them. Except you don’t have to dig very deep to unveil the controversy behind these images. Dov Charney, who according to the website, created and oversees a majority of this content, has been at the centre of lawsuits over sex slavery to immigration, with copyright infringement inbetween.

It’s not surprising, then, that old employees and insiders from the company have come out with scandals in the press. American Apparel appears to pride itself on its ‘provocative photography’, and it would appear it’s having the desired effect – on angry women at least.

The amount of internet-space taken up by feminist attacks on AA’s advertising is almost as extensive as the brand’s well-catalogued photography. But attitudes from a male perspective against the brand are rare online. Should men be influenced or affected by these girls, dressed up in a porn aesthetic? Why are we shown images like this to sell something as mundanely female as a pair of tights?

If these sexualised women are for other women (which you would expect, as they’re wearing skirts and bras and lace knickers), then their bare faces and uneven skin tone might suggest that these images are a backlash against the impossible perfection of airbrushed fashion photoshoots; women embracing their sexuality in a realistic way, in natural lighting, on beds devoid of glamour.

But this argument is difficult to swallow – the men in American Apparel’s photo catalogue aren’t put in positions like these, similar to the difference between the portrayal of male and female superheroes.

For a start, there are far fewer of them, but when we do see one undressed, like in the ‘mens underwear for girls and guys shoot’, they are next to a topless woman, who in one shot is touching his groin, another lying underneath him. There are no pictures of men kissing, where there are of girls kissing. There are no men stretched out, climaxing, as there are women. These photos do not represent both genders in the same way.

Instead of female emancipation in these pictures, we find the male gaze exemplified. Take Lauren W., who has her breasts, her mid-coitus face and her groin photographed. One of the portraits shows a man’s thumb on her chin, underneath a pair of bedroom eyes. She is not photoshopped – as a few stray eyebrow hairs, a smudge of eyeliner and a spot on her nose all show. This is trying to be amateur-porn-shoot real.

Take the man’s hand away and this shoot could stand up as evidence for AA’s revolutionary approach. Natural, real girls, in genuine sexual pleasure – rather than the photoshopped, over-expressive pouting seen in high-end fashion shoots. We see Lauren W.’s fingers playfully on the hem of the men’s Y-fronts she’s wearing – these images could be construed as a celebration of natural female sexuality and emancipation – she doesn’t need a man, she’s pleasuring herself!

Except she’s not. There’s a man there, and there’s a lot of possession and control in that inch of thumb. Suddenly, we’re looking at Lauren W. through a man’s eyes. She’s not touching herself for her, she’s doing it for him. And those Y-fronts she’s wearing aren’t hers, bought because they’re a damn sight more comfortable than an AA lace thong, but his.

As the narrative of these photos develops, it becomes clear they encapsulate AA’s photo-philosophy – these women aren’t being sexy for themselves. They’re not being sexy for other women, who wanting to wear tights and plain teeshirts and feel good wandering around in them and no makeup. They’re not offering an alternative to the glossy shoots of other brands. They’re being sexy for men, and in doing so, prescribing what men should find sexy.


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