Old-fashioned prudishness is alive and well across the world, but it’s rarely ego-gratifying unless you dress it up in the modern clothing of concern over objectification and ‘everyday sexism’ – at which point, you’ll get all the juicy attention that you need. Let’s take the recent social media attacks on Agent Provocateur’s House of Fraser Valentine’s campaign, in which the lingerie brand produced an unexpectedly bland collection of posters featuring their wares. Given that both House of Fraser and Agent Provocateur have the same (partial) ownership, the hook-up between the two makes sense.
Agent Provocateur are known for (ahem) ‘provocative’ advertising, but this campaign didn’t seem especially dramatic – while any lingerie ad is bound to upset people who don’t like to see scantily clad women (or men, for that matter), this one really didn’t push the envelope too much. Perhaps the shot of a woman sticking her arse out was a bit sexual, but it hardly seems excessive given that it is advertising sexy underwear. Taking the sexuality out of lingerie advertising seems a thankless and pointless task.
However, ‘Twitter users’ – which, as in many cases, turns out to be one person (who we won’t name, because why give them the attention they so clearly crave?) and a handful of fellow moralisers that she has @’d – have been outraged by the display in Bath (as with the equally ludicrous outrage over Marks and Spencer’s lingerie display in Nottingham, these campaigns seem oddly localised, perhaps proving how vacuous and unrepresentative they are). In this case, one particular (and possibly peculiar) woman was horrified by the posters, and took to Twitter to post a series of hysterical complaints.
When we say ‘hysterical’, we’re not exaggerating. Her interpretation of the images seems a little skewed, to say the least. Describing the pictures as “damaging”, she went through each one with eyebrow-raising claims as to what was shown.
Let’s look at the first image, shown above. You might see a woman in not-especially revealing underwear taking a selfie – an image practically identical to a thousand Instagram vanity shots. Not so, apparently. According to the complainant, the “image shows woman lying down with one hand to her head as though in pain. Her face and body language depict pain and confusion as though she is under the influence of something and wondering where she is and how she got there. There is no consent or pleasure in this image.”
That seems quite a leap and subjective interpretation – where exactly is the pain and confusion here? How does this suggest anything other than a woman, alone, taking a photo of herself on her phone?
Image Two might look like a woman in a slightly awkward pose, but apparently, it “shows a woman wearing ‘bondage’ style underwear that gives the impression she is tied up inc. around the neck. Her face depicts a cold, ‘dead behind the eyes’ look. The image glamorises the possibility that this woman has been attacked, subdued, tied up & strangled.”
I’m honestly not sure what sort of mind is at work to look at that image and see the corpse of a victim of strangulation. But well done at reducing the poor model to a “dead behind the eyes”, cold caricature. Nothing like reducing a woman to an object.
But there’s one image left to go.
Here, we have a woman looking at herself in the mirror, again with an awkward pose. Like the previous shot, it’s not a very good photograph, with terrible lighting, but that might be intentional – for all I know, the whole campaign might be trying to emulate amateur Instagram culture. What it probably isn’t trying to do is show a woman being forcibly sodomised, but that’s what the complainant sees here:
“(it) shows a woman from behind, bending over, sticking her bottom out and wearing open knickers. Her arms mimic being forcibly held back. Her face depicts pain. It glamorises the possibility she is being anally penetrated, forcibly – but with the person excluded from the image.”
These descriptions are reminiscent of the hysterical interpretations we find in the 1960s film Perversion for Profit, where a naked woman in a barn has “overtones of bestiality” and a woman with her back to the camera is “an invitation to the sodomist”. To interpret these images in such a way perhaps tells us more about the complainant’s mind that we need to know.
Of course, I would say this, as part of the patriarchy. On her Twitter feed, the complainant has already dismissed critics as ‘mansplainers’ – the cowardly and sexist phrase used to shut down criticism or discussion, because in the mind of its users, no man can ever argue with a woman, no matter how outlandish or inaccurate or reactionary her claims might be. However, Mrs Reprobate is a woman, and when she saw these tweets, her reaction was a combination of hysterical laughter and baffled disbelief. Of course, she once worked for Agent Provocateur, so perhaps she’s had her ability to recognise sexism crushed by “patriarchal hegemonies” (to quote another Twitter complainant).
It’s not just women complaining about the posters, it should be said, and they are not all in Bath (though that does seem to be the ground zero for this particular moral campaign). A man in Dublin was also aghast, though he forgot to disguise his moral outrage with talk of objectification, saying “I have been to House of Fraser in Dundrum and told them I do not wish my children, as happened on Sunday evening, to be abused by immoral soft core porn in the Dundrum Centre” before claiming that the images were “corrupting children’s minds and insulting those of other faiths”. Ahh yes, good old religious moralising – at least he’s being honest.
Back in Bath, local councillor Victoria Atherstone fumed “Absolutely shocked and appalled by this @TheMissAP high street store photographic campaign displayed in @houseoffraser #Cheltenham shocking pornographic imagery of women #exploitation NOT SUITABLE for the high street – please take it down NB. @LibDemWomen”. It’s sobering to realise that there are local politicians who believe that photos of women in underwear are pornographic. It’s like we never left the 1950s. And we can only hope the people upset by these images don’t wander into the actual Agent Provocateur display in House of Fraser – here, the dangerous underwear can be seen in the flesh, worn by a thee-dimensional mannequin who is posed in a wanton manner.
We should, of course, point out that the creative director of Agent Provocateur is also a woman… and that the whole brand is aimed at women. Why they would seek to alienate their entire customer base (which, I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest has probably never included the complainants) is anyone’s guess. There’s always the possibility that they know that most women will not find these posters to be exploitative, dangerous or a celebration of rape culture. Perhaps they’ll just see models posing in underwear, which is the very least one might expect to see in a lingerie advertisement. Perhaps, like us, they’ll be offended by the bad art direction in these shots (Agent Provocateur usually do a good job with visuals, but these seem decidedly clumsy), and if the campaign really is a misogynistic misfire, then they’ll doubtless pay the price commercially. But how advertising aimed at women, produced for a business run by and aimed at women, who sell clothing made for women to women is an example of everyday sexism is frankly hard to fathom. Unless sexism isn’t really the concern here, and prudish fear of sexuality is, of course. But what are the chances of that being the case?