“My very (learned) idea of what is beautiful, of what is well-formed, is dangerous for women and any aestheticized Others.” (Wysocki, 168)
Much like Laura Mulvey critiques the male gaze and objectification of women in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” and Barbara Kruger critiques the position of women in capitalistic systems, Wysocki takes the principles of design, advertising and neutrality to task. In Wysocki’s essay, she speaks to the idea of social construction in advertising, and that even the things we view as neutral — for example, “good design principles” — are by no means not steeped in its social surrounding.
I couldn’t have enjoyed reading this essay any more than I did. In fact, rarely am I glad to have read something digitally over hard copy, here only because, had I read it hard copy, the entire essay would have been highlighted. It was all very good.
Wysocki’s piece fits firmly within other feminist critiques of media I’ve read so far, though she takes an interesting approach by putting advertising in historical perspective and in conversation with Kant, who discusses the intellectual approach to beauty that, naturally as Kant is wont to do as far as I’ve discovered yet, makes No Fucking Sense. We’re lucky that we now live in a time that, should someone say something to the tune of “women can’t be the originators of defining beauty because they’re unable to be universal and disinterested,” we could expect at LEAST a handful of people to be Highly Suspicious of that.
The idea of defining principles like that of Williams (contrast, repetition, alignment, proximity) being value-neutral, and thus having consequences is an ever-fabulous one (Wysocki 151). Speaking about the Peek ad, Wysocki says that “we are not encouraged to ask about the woman in the ad as a woman, only as a shape,” which is both practically textbook objectification, and the consequence that Wysocki points to over and over again (152).
I want to unpack this a little more, because I feel it’s incredibly important to both the essay and wider feminist media studies. Objectification works in several ways: reducing women to objects, the first step. Defining normative and deviation, the second step. Creating the Other (like Wysocki says in that very top quote there), the final step.
When we create objects of people, we remove our capacity to sympathize with them. We remove their very humanity and thus all the attached bits and bobbles that come with this business of Being Human, like being inherently deserving of respect and being known as an intelligent being outside of the way we look. We commodify those that we turn into objects, stripping them of these inherent rights and making them sellable.
When we create the sellable, we create the normative, the beautiful and Correct way of living and/or being. Women in the advertisements are the Good and Right women, and women who do not look like (and/or do not want to look like) them are deviations from this, and with the attached baggage to deviation that labels such as unworthy on the basis of difference, we marginalize a good majority of the leftover women.
Finally, after we have decided what normative and deviation looks like, we can then begin to shove those deviations into the role of Other. Othering is an important concept that works on the assumption that Other is unwanted, undesirable and bad. When we can identify an Other as dehumanized people who are non-normative, it is much easier, then, to write them off as unworthy and deserving of lesser treatment on the basis of their differences. We see this strongly with anti-immigrant sentiment in this country as our president refers to immigrants by inhuman terms and uses rhetorical phrases like “chain migration,” for example.
The thing is though, and Wysocki iterates this over and over, that what is a woman and what is not Other changes based on our time and social atmosphere thus, but never does it not commit the crime of this othering. Never is it not harmful, both to the in-group and the outsiders. The more we can identify an Other, and what is not normative, the tighter, more constrictive the role of the normative becomes, until it is an idealized unreality that is impossible to live up to. When this happens, we get things like the fetishization of thinness, of the compulsory culture of makeup and competition in regards to beauty that our young girls grow up and in to.
Anyway. Important, exciting stuff we got here.
OTHER IMPORTANT THINGS:
Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” and incredibly short but important piece of literature that helped define some of the same things Wysocki is playing with in this essay
Barbara Kruger’s entire body of work as a feminist critiquing capitalistic systems and the role of women in the media and in daily life. I saw the attached picture when I was like, 14 and my feminism amounted to “hey I want to rights too!” It’s remained important to me even as my feminism grew beyond that, and her body of work is ever intriguing and important.