American Able


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.
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