Groucho Marx and American Apparel

Recently – about a year ago – there was a medium media hype around a guy who re-created American Apparel photo shoots – of females. [x]

american apparel

Is this pose sexy for a man? I will exclude this topic for now, because it’s an emotional and highly individual one. Yet what can generally be said is that the pose is objectifying and severely distracting from the shirt American Apparel wants to sell.

The re-creation of the photo campaigns created such a buzz because it shed a light on unequal treatment of males and females in the media, and in a way people could have a laugh, and not feel lectured.

When I saw it, my first thought was that Groucho Marx would now be smiling down benevolently from his cloud, because he has done the same, once, around 80 years ago. (I don’t know when the picture was shot precisely.)

groucho pinup
Of course this is not the way men are depicted in promo shoots of the time. The picture (as does his stage persona) is incorporating many cliché male features, like the stache, the suit, and the cigar), but the pose is distinctly not male. The coy glance up, the smile, the showing of a bare leg (complete with garter [Am]), the bent-over pose. And his smile shows off that he knows exactly what he’s doing.

The picture is funny because it anticipates the reaction “No that wasn’t what I meant when I told you to pose sexy!” Yet why not exactly? And that is what Groucho leads into thinking about. Because Groucho doesn’t need to flaunt bare skin to be acknowledged? Because as a male he is expected not to pose so devoutly? He doesn’t have to encourage wishful thinking by a turned out backside? All of the above. Groucho is grumpy, quarreling with everyone in the movies, can be a gentleman but mostly is a self-sufficient dick. His value isn’t determined by how desirable he appears, and more, how devout and manageable.

The picture shows how conscious he is about his own privilege. Did I mention how much I love him?



8 thoughts on “Groucho Marx and American Apparel

  1. Is this pose on the American Apparel ad sexy for a woman? Hm, no. I doubt many men find it sexy even. Crooked feet, sprawled hands, head turned away, a cold place to be: ugly. It is all thought out to be polemic, inch by inch (*yawn).

    I look at it and take my hat off to the advertiser, who was successful at producing a cheap ad which someone even took the trouble of re-creating. I bet those shirts sold!

    (Looking at it again, could it be that I missed the point and the model is supposed to be like one of the animal statuettes, on display on top of the table? If so, our guy friend missed the point too, and is not “objectifying” himself enough there in his pictures… And I’d find the ad a little bit more interesting.)

    On Groucho, I see just “I can pose exactly like them, but I still look ridiculous, haha.” The pin-up girls are powerful in their coy glances… a great part of the allure is that those looks are obviously false. I see nothing demeaning about them. These girls, like the smart advertiser for American Apparel, know what they’re doing. Groucho knows it too. 🙂

  2. I’m not judging anyone who finds the picture of the girl sexy. There are people who find trees sexy, and I don’t even judge there. [x] Yet one thing to consider is that a tree probably doesn’t care much if you correctly identify it as a birch, while women are people too. They have names, faces, and personalities.

    Well yes probably the shirts sell. And oh yes I guess the pose is to suggest animal traits and all. The critique is about the clashing contrast between the way men are depicted and women are. Which is the point of the re-make of American apparel adds: the disparity in treatment of males and females. It’s present almost everywhere, just there it is very apparent.

    And power … There are different kinds of power. Let’s take Dita von Teese. She might consciously spark all kinds of fantasies, but she is always in control. What she is doing is always very tongue-in-cheek; like the pin-ups, she follows sort of a strict guideline in her stage art, and there is a line she won’t cross (even in her adult movies it seems there are things she will do and things she won’t. It shows that she had a great influence on how she wanted a scene to be there, too.) That kind of control constitutes a great deal of her appeal too; she is distinctly unreachable.

    Yes of course the model in the photo shoot knows what she’s doing. Yet the picture being sold has no connection to the model in question; I bet no one googled her name, ever, because it doesn’t matter. She has a butt. A pretty butt. The argument was about whether it’s okay to depict women bare-arsed, ruffled, and bent over in the same catalogue that depicts men like this:

    And no, I don’t think so.

