Gender identity in lingerie advertising

Gender identities in advertising are constructed to seem natural, but are based around ‘ideal’ identities that circulate in society. An imagined ‘femininity’ (concerning the 2004 Elle MacPherson Intimates lingerie campaign) is constructed through a binary relationship with an imagined masculine ‘other’, and attracts consumers through its combination of cosmopolitan appeal with an Australian femininity.

Culture is a social practice concerned with the circulation of meaning. These meanings are constantly being produced, reproduced, exchanged and recirculated within society [Thwaites 2002:1]. Similarly, the field of advertising “borrows its ideas …from other media content and forms; then it artfully recombines them around the theme of consumption” [Van Zoonen 1996:79] in an effort to attract consumers. The theories of semiotic analysis decipher how these meanings are created through the analysis of signs (any word, sound, image etc.) and the consequent sign system. These signs exist and are created within forms of communication such as verbal and written language, film and television, radio, and print media; that is to say, they are ever-present within an advertising context.

The three ads share identical addressees (discussed below), senders (Elle MacPherson Intimates) and receivers (female Australian readers of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue). To analyse the advertisements individually creates confusion, for their strength in meaning lies in their unity. Their consecutive placement in Harper’s Bazaar Australia [Sep 2004] supports the idea that the three images rely on each other to invoke meaning. The trilogy of these images were also advertised in Vogue Australia, reiterating that the ideal addressee is a stylish, middle to upper class, Australian female consumer interested in brand quality. The three images can be considered to be ‘inspired’ by scenes from filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 psycho-thriller, Rear Window. Given that the intended demographic is largely unexposed to this film, the addressee is reduced even further to a specific media-savvy female demographic. Phatic function operates on this level, “discern[ing] insiders and their degree of belonging [Thwaites 2002:19].”

The campaign constructs its consumer identity as the ideal identity: white, healthy-looking, young, desirable, able-bodied female. Although the ideal identity in society is a male version of this description, the implied male viewer of this advertisement is defined by the ad’s origin (Rear Window) as a disabled male, opposing the ideal identity. The blurred frames in all three adtexts signal the receiver’s position as an external viewer, spying through a window or perhaps a keyhole. We are being explicitly told that we are trespassing as viewers, but simultaneously interpellated, perhaps because the product makes us ‘unable to resist this urge to spy’. This framing suggests that males who do not adhere to the ideal identity are restricted to being a voyeur, denied entry into the constructed world of Elle McPherson Intimates. Furthermore, only the ideal male is able to view this femininity from a position other than the ‘fetishist’ position of voyeurism. As Rear Window is the narrative point-of-view of a disabled photographer, the campaign excludes the male viewer from actively participating, and the female viewer is able to ‘correct’ this inability to respond by buying the product and ‘becoming’ the ideal viewed female.

As Rear Window is the narrative point-of-view of a disabled photographer, the campaign excludes the male viewer from actively participating, and the female viewer is able to ‘correct’ this inability to respond by buying the product and ‘becoming’ the ideal viewed female.

The first adtext’s key signifier is an ideal female body, clad in green brassiere and matching knickers (left). The depiction of knives and other weapons on a wooden kitchen table signify the woman’s power, softened by the kitchen environment and her attire. Her stance suggests independence and strength, and her green lingerie suggests jealousy or envy. The contrast between the wooden table and the metal weapons suggest the bipolarity of the woman’s personality: her femininity and her power, deeming the presence of the male other unnecessary in the image.

The second adtext (right) contains very different signifiers, including a kneeling woman, wearing a navy lace-embroidered gown, yellow gloves, and holding a pink sponge to clean the floor. The signifieds are in opposition to the first image. When we consider that this is the same woman, she has taken on a new identity within the advertisements and adopts a traditionally modernist gender role. She is kneeling and is therefore ‘weaker’, subordinate. This subordination is also important to the suggestions of voyeurism, fetishism and disavowal that create sexual connotations within the campaign.

The third image (not shown) is separate to the kitchen exchange of the initial two images. We are shown a woman kneeling on a bed, engaged in telephone conversation. Key signifiers are the torn curtains in the background, the dishevelled nature of the ‘bedroom’, and once again the model and her attire. All three settings suggest conflict and battles for power positions. Ironically, the storyline to the ad campaign claims that these conflicts are between females, not females and males. The simulated telephone conversation in this image introduces a potential male ‘other’, perhaps satisfying the male desire to participate in the campaign.

The three images present a strong paradigmatic relationship between women, sexuality, power, and the home environment. Syntagms exist within the sequential construction of the campaign, as we see a transfer of the model’s positioning from left-hand, to right-hand, and finally to the centre in the chronological order of the images. This signifies that Elle MacPherson Intimates is a traditional product, strong and long-lasting (the first image), that can also be considered new, raunchy and risqué (in the second image). It is also worth noting that the first adtext syntagmatically suggests that the product connotes tradition, but places the model within a post-modern position (independent femininity); and that the second adtext places the model in the right-hand segment, suggesting new or innovative qualities, while she engages in a modernist activity (subordinate femininity).

