Fashion and marketing: fantasy vs. reality

Another day, another fashion spread featuring abused women.

And, of course, another comment chain full of people trying to defend the practice. The defense being used this time is “Hey, video games are violent, too. Why is this any different?”

There are plenty of reasons why that’s a bogus argument, but the biggest? Video games are fiction, presented and understood as such, and fashion spreads are not.

Putting aside, for the moment, the existence of reality TV, non-fiction, stories adapted from true events, etc., generally speaking, most forms of entertainment are designed expressly for that purpose. Some stories may feel very real, and may be set in realistic environments, but at the end of the day, they’re still fictional. Consumers, at least the ones whose brains are developed enough to get this, understand that what they see on the page or screen isn’t real. They may take some inspiration from the story–for good or ill–and it may also shape how they view the world–again, for good or ill–but people experience them from behind the fourth wall. Immersive as a good story may be, eventually, most people will surface from it, and go back to the real world. (There’s another essay in here about virtual worlds and post-modern personhood, but I’ll leave that be for now.)

Fashion, on the other hand, isn’t presented that way. It may be thought of as art, to a degree, and its creators may consider that their work is part of creating a character, but its ultimate goal is not to entertain, but to sell something. A designer creating costumes for a play or movie is helping to create a character and write a story. A designer creating clothing that will eventually be sold to consumers is creating a lifestyle image to which the consumers are supposed to aspire, for the inflation of their own wallets and egos.

And therein lies the problem with the violent imagery: it’s creating an aspirational lifestyle that feeds the worst part of human nature. Not for the acceptable purpose of full-understanding escapism, but for the purpose of making a buck off of someone else’s misery.

I’m going to diverge here for a second to try to illustrate this better. It’s a common cause among some feminist philosophies to be opposed to porn, and “violent” porn especially, under the idea that they perpetuate the devaluation of women. There are, of course, plenty of meta (largely economic) reasons why porn and sex work in general are problematic, but from an end user perspective, porn itself isn’t really the cultural WMD that some seem to think. The reason is the same as above: it’s fiction, and everyone involved knows it’s fiction. It may be immersive fiction, and it may well be designed in a way that’s supposed to resemble reality. And of course, the people depicted are actually engaging in a sex act. But is it really all that different from mainstream actors making out with each other for a movie? Not especially. An on-screen kiss is still a kiss in real life. We simply understand that the people who are kissing each other are doing so because they’re getting paid. The same is true of far-more intimate acts that are filmed for the purposes of entertaining an audience. Of course, few mainstream actors would be comfortable actually engaging in genital contact onscreen (though some do; there’s an increasingly blurry line in some cases) but obviously, porn actors are comfortable with it. Some of them may do so for not-so-healthy reasons–economic desperation, low self-esteem, feeding an addiction, etc.–but they’re still just putting on a show, like actors who mostly keep their clothes on. The mental place that they’re in when they do that filming is completely different than the mental place they’re in when they’re having sex with someone in their real life. Every reasonably mentally healthy, mature person consuming this porn knows that. The fantasy–even a dire one–may be what feeds the needs of their Id, but the reality–knowing that this is just someone doing a job–is what makes it psychologically comfortable for the Ego. Only a rare few sociopaths would want to indulge in porn that they knew to be harmful to the people making it.

And this is why even violent porn isn’t necessarily a bad thing (so long as it’s created under worker-friendly conditions.) It’s fiction, it’s fantasy, it’s telling a story. The story may not be all that complex, in its Id-tickling incarnation, but it’s still just play-acting, for the entertainment of an audience.

Now, let’s switch gears for a moment, and talk about softcore. Let’s talk about the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and pin-up calendars, and Victoria’s Secret ads. I’d argue that the proliferation of these things is considerably more damaging to women than even the most explicit BDSM porn, simply because they’re presented as reality, not fantasy. Victoria’s Secret is selling clothing to women, after all. They are selling the idea that real women need to present themselves as mindless bodies in order to have sex. And all that other softcore, from cheerleaders to booth babes, is promoting the same idea: this is normal, and what normal, real women are supposed to look and act like. It’s just as manufactured as hardcore porn, but it’s not presenting itself that way. It’s presenting itself as an idealized form of reality. Few women truly believe that they have to look and act like porn stars in order to be socially acceptable. Millions more believe they have to buy a Wonderbra. So tell me: which is more damaging to women?

The bottom-line difference, therefore, is a matter of commerce. Fictional entertainment, from video games to porn, is a product in and of itself. Both producer and consumer know they’re trading solely on the fantasy. You’re paying solely for a few hours of escapism. Most consumers, in fact, want their entertainment to be unrealstic Id tickling, because they want to take a break from the monotony or pain of their real life. “Art” in the service of selling another product, however, is a different story. It may well be presenting a fantasy, but the message that comes with it is, “You know you’d rather live in this fantasy world instead of your boring life. Buy our product, and you can.”