    And to sexiness equals power? If yes, it is a very short-lived power. Dita most probably doesn’t get good deals because of her cleavage but because she is a tough negotiator.

    Also this is not about sexiness, about looking good, having a desirable body for the average target group or pouting lips. It’s about the suggestion of availability, of submissiveness and objectification there. If bending over bare-arsed would be a position of innate power, men and women would do it all the time to raise their status.

  3. Yes, sexiness equals power, since the beginning of history, doesn’t it? It is short-lived; so people that are both smart and sexy will know how to use their sexy power while it lasts — like Dita. She knows she won’t be forever that beautiful, but by then she won’t need to be so beautiful anymore. She’s got her brand going on at full speed. There are many examples of smart women out there using their beauty for their profit, smartly, to build something for later. That’s great!

    What I see is that in the catalog some people were depicted fully clothed. There was one person half naked, in an ugly shot designed to call people’s attention. The advertiser knew that a woman would call more attention for several reasons (feminists!) so a woman was it. Purely commercial. I fail to see the outrage — I don’t see nakedness as demeaning. The only thing that could get me outraged is the ugliness of the setting, but that is another story.

    Four illustrations


    In these examples, women and men are being treated very alike. Caught unaware, faces not showing, naked, like our AP model (minus the ugly setting.) Why are the first two victims?

  4. Hey, call it ‘study’ or claim it is some demi-god, and you can get away with anything! But well, there is some sort of difference. To start with, the skill level is… slightly elevated in your counter-examples.

    Still, my point of critique is not the picture as such, that it is pornographic even, or at least kind of not appropriate for a public campaign for a shop selling clothes for all ages. My point is the clashing discrepancy to the way males are depicted.

    In classical art, this is completely not the case. Male and females are equally depicted nude, or dressed, of course always complying with rules of conduct and society. (You didn’t paint your king nude unless he commissioned it.)

    It isn’t only about nakedness, or sexiness, but the entire campaigns featuring females throughout the American Apparel site are … Well. Clearly, no man is depicted like this on American Apparel:

    Art is worth to ponder on, to think twice, and on several levels. The American apparel shoots don’t make people stand in contemplation and pay an entrance fee. Delacroix’ nude act and the Barberini faun do. There might be a nude butt in the AA shoot and a nude butt at Delacroix, but there the similarities end.

    To what you said above, “There are many examples of smart women out there using their beauty for their profit, smartly, to build something for later. That’s great!” Well, yes. But then, men don’t have to in the same way, unless they’re models or p*rn stars. And that’s what I’m talking about.

    Beauty is an interesting topic throughout history. It empowers as well as it endangers. Ganymede wouldn’t have been abducted if he hadn’t been so pretty.

    Salomé seducing her own step-dad, Potiphar’s wife, … They’re not exactly made sympathetic characters, and it mirrors the other side how beauty is perceived; as a tool, and as entirely evil if used consciously, especially by women. It’s also a great way to belittle achievements of females. “She only got that job for her looks.”

    In my own limited experience, if someone likes you because of the ideas he might have of what to do with your body, your power is short-lived indeed. As you cannot please everyone, you end up with a trail of self-entitled men who try to give you a bad name, and nowadays, stalk and flame you online. It’s godawful. There’s sort of a 25 % chance, I found, for someone who has a severe crush on you eventually turning into a dangerous creep.

    Our eyes like beauty, and nice proportions. We assume that beautiful equals good. That’s human but worth questioning as well, because it only serves this far as a guideline. I could have my face burnt off in an accident and still be the same, yet everyone would shun me but a handful of friends, and this is being optimistic.

