Queer (Mis)Representations in Advertising

As our academic year comes to an end, we thought it would be a good idea to share some of the wonderful academic work done by student members of Hidden Perspectives NZ, who enjoy integrating queer theory and issues around queer identities into their course assignments.

Starting us off is HPNZ member, Bloom, who is an international student at the University of Auckland, originally hailing from Thailand. Bloom has just completed a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Sociology, and  intends to continue her studies next year, taking an Honours degree in Development Studies. She eventually hopes to work in areas of social justice and advocacy back in Thailand. She wrote the essay below as an assignment for one of her Sociology papers last year, and kindly agreed to let us share it here on the HPNZ website. We hope you enjoy it.

NB: This essay includes discussions of homophobia and biphobia, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and sexual abuse.

“Hot Lesbians” in Ads Are Slowly Killing Us!

by Bloom

Lesbians and bisexual women are becoming more visible than in the past thanks to the legalizing of gay marriage and the outlawing of homosexual discrimination in many countries.  Because of this, straight people may assume that we are now in a ‘safe zone’ right?  Hell no! This is not the case. There is one thing which is slowly killing us:  the mainstream media.  The media turns us into hypersexualized ‘hot lesbians’ in advertisements rather than respecting us as ‘ordinary’ human beings.  In this article, I will analyse how advertisements exploit our image to sell their products for straight men and women.   Then, I will address the consequences of portraying us in this light.

Lesbians and bisexual women are becoming more visible than in the past thanks to the legalizing of gay marriage and the outlawing of homosexual discrimination in many countries.  Because of this, straight people may assume that we are now in a ‘safe zone’ right?  Hell no! This is not the case. There is one thing which is slowly killing us:  the mainstream media.  The media turns us into hypersexualized ‘hot lesbians’ in advertisements rather than respecting us as ‘ordinary’ human beings.  In this article, I will analyse how advertisements exploit our image to sell their products for straight men and women.   Then, I will address the consequences of portraying us in this light.

For (Straight) Men: “Hot Lesbians” In Ads Are “Eye Candy”

Che men's mag
Ché Men’s Magazine

Advertisers use the ‘hot lesbians’ motifs in advertisements aimed at straight men for products including food, alcohol, and sports gear. This depiction of ‘hot lesbians’ services a male erotic fantasy and reflects heteronormativity. Heteronormativity is society’s sexist system that privileges men over women and heterosexuality over other sexualities.  It creates and sustains rigid binaries of gender and sexuality.  It instructs every aspect of life and encourages us to conform to gender and sexual norms.  According to heteronormative gender scripts, men should be active and tough, treating women as their sexual objects of desire.  Meanwhile, women are expected to be passive and to serve men physically and sexually.  Homosexuality and bisexuality are seen as deviant within these heteronormative frameworks.  However, homosexuality and bisexuality are still acceptable in some cases, as long as they remain subservient to heterosexuality. In other words, lesbians and bisexual women are ‘fine’ as long as we are objectified as ‘fun threesome sex toys’ for straight men.

Unsurprisingly, commercials aimed at men commodify us as the straight guys’ ‘eye candy’ to attract more men to buy their products.  Images of ‘hot lesbians’ reflect heteronormative ideals; the women are typically toned, thin with blonde hair, big boobs and curves. Often, they are objectified, particularly in print ads for perfume and fashion, where their full faces are not shown, but instead the camera focuses on their naked backs, legs or buttocks.  The ‘lesbians’ in these advertisements pose in an extremely erotic and sexual manner, typically kissing and caressing each other.  Their postures and behaviours are designed to arouse their (target male) audience, rather than each other.  This is the same sexual framework often used in soft pornography.

Carl jr
Carl’s Jr. burger ad

So, for example, in one advert for fast food, two ‘sexy lesbians’ are used to sell a particular cheeseburger brand. The camera focuses on the models’ breasts and buttocks, objectifying their bodies as ‘pieces of meat’ for male consumption. Consequently, straight men are invited to see lesbian or bisexual women as a source of their erotic pleasure – a fairly common phenomenon, going by research carried out by Pornhub on top US porn search terms (see Khazan 2016).  Similarly, a study carried out among New Zealand high school boys suggests that most believe lesbianism and female-bisexuality to be nothing more than a ‘performance’ for someone else’s viewing pleasure.  As one participant commented, “I think sometimes it (girl on girl practice) is not a sexual thing. It is just to get us turned on.”   In Thailand (my home country) most Thai men think lesbians and bisexual women are “sexual objects” too.  The depiction of ‘hot queer chicks’ is not just popular on the mainstream media, but also on mainstream pornographic websites.  For instance, if you’re on Google’s Thai version and you search the word ‘lesbian’ (Thai: เลสเบี้ยน), it’ll offer you hundreds of Thai porn websites.