Most ads that sell this fantasy do so by selling images of a happy, content life. Of course, most also piggyback on culturally screwy things like gender and class stratification. Women who have happy marriages without spending a fortune on household cleaning products aren’t going to be buying said cleaning products, so it’s best to convince them that they won’t be happy without a spotless house. Not content with your life? Surely, it’s because you can’t quite get grass stains out of your kid’s soccer togs. (Similar stuff is aimed at men, of course: Feeling powerless and underappreciated? You clearly just need to drink this beer/eat this dead animal/drive this gas guzzler, and like magic, your nads will grow to epic proportions!)

What’s different about most high fashion ads, however, is that they’re not selling happiness. They’re not appealing to a normal human need for a comfortable life. Ads for mass-market clothing–stuff average people wear every day–generally do feature happy models having a good life. High fashion, on the other hand, tends to present a far darker look at life. When it comes to recognized-as-fantasy entertainment, indulging that dark side isn’t a problem. But when it’s in this gray area–this lifestyle-aspiration area? That’s when it gets dangerous, and problematic. When people start taking the “game” of violent entertainment and making it into their reality, something has gone horribly wrong.

That’s what’s wrong with this fashion spread, and the dozens like it. It isn’t just that it’s perpetuating the idea of women, and women’s bodies, as soulless objects used purely for decoration, to be modified and discarded as the owner wishes–though that’s bad enough. It’s that it’s appealing to the darkest side of women into high fashion: the side that already believes that message. It’s not aimed at men, encouraging them to abuse women. It’s aimed at women who already believe they deserve such abuse, and who have come to believe that there could be something beautiful in their own tragic, messy death. It’s an appeal, in other words, not to homicidal impulses, but to suicidal ones.

Even the darkest and most bloody of fictional entertainment doesn’t do this. Even the goriest horror movie, the most wince-inducing kink porn, puts itself squarely inside the boundaries of fantasy. It allows people to indulge the dark impulses they have within those safe confines. It’s a sound-proofed room in which people who are angry or frustrated can scream at the top of their lungs. Blasting the guts out of a field of zombies in a video game is incredibly cathartic for people who aren’t able to sublimate their anger out in the real world. Doing even some of the worst, most horrible things imaginable inside a fantasy context can help people cope with a real life that’s otherwise a constant stream of misery. It is, in short, actually healthy to have these outlets available for the people who need them, because it keeps those impulses contained.

Fashion, on the other hand, dissolves that container, by encouraging people to live out their fantasies, however awful they may be. It doesn’t just draw people into a fantasy world, keeping them from dealing with the real one. It brings that fantasy world outside of its safe buffer zone, and into the real world where it can do real harm. It’s not a looking glass into Wonderland. It’s a Pandora’s Box.

In case I didn’t make it clear above, this is NOT an indictment of fashion that presents itself as purely fantasy. I sincerely believe that costuming (especially cosplay) is a terrific way of experiencing a fantasy life in three dimensions. I don’t, for instance, believe that people who do Loli cosplay sincerely believe in sexualizing little girls. But theatrical costuming isn’t what the high fashion industry is about. It’s not in the business of allowing people to play dress-up on weekends. It’s in the business of making people feel inadequate if they’re not wearing the newest things from the coolest designers–and forcing their bodies and lives into whatever “artistic” frame those designers have set for their wares. Costuming, for instance, encompasses hundreds of different body types and real lives. Fashion doesn’t. It encourages the destruction of the self in favor of highlighting the “art.” It doesn’t see consumers as customers to serve. It sees them as props in their performance art–and ones that have about as much inherent value and autonomy as one, too. Costuming is about the person inside the dress. Fashion is about the person who made the dress.

In a way, spreads like this are kind of useful. They make that point–the destruction of the self–vibrantly clear, so people like me can shine a spotlight on how awful it really is. Designers don’t want to make you look pretty or have a good life. They want you to be a puppet, walking around with their brand on your body to glorify themselves. The worse they can make you feel about your life and body outside of their work, the happier they are. They’re not creating a fantasy for you, they’re creating a fantasy using you. And if that’s the kind of pawn you really want to be in someone else’s game, for goodness’ sake, seek help.


About Shawna (A Mediated Life)

Writer, singer, parent, fan, media maven, and general ne'er-do-well. Fierce protector of the rights of the disadvantaged and endless pontificator on subjects both ridiculous and sublime.
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