Down with Ads, Up with Art
"When Calvin Klein plasters billboards with a sprawl of underwear-clad Kardashians, the company is recapitulating the harasser’s logic of sexual entitlement on a monumental scale. “These women are here, undressed and supine, for your pleasure,” the ad seems to say. “This is what you should want.” The ad campaign ostensibly focuses on “unity between strong individuals,” but the languid poses and concussed expressions chosen by the advertisers erase the celebrity models’ individuality. This image abstracts away the human story of these women and piles them in a barn like so many market wares.
In fact, this particular photo shoot undeniably conceals as much as it reveals. Kylie Jenner has a quilt covering her baby bump, masking her pregnancy. This selective accommodation of privacy makes the final product follow Bizarro World logic: Sexualized near-nudity is for public display, but maternity must be hidden away like a shameful secret. It’s of a piece with shaming women for breastfeeding in public. We’ve bought into the reduction of women’s bodies to tools for titillation, and find their natural powers scandalous.
I’m on the advisory board of a female-led theater company that seeks to create good, true, beautiful, and vibrant roles for women. This mission means we produce plays with whole female characters: women with bodies, wills, intellects, emotions; relationships to sex and sexuality but also to the human community and to God. People, in other words. For me, the contrast with the depiction of women in advertising couldn’t be starker. Advertisers tout “empowerment,” but so often they’re interested only in the power of attraction, painting women as waiting vessels for male desire. It’s an impoverished view, but one we recognize in too many men in power.
I hope both progressive feminists and social conservatives can agree that advertisers have no right to rule our gaze. When they push demeaning content on us, we should fight back. We need to reclaim the space these ads take up in our attention and our cities. Outdoor advertising does not deserve its omnipresence, especially when advertisers choose objectification as a tactic.
Artistic guerrilla campaigns are underway against ads’ predominance in our public spaces. The collective Art in Ad Places spent 2017 beautifying pay-phone kiosks by replacing ads with non-commercial artwork — temporarily, as the authorities usually tore down the art after a day or two."