There are a lot of really great things that can be said about the latest batch of #MyCalvins ads, which if you haven’t seen them yet (and I’d question how that would be possible), star everyone from Justin Bieber to Kendrick Lamar and Kendall Jenner, showing off their creative talents and being loud and proud about their respective achievements in music, art, and film. Or at least that appears to be the campaign’s intention.
On Thursday, Heidi Zak, founder of the lingerie company ThirdLove, penned an open letter to Calvin Klein requesting the removal of its #MyCalvins billboard in SoHo, New York. The ad in question is a dyptich of actress Klara Kristin with the caption “I seduce in #mycalvins” juxtaposed by rapper Fetty Wap, captioned “I make money in #mycalvins.” Zak has questioned the double standard presented by the billboard, calling it both “offensive” and “archaic” for its perpetuation of the idea that men are breadwinners while in contrast, the sole power of women is sensuality. Calvin Klein has since removed the billboard, claiming that the choice to do so was part of an ongoing, planned rotation of its ad placement, and that as a brand, they endeavour to “promote gender equality.” But regardless of the billboard’s removal, questions still linger about the controversy, ones that are particularly relevant as feminism becomes a more mainstream movement in the fashion industry and intersects with (oftentimes divergent) commercial motivations.
Firstly, I think that Heidi Zak should be applauded for bringing her commentary on the ad to light. Although it may seem like a trivial battle to some, these are conversations that we need to be having, especially at a time when women are breaking more barriers than ever and gender stereotyping is beginning to fall to the wayside. In Western media, most of the sexism that we now experience is not produced with the intention of being bigoted or discriminatory. It is a subtle, often subconscious bias that is hard to detect, and as a result, usually harder to stand up against. But these subtle biases are arguably the most important ones to fight; sexism veiled by pop culture, aesthetics, or commercialization is the kind that we unknowingly buy into and don’t question. It is the most normalized and subscribed to, given that generally, its prejudicial effects aren’t visible to the naked eye. Most likely, Calvin Klein’s team didn’t intend to belittle female ambition with this billboard – just look to FKA twigs’ spread (I excel in #mycalvins, I impose in #mycalvins) for reassurance. But their inability to anticipate its effects is telling of the fact that we’ve become immune to seeing gender bias in our media. And that is where the true battle lies.
On the other hand, it could be argued that the dissent towards Klara Kristin’s ad isn’t pro-feminism at all. It’s 2016 - isn’t it time we embraced women who are comfortable in their own skin and in control of their sexuality? It is in the latter that the conversation becomes increasingly complicated. Female sexuality, especially as it is represented in photography and fashion, is a hot topic. There’s a difficult balance that we are trying to strike between sexual freedom and sexualization, a mission to give women control of how their bodies are represented, while making sure that it isn’t exploitative or compliant to the male gaze. I would personally argue that there is a time and a place for sensual imagery to be empowering (like when the subject has autonomy, for one) but this is rarely the case in advertising. ‘Seducing’ someone into buying a product isn’t about using sexuality to express your power, it’s about using sexuality to tap into someone else’s.* It loses any potential for an empowering effect, especially when an image like Klara’s is held up against one that celebrates the entrepreneurial spirit of a man. In fact, I would contend that this is actually disempowering. (Not to mention the fact that Klara is treated to an up-the-skirt shot, while Fetty Wap can apparently sell underwear with a shot of only his face).
So yes, Calvin Klein, take down the billboard. But don’t think that the conversation ends there, because until women can actually see themselves authentically and respectfully portrayed in our media, there is still work to be done.