Archive for the ‘American Popular Culture’ tag
Advertising for perfumes, particularly perfumes by female celebrities, is produced with amazing visual consistency. A brief glance at a variety of ads shows that there appears to be a formula for celebrity perfume ads in American popular culture: the celebrity is photographically represented alongside the perfume she advertises which is usually shown on the bottom, or more specifically, on the bottom right hand corner of the page. There might be a practical reason for this phenomenon in visual culture since, when flipping through a magazine, the right hand side of the page is, from an advertising perspective, more desirable. By showing the perfume bottle on the right hand corner, the reader encounters the product in the last instance as he or she turns the page. The first visual encounter in the ad is usually with the celebrity herself. In above example its Jennifer Aniston draped in a knitted blanket, sitting on a rock, with the sun setting on a beach. The ocean in the background, Aniston’s implied nudity and her windswept hair are strongly reminiscent of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. The reference to water, a theme running through many perfume ads, also underlines the liquidity of the perfume itself.
Another theme explored in the perfume ad formula is the celebrity returning a gaze back to the spectator over her left shoulder. The pose is strongly suggestive of photographs taken on the red carpet in which the celebrities twist and turn to present their dresses to the assembled photographers. While Kylie Minogue is simply referred to as ‘Sexy Darling’, this emphasis on exhibitionism and a visual encounter with the celebrity is further stressed in Britney Spears’ ad for Curious. A man can be seen in the background to the photograph looking at Spears, while Spears herself is suggestively looking at the spectator. The slogan ‘Do you dare?’ further underlines a sexual element to the representation of gender, as if the spectator is invited to join the subjects into a hypothetical ménage à trois via the gaze.
Halle by Halle Berry and Eva by Eva Longoria also submit to the perfume ad formula of celebrity returning a gaze back to the spectator over the left shoulder. In both cases, the name of the perfume is the first name of the celebrity herself, whereas the name is written in such a way that it looks like the celebrities’ signature. This is an important element in the ad since, as it appears, the perfume is not only endorsed by the celebrity, but rather, it’s created by the celebrity herself. Like the artist signing his artwork, the celebrity signs her creation. I am using the word sign in the semiotic sense – the sign as a signifier. Her the signature signifies the celebrity’s assumed personal affiliation, even creation, of the perfume.
The perfume ad formula, because it is so consistently reproduced, appears to foster a culture in which ads are also copying other ads. Apart from Halle by Halle Berry and Eva by Eva Longoria, this can also be observed in Deseo by Jennifer Lopez and M by Mariah Carey. Both Deseo and M make references to a tropical wilderness in which the female subject appears carefree, ‘swinging’ with the rhythm of nature. The celebrity is represented as Tarzan’s Jane: scantily clad, wild, sexually available. A more historic reference to Jean Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing also suggests that here the swinging also evokes connotations of voyeurism. The alternative use of the word ‘swinging’ clearly situates the ads in a context of promiscuity.
With these many references to sexuality, it is not surprising that another major theme in the perfume ad formula is the bedroom. Jessica Simpson’s head is resting on a pillow while Mariah Carey is reclining on a bed. The skin coloured silk is, in both cases, alluding to the subjects’ nudity in the confines of her bedroom. Here, the perfume ad evokes connotations of the boudoir, or, in other words, an intrinsically private and intimate space. The spectator is invited to join the celebrity to a space that is exclusive, suggesting that the consumption of the perfume also manifests an exclusive relationship with the celebrity.
Despite the many references to an intimate and apparently heterosexual relationship with the celebrity in mass media and culture, it is important to stress that the ads are mostly reproduced in women’s magazines. In other words, the representation of gender in the perfume ad formula ads is designed for a female spectator. The typology of the perfume ad formula thus brings up a visual paradox in feminist visual culture. While the ads are designed for a female spectator, they apparently subscribe to the iconography of voyeurism, the commodification of women, even the visual codes of pornography. Beyonce’s Heat is one such example. What advertisers seeks to tap in here is the female consumer’s assumed desire to obtain a glimpse of the celebrities’ lifestyle in American popular culture. Here it is specifically her scent that might be desired. And having obtained her scent, it is suggested that the consumer becomes equally as desirable as the celebrity herself. However, desirability in the perfume ad formula always hinges on being visually desirable from the cliched perspective of a man. The perfume ad formula, rather than opening up new avenues for independent and successful celebrities, is actually further reproducing a hegemonic image economy that connects the fetishism of the commodity with the commodification and colonization of the female body.
In the new TV show ‘Sarah Palin’s Alaska’, the former vice-presidential candidate is shown shooting a Caribou. The footage has caused a major backlash, lead by Aaron Sorkin, the creator of the TV show West Wing, arguing that Palin shot an animal ‘for political gain’. As Palin is expected to run for president in 2012, the counter question would be, how can it be anything other than for political gain?