    For further reading on the topic of beauty – in case you are looking for a distraction – this is a great compilation of the history of beauty in philosophy and art from the Standford Encylopedia of Philosophy: [x]

    • Maybe we should first try to agree whether to consider advertising as a form of art or not. I see you don’t; I do. Even in the ugly picture of the crouching woman each detail was thought out and the ugliness happened on purpose. The models are carefully chosen and placed on both paintings and photo shoots, the objects, the lighting, the background, the framing… it goes beyond a naked bottom. Let’s remember that many artists, if not most, have to sell to survive, so most art is not “pure”; there is good money involved.

      (side note: I was reminded now of some Miley Cyrus semi-pornographic shots by Terry Richardson, made to look like amateur shoots, very very ugly. But even then, they call it art)

      Still if we don’t agree and stick to the example of the re-making of the picture by a guy, I go back to to my question. I truly do not understand the victimization; I’d like to, but I truly don’t. I would sincerely like to get your point. I see an ugly shot with a girl, I see a guy remaking the picture. Why is a woman portrayed like that a victim and the guy isn’t? (we’re assuming, of course, that she was not forced in any way)

      About the discrepancy of the ways men and women are depicted, I would say that everybody wants to look at a beautiful woman. This is not something recent: going back to the paintings, there is a discrepancy too. There are many more nudes of women than of men. Are women more beautiful? The choices artists have been making historically seem to answer “yes”.

      About using one’s beauty, you say “men don’t have to in the same way”. I say “poor men, they *cannot* do it in the same way”. Women considered ugly can’t either, by the way. This is a privilege, using one’s beauty if one chooses to, not a disadvantage. It’s a tool which can be used for good or evil.

      I agree with you when you say that power that relies on sexual appeal is short lived. It is power nevertheless, and smart and beautiful women use it while it lasts. I don’t understand if you are condemning this kind of power or not. Thanks for the link on beauty, I’ll check it out!

      That woman in a swimsuit, “now open”. You see depreciation; I see the Shee-la-na-gig I used as inspiration during childbirth… for me, this is power again. I like it that she is not wearing makeup, I like her confident look. Now open, and there is so, so much in here… envy me, desire me. Oh, men do look a little ridiculous on that pose, even in statues. I’m glad AP did not use a man. How little they have… there’s a uterus deep there in our “now opens”, and try as men might to be grand, new life is ours to create.

  5. Well … Okay I’ll hop through the comment one by one not to sidetrack too much.
    Is advertising an art form? It can be, most definitely. Yet if the American Apparel shoots will be viewed after 200 years and more, only posterity will tell. I don’t get the point at many artistic pieces, but that’s not the artists’ fault. I am not saying the picture in AA is bad or artistically questionable, or technically imperfect. It fulfills all solid standards. About the cover-woman I like that she is not ‘caucasian’, and I am not going to discuss if the pose is sexy. The point is that …. Think, imagine, you had a boy and a girl the same age, who when they get 18, both proudly announce to you they have a catalogue photoshoot for that magazine. Would you feel equally comfortable in both cases, knowing that your daughter most probably had to pose like a p*rn star while your sun at utmost had to lean against a wall fully dressed?

    It is not exactly victimization, it is objectification I am talking about, present in the pictures. The women are far more objectified in advertising throughout than men are, and specifically in the AA ads.

    And … Well, paintings, and statues, if you go back to ancient Greece, I’d say male and female nudes are in complete balance concerning their frequency. If you were a Roman or an ancient Greek and didn’t like to look at handsome men as well, you were considered slightly odd. In both cases, mostly physical ideals are depicted.

    Back to the ‘now open.’ My reaction is not marveling at the depreciation. I don’t even have a problem with p*rn if I got the impression the people there do what they want of their own free will. My reaction is groaning at the lame joke. And again: If that was your 18y old daughter, would you feel comfortable? This is a model, not a p*rn star, and this campaign will most likely follow her around for years, even if she most probably had no influence on the final caption. At every party, every new job, guys will be like “I volunteer.” Funny? Mildly so. That’s using a woman, with flimsy consent. That’s how I see it, at least. AA doesn’t use men the same way.

