Imagine this: you’re headed towards a bus stop on your daily commute to work. You notice a gigantic advertisement plastered on the side of the bus shelter – a young, thin, blonde woman wearing nothing but striped socks and a pair of underwear. It’s not even 8 :30 in the morning yet, and you’re sighing at the sight of a woman objectified and hyper-sexualized, all in the name of advertising. How cliché. The problem isn’t even necessarily the fact that she’s half-naked, it’s more that you’re sick of seeing the same kind of woman sexualized in these boring, uncreative ways. What’s even worse is that the fine print of the ad tells you that this is not, in fact, a professional model but rather an every day, average gal. Just like you! Ah, American Apparel strikes again, you tell yourself. As if this speaks to my life.
In my reality, all kinds of people are sexy and sexual: People who identify as queer, as disabled, as trans, as fat, and generally, as awesome. But in this world of American Apparel and various other “real beauty” ad campaigns making claims of representing the “average woman,” I never see myself or the kinds of people I know. It still doesn’t speak to my reality, and I’m sure it doesn’t speak to a lot of other people’s realities as well.
Luckily, if Holly Norris and Jes Sachse have anything to do with it, that reality might slowly be changing. This May, riders of the TTC in Toronto will bear witness to the critical sass created by photographer Holly Norris who teamed up with her then-roommate and poet/photographer/pornographer Jes Sachse to satirize the notorious American Apparel ad campaings in a witty, sex-positive way. Their spoofs of the ads, titled American Able, will be shown on television screens in subway stations across the city as part of the Contact Toronto What’s the Hype? Exhibition.
One of the most effective ways for feminists to constructively criticize the fashion industry and their problematic ad campaigns is with humour. Many of us have seen Sarah Haskins’ Target Women videos, which are probably the best known contemporary examples of criticizing the rampant stereotyping and sexism that goes on in advertising while simultaneously making you laugh your ass off. Holly and Jes’ thoughtful and witty takeup of American Apparel’s notorious ad campaigns is just another way to think about how (and which) women are presented and sold to us in the advertising industry.
To talk a bit about why a photo series like American Able is needed, I caught up with these old friends to ask them a few questions.
Tell me a bit about your goal with this project and how you came up with it.
Holly: Originally, it was just a project for a Women and Pop Culture class at Trent University in 2008. While working on the assignment, I saw a photograph on Facebook of the Fat Femme Mafia in a change room wearing tight, shiny American Apparel tracksuits. It got me thinking about how different bodies look in clothing, and how we only see one specific kind of body in advertisements. I had been living with Jes that summer, and we had started talking about disabilities and difference. She does a bit of modeling so I asked her if she could model for this little ad thing I was doing for class and it just grew from there.
Jes: Holly was taking Women and Pop Culture I think? We’d lived together during the summer of 2008 and had some shitty experiences that got us talking about disability politics. Holly was relatively new to critical dis theory, and would ask me lots of questions, which got us into great conversations. The shoot was Holly’s idea, but the actual process was collaborative. The second set was all my own clothing, much of which was American Apparel. The poses were all me, some of the ideas, and the general attitude was mine. But Holly is the genius behind the lens.
There are so many sexist ad campaigns out there. Why single out American Apparel?
Holly: First off, on their ads there are often little blurbs like “Sarah is a student in New York…”, so they are positioning their models as representative of ‘regular people.’ However, they all fit into a specific idea of what a “regular woman” is. More practically speaking, for me as a photographer, it is easier to spoof their advertisements because they have that notable style with on-location shoots, simple cotton basics (which is half of my closet anyway), and helvetica font. It is a lot easier to recreate their ads as there is no need for a studio or for high fashion.
Jes: God. American Apparel is sexy. I dunno about Holly but I love their style. Its andro and ‘basic’ and hipster. Lots of lyrca, lots of ‘your body as is’ type clothing. However, model and sales-clerk wise? Tall, skinny, white people. The usual. The fact that AA is hyper-sexual appeals to me. The fact that the lens isn’t really on an empowered body, is less appealing. Sexy sells. But why does sexy always seem to intersect with misogyny? Ultimately, AA is a popular brand of choice for hipsters, many of whom are educated and/or are familiar with the provocative nature of their ads. American Able doesn’t mock from the outside. It mocks from the inside. I like that.
Holly: I’m really interested in where it will be seen. It is showing on digital screens that are typically ad space, and has the potential to make people do a double take and question what they are seeing and how it differs from a regular ad. I think the realization that it’s a spoof makes people question and critique why – why do they only ever see able-bodied people in fashion advertising? People with visible disabilities are rendered invisible by mass media, and I think the reactions to American Able really highlight that. Even when there are claims of ‘diversity’ it is usually really lacking, to say the least. One rarely sees people with disabilities in advertising, unless it’s in a group photo and then it often seems more tokenizing than anything else.
Jes: It’s Holly’s project, but personally? I hope people see these ads in the TTC, laugh, and put on something skin tight when they go home and stare at their bodies. It’s like an invitation to a healthy dose of vanity. Why does fashion necessarily have to give people complexes? I’d love to be a model. I love designers and fashion, it’s art on bodies. I guess I love modeling because I feel like I embody a piece of that stare in my own work. That “I see you lookin’ at me” stare. I know I don’t look like a stereotypical model, and I like my body, but I get stared at a lot, in a different way. So when I pose, I have the opportunity to engage with my voyeurs. Or act indifferent about their gaze. Or make them question the politics in their stare. Or seduce them. Or pierce them. It’s really fun.
The first thing I took away from the photos was a mischievous, sexy sense of humour. What do you think about the place of humour in criticizing media of an oppressive nature? Do you think it is more or less effective than, say, boycotts, or other more traditional activist approaches?
Holly: I don’t think it’s necessarily more or less effective, it’s simply a different venue for activism. I like it. The images won’t ask you to sign their petition or join them on the streets, but you can sit and look and develop your own thoughts and opinions. And then I hope it will inspire people to at the very least be more critical of the advertising they are usually bombarded with. Spoofs point out the problems with advertising that one might not otherwise identify. It’s a really interesting space. I really like looking at spoof advertisements; I love Adbusters and that sort of thing. We live in this culture where we are so bombarded by advertisements that it would be strange not to respond or react to it. I am so excited to be putting American Able in a space where we would otherwise be seeing corporate advertisements over and over again. I am hoping it will make people ask, “why am I not seeing ads like these? Why are bodies like Jes’s not seen in major ad campaigns?”
Jes: Humour is my life. On the surface, it’s easy to take me less seriously because of it, but humour also gets you in the door in a way that a rebellious placard never will (lamentably). Me boycotting AA is ridiculous. You show me a fashion line that rocks my disability politics. None of ‘em do! I’ll wear what I want to, because my body, like everything else, contradicts itself.
- Interview by Julia Caron. To hear more from Holly and Jes about American Able, stay posted on Julia’s personal blog à l’Allure Garçonnière.