Messages of advertising succeed through making the ‘properties of commodities mean something to us’ [McCracken 2003:78]. The lingerie garments are not the only products being advertised here: the bodies themselves are also offered up as products available for purchase. A consumer who buys the lingerie can ‘become’ these women: ideal, desirable, and desired. Johnathon Bignell [2002:68] effectively summarises this when he says that “since the model signified in the photograph is made to appear as she does (by products), the connotation is that the reader can become like the model by using these products.” The advertisements offer consumers the chance to become ‘movie-worthy’ by purchasing a product that is metaphorically linked to a classic Hitchcock film. The identity of the film and filmmaker become part of what the campaign, and the brand, signals as its product identity. These metaphoric transfers of meaning include words and concepts such as classic, long-lasting style over time, originality and innovation, and impact on others.

The advertisements offer consumers the chance to become ‘movie-worthy’ by purchasing a product that is metaphorically linked to a classic Hitchcock film.

Traditionally, advertisements rely on the existence of a gaze within the ad to establish a communicative relationship between the product and the receiver, even if it is not a direct gaze. This campaign omits this device, instead using implicit relationships between the receiver and the addressee of the image to create meanings about the product. Interpellation exists through framing which establishes our presence in the image [Thwaites 2002:165]. Bignell (p. 74) discusses the “inclusion of the reader as a friend and an equal”, but in these images we are not included as a friend. Rather, we are positioned as a voyeur, establishing disavowal – “the strategy by means of which a powerful fascination or desire is both indulged and at the same time denied” [Hall 1997:267] – within the campaign. Hall [1997:268] further expands on this concept, referring to Freud’s theory that “there is often a sexual element in ‘looking’. Looking is often driven by an unacknowledged search for illicit pleasure and a desire which cannot be fulfilled.” This inability to fulfil the desire is very much a part of the appeal of Rear Window, and a part of the narrative within the campaigns. Bordo [1999:172] argues that the images permit the viewer to suspend their desire as long as they wish, as they will never ‘be caught’ peeking by the non-existent gaze of the female addresser. The campaign uses content in a non-groundbreaking way, but incorporates metaphor and framing to signal implicit connotations to attract interest.

This campaign mediates the feminine identity by showing what is ‘sexy’, and coerces the viewer to believe that not having the product is obviously ‘unsexy’. It is clear upon viewing the campaign that “the ‘way of seeing’ is often that of an implied male spectator” [McCracken 2003:14], but this male spectator is disadvantaged. Even though the male is placed in this position, “femininity needs the ‘other’ in order to function” [Williamson 1986:105], and the campaign relies on the understanding of the concept of the ‘peeping tom’ to create a meaning within society. Through information supplied from the video (part of the marketing campaign which is no longer available online), the initial image suggests that women have taken on “masculine modes of behaviour such as fighting” [Winship:42]. Without this information that the ‘fight’ occurred between two women, receivers of the advertisements assume that the woman is defending herself against the ‘peeping tom’.

Advertising promises us that we can have whatever is advertised in the image. “The object being advertised stands in for the self which we desire to become [Bignell 67]” through consumerism. Celebrities’ using their fame and appeal to advertise lingerie is not a new phenomenon, for consumers are drawn to “construct their ‘real’ bodies in the image of those images of bodies they see at movies and in the media [Cranny-Francis 1995:13].” Celebrities transfer meanings onto brand-name products for consumers. No longer is Elle MacPherson herself just a visual body of desire, but a commodity that can be purchased. The qualities she possesses that consumers desire include “the vigour and natural beauty that foreign observers often associate with Australia”, which Campbell [2003] says she “infuses …with continental style”. Although this was one of the first campaigns she did not star in herself, the replacement bodies could be hers – they are all very much alike, and interchangeable. The campaign’s inclusion in Harper’s Bazaar, and connection with an American film noir narrative, suggests that international identities are far more sophisticated than Australian ones. However, we can buy this sophistication despite our Australian-ness. A community is also created around the implications of the celebrity and his/her nationality. Recognised as Australian, MacPherson herself gives Australian women permission to imbue a desirable international flavour into their consumer and gender identity.

The campaign’s inclusion in Harper’s Bazaar, and connection with an American film noir narrative, suggests that international identities are far more sophisticated than Australian ones. However, we can buy this sophistication despite our Australian-ness.

Gender roles, semiotics, sexuality and ideal identities perpetuate and respond to myths of existing ideal identities within culture and the media. The reconfiguration of Australian femininity is also an active element of these advertisements. The inclusion of disavowal as a form of fetishism fuels the campaign, in which the visual content is made controversial through specific sexual connotations. Although the campaign utilises ideal bodies, it is the connotative elements that retain the interest of the receiver and create a metaphoric relationship between the product and the signified commodities of the brand.


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Bordo, S 1999, The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and in Private, New York: Farrar, Straus and Groux, pp. 168-225.
Campbell, M 2003, ‘Sexy Nation’, The Age Review, 19-20 December, pp. 2-3.
Cranny-Francis, A 1995, The Body in the Text, Melbourne University Press.
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