    To beauty and our ideal of it – I think marketing and photoshop and fashion have created an ideal as unattainable and a lot less healthy for mortals than Michelangelo’s David. “Beauty” is a standard by now that applies to no one, not even the models that are slimmed in their own shoots who are bone-thin already. So, using beauty as a tool is all relative.

    Another thing is that men of course can and are expected not to wear makeup in daily life. Women need to be fixed. You are more likely to get a job if you wear eyeliner. There is a study on it. And afterwards, men make stupid compilations about how ugly women look without makeup. No they don’t look ugly; they look human! I love makeup and I love to dress nice, sometimes even when I stay at home, but I always feel like most man must feel when putting on drag. It’s not something that belongs to me. It’s a costume.

    So there is unequal perception and treatment in many fields.

  6. I began this discussion with two hopes: that it would help me understand the “objectification” point of view, which you share with some of my friends, and that I was able to express the way I see it in a way that you would understand. I’ve failed on both, it seems!

    But ok, let’s try the second again. You come heavily armed, with the final question one poses for a mother: “What if it was your child?” Good, now maybe I will be finally able to make myself understood, from mom to mom.

    I hope that my children, when they reach maturity, are able to make their decisions based on their own feelings. If they do agree with Auntie Lankin about “objectification”, by all means, I don’t want them to do anything that makes them feel objectified, regardless of their gender. I will feel comfortable if they are comfortable, I hope. I myself would have done the “now open” picture had I worked as a model.

    (I don’t think that that campaign would follow a model around for years. They are not like us, mere mortals. They are seen and admired from afar. People may even say a word on two on the internet, but coming up to them and making jokes? Just a few days ago I saw a research that on online dating sites extremely good looking women get less dates than the average pretty woman. Beauty is scary.)

    Back to art, maybe we can talk about facts here, and not feelings. I’d say that in Western art, more after Renaissance, more nude woman portraits have been made than male nude portraits. But we don’t need to work with guesses here, probably someone has even counted. Looking into it maybe will even give me some clue about the question that intrigues me — when did this “objectification” as seen by the feminists started? Found this link, will be reading it:

    I see your points about the impossible pictures that unlike the ones of the past look too real, and about make up too. And hey I agree with you, and I again am curious about when it all started. The notion was there, just the tools were not (digital pictures + cheap make up and YT tutorials for everyone). But this would be a whole other long topic.

    My conclusion on this is that I will not understand why you and my friends see this issue the way you do. You know that ambiguous picture where some people see a duck and others see a rabbit? There are no right or wrongs, just different perceptions; in this case probably based in each one’s life histories.

  7. First: Thank you for the link! I will definitely have a look! I think we need to narrow down the topic, or we’ll end up charging each other to a duel at dawn despite we don’t really disagree, we only use different words and pictures. (In German there is the wonderful term “aneinander vorbeireden” for this; to talk past each other, to failure to make oneself understood and understand, and find a common base of terms in the first place; two people thinking they are talking about the same thing when they really don’t.)

    To discuss objectification in general is near impossible because it affects so many fields. Objectification doesn’t only happen if someone says ‘We need some boobs for that shot,” imh. It also happens when the usefulness of someone in general outweighs individual traits, means, in most fields of business life. So not only women are objectified; men are too, just in slightly different ways. Objectification means treating people as things. Things are used when and how it is convenient, without special consideration, sold, bought, and their value is determined by either emotional attachment or solid value. If a company contracts an artist it is mostly not about ‘I love how he moves and he will be fantastic in that role; have you seen him in xx?” but about solid office box value of the product being made. Is that bad? Or good? It heightens the market value of the artist. I am not even judging, I am only interested in the phenomenon there.

    So to even discuss objectification opens the lid to so many areas of life; business life, how some people build their networks and friends lists, many relationships, how our society treats people who aren’t considered particularly useful, means people with a handicap or old people. What defines our worth; the usefulness for others?

    To ask “what would you say as a mother” wasn’t about limiting possible fields of work or forms of expression, it was just to highlight the unequal treatment there of male and female models at AA.

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