Perhaps you’ve seen it in the Kraft Zesty Italian commercial, or on the covers of Abercrombie and Fitch bags and catalogs, but more and more, businesses all over are realizing that heterosexual men are not the only ones with sex drives, and objectified males – young, mostly white, and always shirtless – are becoming a hot commodity all over. It’s said that sex sells, and it certainly has sold over the past century, but the rise in alternative displays of sexuality – of things that don’t revolve around the male gaze and objectification of females – is a new and interesting development in the world of marketing and advertising. But does this change, from bikini-wearing white females to topless white males, signify a paradigmatic shift in the logic of advertising and sexuality, or is it simply the same old formula with a bit of a change?
The answer lies somewhere in the middle. On one hand, it is always a good thing to see sexualities that aren’t solely straight and male being represented in popular media. This indicates a change in visibility to marketers – gay men and straight women have sex drives too, and we want to be included! Improved visibility of marginalized groups and demographics is a positive thing, and this cannot be overstated. However – and this is also cannot be overstated – is there really no better way to appeal to consumers than through sexualizing products and people? Sexuality isn’t a bad thing – but it’s not necessarily a good thing either, it is simply an aspect of human life and behavior. And while it is enormously diverse and complex, advertising has often reduced to simplistic forms of consumption – we buy sexuality, we consume sexualized bodies, and then, through the medium of the product, we ask for more. And the sexuality that is presented to us remains overwhelmingly white, overwhelming cis, and overwhelming geared towards straight audiences. This has been something that lesbian women have criticized for decades – the fact that, even with the propensity of sexual women in media, they are almost always filtered through the gaze of straight males, stripped away of any sexual autonomy and reduced to eye candy without personality. A proliferation of similarly objectified males, while in some ways a positive improvement, still does not account for these problems and disparities.
So – what is the solution? Ban sexuality from media altogether? That seems like a radical and probably impossible solution. More realistically, advertisers should become more aware of the complexities of depicting sexuality and work to reframe their advertisements to be more inclusive and less overtly objectifying. While it is good to be inclusive towards all sexualities, simply shifting the gaze from one body to another without making structural changes to the visuals of that image will do little in shifting any paradigms or assumptions about sex. To make things truly inclusive and affirming, it is necessary to reframe sexuality as something to be celebrated, enjoyed, and considered critically, not merely to be consumed again and again.
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