The footage shows Palin and two men hiding in the Alaskan wilderness. After they spotted the Caribou, the men instruct Palin on how and when to shoot the animal. For a brief instance, the camera depicts a cloudy sky as the music intensifies. Clearly, the viewer is made to understand that this is a potentially threatening encounter with woman and nature. Palin misses the first shot. The volume of the music increases as the Caribou now appears to look straight at Palin. The intensity grows exponentially as there is a brief confusion of how to shoot the beast. And then, almost in the last possible instance, Palin lands the shot that would bring down the Caribou. One of the men congratulates either Palin, the Caribou, or both, with the jubilant words: ‘There you guy baby, there you go.’ Palin meanwhile, far more in control of her emotions then the men, whispers as if the potential threat is still lingering. After approaching the beast, one of the men asks ‘Is it dead?’, while Palin, after a brief assessment declares in a matter of fact voice ‘It’s dead!’. The music dramatically changes from Armageddon to a fun day out for the family.
So why would this TV footage be derided for being used ‘for political gain’. It depicts Sarah Palin as a strong woman, who, with the right men around her, can succeed in a male-dominated world. In a sense, the footage foreshadows Palin’s ambitions to run for President, while her running mate(s) were signified by the two men to her side. Palin often refers to looking a threat straight into the eye. Here, the visual encounter with the enemy is important (e.g. in the same way Palin can see Russia from her front porch, she can see a Caribou in the far distance). Although the mildly dangerous animal is about 100 meters away, the visual encounter with a potential threat marks an important aspect of the footage. The point is that, akin to a shifting signifier, the Caribou, in the mind of the viewer, can be replaced with any other threat to America’s national security.
Any number of presidential candidates made use of such an ideologically loaded image in American popular culture. Even the democrat John Kerry, while running for President in 2004, was eager to have himself photographed goose hunting in Ohio. The following day, on October 22nd 2004, Dick Cheney launched an impassioned attack on Kerry, deriding him for wearing a camouflaged jacket that looked brand new. ‘Which did make me wonder how regularly he does go goose hunting,’ Dick Cheney said then. After Cheney accidentally shot a fellow hunter in February 2006, such criticism would never be uttered again.
Sarah Palin shoots a Caribou for political gain. But the shooting itself is politically insignificant. It is only once a visual representation of the shooting is disseminated in mass media and culture, that this representation reaches it’s full effectiveness. As the storm clouds are gathering over the Alaskan wilderness again, Sarah Palin sets her eyes on the next target.
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John Lennon’s death on the 8th of December 1980, 30 years ago to the day, evokes one of the most iconic photographs of American popular culture. On that tragic day, the photographer Annie Leibovitz met Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono at their flat in The Dakota building in New York to shoot a photo for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Five hours after the image was taken, Lennon was killed by Mark David Chapman. The subsequent publication of the photograph on the cover of Rolling Stone and in the mass media thus caused a tragic, almost morbid sensation since it was one of the last images ever taken of Lennon.
Apart from this historic coincidence, a reading of the photograph establishes why it has become such an integral part of our visual culture. The way Lennon’s body is wrapped around Yoko One is strongly reminiscent of the fetal position, or, in other words, the positioning of the body of a prenatal fetus as it develops. Lennon’s curled toes are deeply reminiscent of the newborn child. Importantly however, the fetal position is also assumed in children and adults seeking to protect the body in a state of trauma. Lennon’s nakedness signifying his vulnerability, and the position of his body signifying a bodily position which evokes a traumatic experience, eerily foreshadow the actual trauma that Lennon was yet to incur only hours after the image was taken.
Lennon’s passionate embrace also evokes the famous painting ‘The Kiss’ by the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. In both images, the main subject is the relationship between man and woman: the man kisses the woman while the woman has her eyes closed and head turned to the side. The neutral and flat background in both The Kiss and the Leibovitz photograph help to elevate the main subject from their surroundings. The photo editors of Rolling Stone cropped the edge of the couch and Lennon’s jeans hanging from it to suit the ratio of the magazine cover. But while the woman in Klimt’s painting has her head tilted to the side, Yoko Ono on the other hand appears static, motionless, literally unmoved.
Yoko Ono’s expression, or rather, her lack of expression, is another reason why I believe this image has become impregnated into our memory. As the photograph was published after Lennon’s death, Yoko Ono’s expression and dark clothing cannot be disassociated with her subsequent mourning. In a sense, what makes the photograph so powerful is the uncanny representation of deeply felt emotions that were yet to be experienced. John Lennon clinging on to life – Yoko Ono pained by his death. The image becomes a another constituent in the deeply problematic relationship between photography and death. Jacques Derrida wrote that photography ‘implies the “return of the dead” in the very structure of both its image and the phenomenon of its image.’ Here, the allegorical ‘return’ is effectuated by a photograph that will always be remembered.
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