Esther Cepeda: Olivia Wilde's photo and marketing’s mixed messages
CHICAGO -- Like beauty itself, the degradation of women is in the eye of the beholder. What’s clearly demeaning in one person’s view is but an updated version of Helen Reddy’s feminist anthem, “I Am Woman,” in another’s.
Take Olivia Wilde’s breast-feeding photo from September’s edition of Glamour magazine. The actress was photographed nursing her infant son Otis in, as E! Online gushed, “a Roberto Cavalli dress, Prada heels, a Prada scarf, Yossi Harari earrings and a Lanvin ring.”
A lovely, candid image of mother and child, to be sure. But its Web ubiquity is another example of how society approves of objectifying women (in this case Wilde is a pretty clothes hanger, or brand ambassador, if you will); putting them into neat little boxes (sex symbol, artist, working mom!); and turning a blind eye to all the Internet-enabled sexual leering this iconic maternal image has induced.
Others take the photo as a celebration of a new openness and acceptance of breast-feeding. OK, let’s go with this issue for a second. Breast-feeding is probably the single most important nutritional and developmental choice a mother can make for her child. But it ain’t pretty.
Wonderful? Yes, of course. Having breast-fed two babies, I can attest to that. But it’s also hard work, physically demanding and … well, instead of getting into the graphic details, I’ll just assure you: It’s not glamorous.
We usually aren’t physically perfect right after giving birth and don’t get to wear thousands of dollars’ worth of designer clothes and professional-grade makeup when we feed our babies.
Plus, let me say this loud and clear: 99 percent of breast-feeding moms figure out how to do it discreetly and usually keep it that way.
So, breast-feeding advocates, rejoice all you want. I’m just thankful I don’t have a nursing infant and yet another image of a rich, flawless celebrity looking drop-dead-gorgeous to live up to as I deal with nursing bras, breast pumps and teething.
The fine line between celebration and exploitation has also been trampled recently by the shoe brand Nine West, which is amping up its outreach to women aged 25 to 49 by saluting modern sexuality and women’s courting tactics and by glamorizing alcohol.
Specifically, the shoe ads feature images that give helpful tips for what to wear in several common situations.
According to The New York Times, “One ad, for example, carries the headline ‘Starter husband hunting’ and shows a woman in leopard print pumps holding arrows near an archery target. In another, with the headline ‘Drunch,’ a portmanteau of drunk and lunch, the legs of a woman wearing leather pumps jut from the bottom of the page, a glass of champagne teetering on her knee. And another, under the banner ‘Anticipatory walk of shame,’ shows a woman carrying a Nine West handbag with a pair of the brand’s flip-flops poking out.”
Many have reacted positively, seeing the ad campaign as funny and persuasive. But the criticism has been diverse, from outrage that a major brand name would reduce women’s shoe choices to preparation for the stereotypical activity of husband-hunting to the oversight that some ladies might don sexy shoes to wife-hunt.
Silly me, I expected there to be serious outcry over an ad celebrating the “walk of shame”—a term popularized on college campuses—when Congress is considering a bipartisan campus sexual assault bill to address the rising tide of violence against women on university grounds.
But no. While many comments on websites and social media are of the “Why assume a woman needs a man?” variety, few seem to be bothered by the portrayal of women as victims to alcohol and overnight stays that induce day-after humiliation.
One commenter, tweeting to Nine West, said “@NineWest shoes, from a wonky perspective: ‘Anticipatory walk of shame.’ One night stands for women are NOT shameful!”
But, presumably, if one had an empowering, satisfying one-night encounter, one would not classify the morning after as a “walk of shame,” right?
We’re living in a time when there is no commonly agreed-upon definition or ideology of feminism, therefore the dots go unconnected and few bat an eye when a critical mass buys into a merchant’s poor treatment of women.
But, as marketing messages go, these two publicity stunts will either sell magazines and shoes—or not. And this choice is ours.
Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.