Sunday 15 July 2012

Of Sex, Semiotics and Sales... Or Why I Want To Write An Angry Letter to a Merchandizer

A sight I saw today:

A display in the menswear section at Queue.
Note the charming name of the clothing line: TITS
A faceless mannequin, dressed in the shortest shorts, a tiny tee pulled above her breasts, her absent nipples clothed in logoed pasties.

Two questions: what was she selling? And where was she selling it?

I'll answer the easy question first. This mannequin was in an upscale, trendy shop just off of Whyte Avenue. She was also in the men's section of this store, cuddled up to messaged tees, hoodies and jeans.

So what was she selling? Not to get all second-wave feministy (not that there is anything wrong with that), but the semiotics are hard to ignore. "Lads, if you buy that t-shirt with an athletic logo, you're sure to attract a girl just like her!"

Which for the record is diminutive, featureless, and both hypersexualized (given her absence of clothing and the use of pasties) and defeminized (given her lack of nipples - which made the pasties irrelevant, but oddly more deliberate).

A point about nipples. While it is common practice to de-nipple-ize mannequins (to present them more as clothes hangers than as real women, and to take away the social taboo of the naked breast, should one be seen without a top), the fact that this mannequin needed to have her non-existent nipples covered both drew attention to this female erogenous zone, as well as the fact that she didn't actually possess this zone herself. The semiotics point to a sense of castration, of diminished feminine power, of objectification. What, in a different context, could be shown as a female symbol in control of her own femininity and sexuality instead was a female symbol clothed in the vernacular of the sex industry - in a department geared toward selling to men.

Which frankly, is an insult both to women and to the men they are aiming to persuade. If you sell to the lowest common denominator, isn't that what you're going to get?


  1. Thank you for this great blog post. I think many people might be offended by the merchandising but shove the offense beneath them in an attempt to placate a society that simultaneously decries and celebrates political correctness and gender equality. Calling the store out publically for its offensive marketing is a more effective way to effect change than the passive-aggressive stance most people would take (by "voting with their feet" and just leaving the store).

  2. I appreciate your comment. When I went back in to take the picture, I asked to chat with the manager, who was a young woman in her early twenties. I asked her what she thought of the display, and she said she didn't like it very much, but "it was what the demographic wants." She also added that the owners loved it and thought it was hilarious. As do most people who come in the store. It worries me greatly that this kind of blatant objectification is viewed as a joke - and that doesn't just affect the demographic, that affects all women and all men. I will be writing a letter to the owners.

  3. Yikes. Well good on you for writing something about it!

  4. Here is another wonderful shot:

  5. It is a fricking Mannequin designed to get peoples attention to the products being placed on it! OMG if you find that offensive I would hate to see you in a store with SEX items on their mannequins, I would have to say that this Mannequin did it's job however, It 1 caught your attention and 2 made you look longer at what is was wearing! Job well done Mannequin, to those finding it offensive GIVE ME A BREAK AND GET OVER YOURSELVES AND YOUR POLITICALLY CORRECT CRAP! In MY Opinion!

  6. I love what my buddy just said to me regarding the blog author's obvious hypocrisy, and an observation about her own PIC: "It looks like she just walked out of a beer ad, with the soft shadows and the almost sultry over-the-shoulder smirk. And especially after reading the letter to the clothing shop, I had to check to make sure I wasn't in the sarcasm filled Penny Arcade forum. I have incredible trouble taking her seriously... just a soap box looking for a crowd of pitch forks and torches..."


  7. Really? You can't take what is written here seriously because it was written by a gorgeous woman? If she was ugly, it would make sense? Do you actually think that was worth posting here? If you knew the author, you would know how ridiculous this statement is.

    Instead, present facts about why her opinion isn't valid. Provide insight, debate, put some thought into this. Politically correct is one thing - using derogatory language to objectify women is not marketing prowess. It's weak, it's cheap and it says you don't expect enough of your audience to think higher.

    Why should we settle as consumers? Why shouldn't where we shop be a conscious decision, especially when we are supporting local.

    If it makes you feel better, I am not gorgeous and have never been close to sultry so maybe you can take my comments seriously. Stop, take a minute and think about the world beyond you. It's pretty big.