sexist-nikon-lesbian-advertisement
Nikon ad

For (Straight) Women:  “Hot Lesbians” Are Just a Fashion

As well as being used to sell products to men, images of ‘hot lesbians’ are also used in ads as a ‘cool’ selling point aimed at straight women. In other words, our sexualities are manipulated by advertisers as a ‘fashion’ for straight women to turn guys on.  Linking this to heteronormativity, the image of ‘hot lesbians’ is promoting a new way to objectify women’s bodies.  Under this sexist cultural system, straight women are encouraged to value their sexuality and beauty as the only ways to be recognised in this patriarchal society. To put it simply, becoming sexual commodities for straight guys is the only way for straight girls to become ‘hot’ and to achieve any social or sexual power. Straight girls consume the ads’ products because ‘girl on girl’ sexual behaviour becomes a ‘style’ that will attract male attention. In the advertisements, ‘hot lesbians’ are often depicted as conforming to certain social notions of perfect feminine beauty: they are typically sexily-dressed, toned and slim. But the sexual behaviour they show towards each other (kissing, holding hands, touching each other) is not intended to fulfil their own sexual desires, but rather serves as an act to satisfy straight male fantasies.

lesbian hoover
Samsung Navibot vacuum cleaner ad

This ‘girl-on-girl’ phenomenon has also become a popular trend among straight girls in college in the US.  According to Yost & McCarthy (2012), this is ironic, ‘because they’re engaging in sexual behaviour, which is supposed to look like they make sure no one think they’re actually lesbians, it’s just turn men on  in a party’. Young women who took part in their survey described two girls kissing as ‘just funny’ or ‘because I want the guys to look at me) (Yost and McCarthy, 2012).

Lesbians & Bisexual Women Are the Victims of this ‘Hot Lesbian’ Phenomenon

Straight men view queer women as their ‘threesome sex toys’, or a source of cheap entertainment.  Meanwhile, straight girls re-appropriate our sexualities as a cool trend to turn boys on.  Our existence as lesbian or bisexual women is therefore seen by straight people as ‘fake’. One result of this is that lesbian and bisexual women are far more likely than straight women to be the victims of sexual harassment and assault (Human Rights Campaign 2017). They are also more likely than straight women to attempt suicide and self-harm, or engage in drug or alcohol abuse (see e.g. LGBTI: National LGBTI Health Alliance 2016). There are multiple factors for why this is, including stigma and discrimination, which are not helped by degrading portrayals in advertising and the media.

As a Thai woman, I have personally felt harmed by the widespread images of ‘hot lesbians’ from Thai mainstream porno websites.  After coming out as queer, I suffered all sorts of harassment and discrimination both at my home and work in Thailand. My family and colleagues thought I was just ‘seeking attention’. My parents even blamed me for not being a good role model for my younger siblings:

“Shut up! Don’t tell anyone that you’re gay! You’ve already ruined our family’s face. I’m now ashamed by you”

“I think….you should be fixed, Bloom.”

It was hell.  I was even inappropriately “touched” by a family member.  I was extremely traumatized.  Because these things happened to me, I was too terrified to spend time with my first girlfriend publically.  This caused me to experience fear, trauma and loneliness. I almost attempted suicide by jumping out of the 2nd floor of my house.  At one stage, I tried drugs to ease my emotional pain.  All of these things happened to me because mainstream society treated me as a ‘sexual object’.

Hey! Media! Stop It! That’s Enough!

I will make this bloody clear: we are NOT ‘toys’ for straight guys. Our sexualities are NOT objects to be used to sell commodities to straight girls.  Our desires are part of who we are as normal human beings.  Depicting us as ‘hot lesbians’ for straight people’s entertainment is unacceptable. Real-life lesbians and bisexual women are being humiliated by this; it is an extremely disrespectful depiction.  As a bisexual woman, I’m writing this article to speak on behalf of every lesbian and bisexual woman who has felt the impact of this media influence; I’m urging every mainstream advertiser to please, please stop portraying us as ‘hot lesbians’ on your TV ads, posters, and billboards. We already live in a heteronormative world that is slowly killing us.

 

References

Human Rights Campaign. 2017. “Sexual Assault and the LGBTQ Community.” Human Rights Campaign. https://www.hrc.org/resources/sexual-assault-and-the-lgbt-community.

LGBTI: National LGBTI Health Alliance. 2016. “The Statistics at a Glance: The Mental Health of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex People in Australia.” http://lgbtihealth.org.au/statistics/.

Khazan, Olga. 2016. “Why Straight Men Gaze at Gay Women.” The Atlantic, 8 March. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/03/straight-men-and-lesbian-porn/472521/.

Yost, Megan R., and Lauren McCarthy. 2012. “Girls gone Wild? Heterosexual Women’s Same-Sex Encounters at College Parties.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 36 (1): 7–24. DOI: 10.1177/0361684311414818.

A note from Bloom

I am truly thankful to Carisa Showden for all of her help, support and great advice on polishing this article. Thanks to Caroline Blyth for putting this article on the blog and supporting my Rainbow International Student Rainbow Initiative, “Queer Global”. Lastly, thanks to my lovely Kiwi sister, Caitlin for helping me polishing my article. I’ve learnt a lot about English writing skills and techniques from her, not to mention learning how to speak like a Far North Kiwi XD.

Khob Khun Ka! (means thank you in Thai !!)

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