I don’t think that it would be an exaggeration to posit that most humans maintain ambivalent relationships with their genitals (if and when they think about them at all). Freud and psychosexual notions of penis envy aside, we see others ways in which genital discourse has entered into popular culture with shows like Sex and the City attempting to characterize some aspects of the relationship between women and their vaginas.
But we can also consider how the concept of power comes to be embodied in—and through—our genitals. Although there has been serious scholarship on the subject, we can also turn to popular offerings like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code to explain how a hierarchy is instituted in the military through display of phallic symbols (i.e., the more chevrons/penises one has, the more powerful one is). And power as represented by genitals is an important point to consider with regard to feminist readings of media.
Earlier in the semester we talked about the racist overtones of Summer’s Eve’s newest ad campaign “Hail to the V.”
But what interests me most is that another arm of the campaign, which was introduced at the same time, has yet to be pulled:
In some ways, I find the existent advertisement much more problematic than the original set (although I will fully admit that this may be due to increased familiarity and sensitivity to issues of gender over race, insofar as the two can be separated into discrete categories). In general, I am all for the idea of women owning their vaginas and feeling comfortable with sexuality but so many things about this ad struck me as offensive (or, best case scenario, thoughtless). The notion that Americans protested over potentially racist characterizations of vaginas but not this ad makes me wonder just what we envision women’s roles in America to be.
On the surface, all of the statements contained in the the ad seem well meaning—the intent was, I think, to demonstrate the importance of the vagina. But then something went horribly wrong: “The cradle of life,” for example, cannot help but evoke notions of race in addition to gender, with the Mitochondrial Eve emerging out of Africa. And, on a structural level, even the sequence of featured women further supports the mother/whore/virgin triad (i.e., an expansion of the Madonna/whore duality from some strains of Christianity) , which only further serves to entrench women in roles proscribed for them by dominant male culture. Having watched the entire ad, one cannot help but interpret the “center of civilization” line as a society of men ruled by their lust for the vagina.
But perhaps the most upsetting component of this ad is the final sequence wherein the following voice-over appears:
“Over the ages, and throughout the world, men have fought for it, battled for it, even died for it. One might say it’s the most powerful thing on Earth.”
The vagina, then, might be argued as the “most powerful thing on Earth,” but the question remains: whose power is it? The ad depicts women (and through visual/semantic linkage, their vaginas) as objects for conquest—their vaginas are trophies to be won in battle (between men, no less, indicating that women do not evidence a sexual desire to “know” vaginas and that women cannot fight for their own vaginas!) and are not their own! In addition to the incredibly problematic practice of reducing women to their vaginas, we are to understand that women are not even owners of their vaginas!
On one hand, this sort of attitude might seem surprising for a company promoting feminine hygiene products until we take a moment to consider the long history of control imposed upon women’s bodies in the name of hygiene. In the case of douching, we are actually trying to naturalize a process that could actually be detrimental to women’s health!
Again I don’t believe that this campaign was launched with malicious intent—but perhaps that’s only an indicator of how far some of these ways of thinking have snuck underneath the radar. For the Summer’s Eve ads to survive multiple rounds of revision and be placed onto the airwaves with no real thought as to their consequences is a tragedy perhaps best summed up by following Oprah clip which is problematic in its own way:
You know what, Oprah?…I don’t have a vajayjay but I’m painin’ nonetheless.