The Bitch Face

I once complained to a female friend of the way most perfume and couture advertisements in fashion magazines show women wearing arrogant and even sneering expressions. Myself, I prefer my models looking happy and cheerful. She explained to me the way this is supposed to work: most men respond to a “Make my day” kind of challenge from women, because they think themselves up to the job, or at least aspire so to think of themselves. The reason I do not respond that way is because I am a low-quality male with no illusions whatever about my ability to seduce such a proud beauty, or anyone else for that matter. So to me, these models look merely mean or constipated.

A male friend has a different theory, which I find much more credible, not least because these products are bought by women not men: the bitchy expressions are a status marker within the female hierarchy itself. By the way the models look down their noses at us, other women may recognise them as high-status females; the high-status females are modelling certain products; ergo, this is what high-status women buy, let us run out and do likewise in the hope of becoming high-status females. It is just the same in the male market; when did you last see an aftershave or Y-front model smiling, other than perhaps in a rather predatory manner?

This second theory also explains, as the first does not, why models selling everyday clothes to a mass audience are generally smiling rather than contemptuous; for these are deliberately shown as mid-status females with whom high-street shoppers can identify, which is quite a different mechanism to aspiration. That cocky men respond with desire to the aloof disdain of the perfume model may be true, but is entirely beside the point; all this is strictly girl-to-girl business.

And yet this second theory also seems to be missing something: it is not solely about the models and their target audience – the woollen scarf being modelled by the happy-looking girl-next-door type is a much less sexually-referent product than the perfume, deodorant, underwear or jewellery whose wearers look so severe or even contemptuous. Despite the geography involved, female-hygiene products are not sexual, as women do not generally think of sanitary napkins and love-making together, and until recently men were revolted by the very thought of them; lo and behold, in tampon advertisements everyone is always jolly.

Someone once remarked that sexual passion and laughter tend to be mutually exclusive. It’s hard to keep it up while cracking up, so to speak; and a couple on their first date who fall to laughing like hyenas will probably redefine themselves as friends, or at least will not rush to the bedroom until the mood has become more “romantic”. Perhaps laughter is in itself a signal of having opted out, if only for the moment, from the whole sexual-status game. Which explains why so many people lack a sense of humour. “The Devil is a prowde spirit, he cannot endure to be mocked.”

The associations here suggested could all be tested by psychologists and advertising agencies working together. What would happen if you made an advertisement for a cheerful woollen scarf – or for tampons – in the high, reverent and operatic style normally used for colognes, diamonds and gift chocolates? Or the other way round, a luxury product in the irreverent manner of the Carlton Draught beer advertisement au Carl Orff – perhaps “It’s a big rock. A great big rock”? The people who enjoy advertising parodies would laugh, but sales would probably crash. More seriously, it would be interesting to play with subtle variations; how serious can the girl-next-door in the Marks and Spencer gear look, and how cheerful could the perfume supermodel play it without the test audience reporting that it doesn’t work any more?

Posted on December 17, 2012 at 10:02 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: WHAT WOMEN WANT, On Sovereignty And Hierarchy

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