  8. I think what the author of this blog is pointing out is that she may be embarrassed to be a member of a species that willingly objectifies and hyper-sexualizes itself for the purposes of profit that is not related to the manner which they are objectified or sexualized.
    If the author was in a sex shop, then I think she would have no problem with that mannequin, as it would be an appropriate objectification of the human form. Sexual objectification and the disempowering of women for the purposes of selling sex ... well, okay maybe not. That is an interesting question ... what type of mannequin would the author find acceptable in a sex shop.?
    But, I ramble....
    It is annoying and depressing to think that males (or females who by for them) can be so easily taken in by obvious lies and blatant fabrication. Or, if we were to give our species a little bit of a compassion and empathy, it is even more frustrating because we acknowledge that really what is being sold is a fantasy that will ultimately lead to everyone's disappointment.
    Men will be disappointed because they buy this miracle clothing and no hyper-sexualized super intelligent feminist women appear to appease them of their own free will.
    Women will be disappointed because they can never be what their male mates want them to be, or what society needs them to be to appease the fantasy promised by that mannequin and all of its ilk.
    This kind of crass marketing fantasy brings to mind the movie "Crazy People." Would it be so hard to be honest in our marketing? Or would that just make absolutely clear how useless and meaningless many of the items we purchase truly are?

  9. Wow, Humanist, let me get this right...

    You and your buddy have trouble taking this author seriously because her profile pic has her giving a 'sultry look over her shoulder.'

    Without spending hours pointing out the myriad details of how the two images you're comparing differ, I interpret your statement that sexualization of a woman in an image makes it impossible for you to assign her any credibility.

    Which is the exact danger to the 'male perception of women' that this author says this mannequin amplifies.

    So your comment has just proven her point. Entirely.

    Well done.

    (slow clap)

  10. Have to agree Randy. There's sensual, classy and the ridiculous. Both the clothes and Anon/Humanist comments are the latter. As a father to a beautiful, smart little girl, I want to torch these clothes and smack the makers of this low brow brand.

  11. Whoa whoa whoa - let's not get away from ourselves here! I did NOT say she was a gorgeous lady. I said that she was working a sex sells pic. The two are far different things. Striking a pose in order to sell yourself doesn't make you gorgeous. It makes you a mannequin. A hypocritical one, at that.


    Plus I find her assertions to be rather offensive to LGBT sensibilities. That store's mannequin actually represents diversity to my eyes. It's very sad that the store caved in to your hate speech.

  12. Humanist ... I'm not certain the author is arguing that mannequins are evil. I believe that in this case she is stating that she finds the mannequin offensive for reasons she has outlined. So, your SNAP! is more of a flick.
    If you find her picture offensive, that's fine as well.
    Personally, I do not see sex in her photo. The lighting is wrong for me and her look reads as a glare of defiance, rather then a sultry come hither.
    As to LGBT sensibilities. Certainly the mannequin could be seen as a stand for diversity and the making of a space that embraces difference, but I seriously doubt that was the case. Based on the context provided us, it is clear that while there seems to be some sort of gender bending occurring with the mannequin in question, the purpose of the (incidental) gender bending was to sell to hetro-normative males based on a hyper-sexualized fantasy mythos in which women are understood to be diminished.
    My LGBT friends, frankly, are just as offended as the author, but also felt fully justified in their non-participation in "HetroNorm-Stupid."

  13. Humanist, you raise an interesting point that the mannequin *could* be representative of the LGBT community, however I think, in this instance, Occam’s Razor applies (as it nearly always does). Always look for the most concise answer. And advertising is all about being concise.

    We can’t lose sight of the context of this image – being a nearly-naked female form advertising a clothing brand in the men’s section of a store. What is the most obvious, concise meaning of this image? I don’t think most brains would leap to the image of a lesbian or transgendered male-to-female selling to an average young male audience as being the most obvious or effective advertising choice - and if it is the most obvious choice in your brain, then you are clearly more enlightened than any of the commentators here have given you credit. Perhaps I mistakenly define Queue as catering to a primarily hetero audience – however other imagery in the store, like the picture posted in this stream of the men’s t-shirt with the silhouette of the woman with her underwear around her feet (also, so classy), leads me to that conclusion.

    Advertising is the art of using clear symbols to give an immediate punch, sending clear and concise messages, because as any retailer knows, you’ve got about 2 seconds to make your point. If the retailer’s intention was to represent the LGBT community, then they didn’t take that intention far enough to make that the most obvious, concise answer in this case.