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October 10, 2002

Female Gaze


I was driving down the road the other day when I passed a bus shelter and spotted the following Bebe ad.

Eye Catching?

(By the way, all the pictures in this posting are pop-ups, and it helps to click on them so you can see them in more detail.) From my not-very-well informed point of view, fashion ads seem to divide into two overlapping, but essentially independent camps: one aims at making women attractive to men, and the second provides fashionable women with firepower in their struggle to demonstrate superior taste. Frankly I look at ads from the first camp and ignore the ads from the second camp. Bebe, being emphatically in the first camp, tends to get my attention. But there was something about this particular ad that caught my eye. (And I assure you, the fact that the girl was managing to display her face, her breasts and her thighs had nothing to do with my interest. I am shocked, simply shocked that anyone would suspect me of such impure motives!) Regrettably, having only 1.7 nanoseconds to look at the ad, I couldn't study it at the length it so obviously deserved. It left me with an impression suggesting a narrative or dramatic context (i.e., the girl seemed a tad flustered getting ready to go out on a big night on the town.) But that didn’t entirely explain my feeling that I was seeing something relatively new here, something that had unusual echoes.

So when I got back home I picked up some of my daughter’s/wife’s fashion magazines and started checking out the ads. They seemed to divide, relatively straightforwardly, into the following categories:

1. Direct Eye Contact

Category #1 is the most common, with one or more models making direct eye contact. This replicates the effect of trying clothes on before a mirror.

2. Avoiding Eye Contact

Category #2 involves a female model avoiding eye contact. Here you're supposed to look at something on the model, as if on a mannikin. Generally used for jewelry, skin care ads, hair care ads, etc.

3. Radiantly Happy

In Category #3, we generally have one female model making direct eye contact, while looking radiantly happy. This foreshadows what a shopper will see in the mirror after she tries the product. (This is a sort of old-fashioned ad strategy and is never used by products attempting to create a high status impression. Apparently, very high status women are never radiantly happy or at least never allow other women to catch them at it.)

4. Everyone's Looking At Me (Including Me)!

Category #4 involves one female model looking directly at the camera while other models (usually men) stare at her. This reproduces the common experience of fashionable women who constantly check themselves out in store windows and mirrors while in the presence of other people.

5. Love the Life You Lead, Lead the Life You Love

In Category #5, a more rarely used strategy, we have multiple models (usually male and female) looking at each other and ignoring the camera. This produces a full “dramatization” effect in an ad, and is aimed to suggest women's aspirational lifestyles--e.g., buy this product and live this relationship. I suspect this is rare because it does not tie directly into the shopping experience.

There are slight variants on these categories, obviously intended to make more subtle statements. For example, ads where a model is obviously looking directly at us but is wearing sunglasses to create a sense of power (very high status) because the model can see you but you can’t see her eyes.

Street Credible

Or, in an increasingly more common approach, to have a single woman in the ad tilt her head to prevent you from seeing her full-face or to look completely away; these aim at producing an effect of “edginess” or “street credibility.” (That is, the model is indicating that she is indifferent to the impression she makes on you, you're not hip enough to bother with.)

However, the Bebe ad didn't fall neatly into any of these groups, which I suspect was why my "novelty" alarm went off. The aim of the advertisers would seem to even more strongly expressed on the Bebe website when additional pictures from the “series” are presented.

The Whole Bebe Ad Sequence

In short, the girl is seen as if a character in a play, and very much from the male point of view. In the first picture, presumably she's seen by her intruding date, in the second, by a waiter or diner at the restaurant, and in the third by her date in a presumably intimate situation (hey, so he's a foot fetishist, but at least he and she have an interest in common: shoes!)

All this raised my curiosity—how much are women aware of the “dramatic” dimension of fashion when buying and wearing clothes? I’m not talking about “dramatic” in the sense of making a striking statement, but “dramatic” in the sense of acting, of deliberately choosing to play a role by dressing a certain way, of choosing one identity at one time and another at a different time. My wife, on being asked, said she was often aware of this issue while shopping; my teenage daughter denied having any awareness of ‘role-playing.’ Since Bebe seems to target the young (and less sophisticated), does this mean they miscalculated?

What do the women in your life think?



posted by Friedrich at October 10, 2002


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