Sexuality and Identity

A Million Mad Moms

The ruckus set off in conservative circles by the recent Valentine Day’s window-dressing for the Armani Exchange website and stores reminded me that fashion, too can be politics. Captioned “Share the Love”, the poster / web graphic features a row of black-and-white photographs depicting the oiled bodies of three couples embracing each other—two men, a man and a woman, and two women. This gallery is bracketed by a pair of images shot from the base of a pier, a reference to the location for the A|X Spring 2010 campaign from which the ad was excerpted: A beach party with Frankie and Annette, but also with Annette and Darlene, and Frankie and Johnny.

The element of fashion is minimal here, unless by fashion we mean something more than the clothes themselves, of which neither of the men in the photographs are wearing any. Sex sells, of course, and these photographs seethe with desire. The two men caress each other’s body in a way that is both tender and highly erotic. In contrast to other sexually charged advertisements where the models come on to the camera (and hence to the viewer), the A|X models in this particular shot are oblivious to the camera. They make love to each other.

Kudos to A|X for going ahead with this inclusive campaign and to A|X creative director Matthew Scrivens, who shot it.

The campaign has gotten some people mad. One million moms, to be exact. Now that many mad anything is worrying, whether they’re horseflies or beach gnats, but a million pissed off mothers is a force to be reckoned with. The conservative grassroots online media watch group, onemillionmoms.com (OMM), has targeted the ad as “appalling” and “disgusting. As the OMM site puts it “there is one other issue we cannot ignore any longer: fashion designers using scantily dressed models in advertisements who have recently put their focus on threesomes or same-s*x couples. This is not okay!”[emphasis added].

In one of its weekly email alerts to its subscribers (think of it as the “media target of the week”), OMM brought the ad to the attention of its constituency and called upon its e-activists to bombard the Armani firm with emails expressing their repulsion at the “soft porn” posters and “imploring [the firm] to publicly apologize and immediately remove the offensive “artwork” from [its] stores and website.”

The idea of this particular boycott is laughable, making it an easy call for A|X to decide not to pull the ad. I can’t imagine that many of these Bible-belt e-activists have actually been in an A|X store at the local mall, much less bought anything from the chain. However, this is no innocuous group, judging from the appallingly long list of OMM’s successes to date in strong-arming major companies such as Cadbury’s, Safeway, Hasbro, Footlocker and Dentyne—the last for an ad in which two women kiss—to nix an advertisement or cancel sponsorship of a TV show OMM did not approve of. (Incidentally, eight of the 60 or so “achievements” have to do with forcing sponsors to remove ads from Desperate Housewives. I wonder if that says anything about the organization).

You can just feel the pent-up wrath of this army of decency: “It is time to fight back!” against the “filth” served up by the entertainment media, the site clamors. “We are searching for one million moms who are willing to join the fight for our children.” The site is shot through with militaristic language.

But why is a photograph of a man caressing another man, this erotic image of flesh on flesh, which in the end is a celebration of life and human connectedness, so disturbing? Why are these mothers not indignant about the sins committed against the flesh? Where is their protest over the mangled bodies, severed legs and charred flesh of civilians and young soldiers (including a good number of their sons and brothers) in Iraq? Where is their anger over the emaciated flesh and wasted bodies of women and men dying of AIDS in Africa, or the hungry swollen bellies of their soon-to-be-orphaned children? Where are the heroines of peace among these self-proclaimed champions of decency?

I first thought their protest was just a silly initiative. I smiled to myself, thinking, “What? Are they afraid their kids will turn gay by being exposed to a photograph? As if kids were eggs that could be dipped in one or the other dye of sexual preference. As if sexual orientation were so labile it could be flipped by an image of a same-sex couple embracing. Of course, it’s not the one image that so unnerves these women. The photograph is provocative because of its indexical nature: the way it points to and signifies a potential future in which this one image would no longer be unusual or remarkable, a future in which it would be ok for two men or two women to touch each other. And OMM knows this: “we must let retailers and designers know that we do not approve, so imitators will not be encouraged and make this a norm.” [emphasis added].

The ad is just a tiny piece in a mosaic of a society of tolerance and inclusiveness that has yet to arrive. But still we should be thankful for ads like this. And maybe even let the folks who were responsible for bringing it out know we’re thankful. OMM already knows the power that the Internet has for fostering grassroots movements, and has effectively used it:

“As a member of a group of one million moms all fighting together, your voice can have a powerful impact… Just imagine the influence you can have by joining with one million other moms!”

Yes, just imagine the influence.

My friend Natalie is one of the 81.5 million US mothers who are not part of OMM – and a single mother at that. In a marvelous coup of irony, she subversively hijacked OMM’s own click-and-send email mechanism, deleting the boilerplate text to write a letter of support to A|X. As she aptly put it, “a lot of things are provocative, which is what a democracy is about”.

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