The Illusive Promise of Women's Choice and Autonomy. Postfeminism in Perfume Advertisement

Essay, 2018

11 Seiten, Note: 1.0


Christian Schulz

By charging women $1.40 more than men for an order of 'Chicken Fries', global fast food chain Burger King made "an effort to bring awareness to what's known as the Pink Tax" (Stephens). Despite the questionability of a fast food restaurant chain engaging in feminist endeavours without self-interest, several newspaper accounts on this publicity stunt lack criticism and tend to focus on the aforementioned gender issue of 'Pink Taxes' instead (cf. Stephens; Spencer; Stern). The fact that products aimed at women or girls tend to cost more than their 'male' counterparts leads Suzanne McGee to propose a drastic measure of "pay […] equity: that instead of earning 100 cents for every dollar, we earn 107 cents?" At the same time, Suzanne admits that "some of this is our own fault" in that women "succumb to overly lavish marketing campaigns" and consequently buy overpriced products. This self-blame coincides with the neoliberal or postmodern shift in the 1980s that the customer evolved from being heavily influenced in their needs and wishes by mass media and advertisement to an individual who is able to fully reflect its rational, emotional and social needs (Gasteiger 157). Rosalind Gill develops this line of thought further by making a connection between the neoliberal consumer and the "active, freely choosing, self-reinventing subject of postfeminism" ("Postfeminist Media Culture" 164). In light of contemporary gender issues like 'Pink Tax' and equal pay, postfeminist or postmodern western media culture appears to play a major role by simultaneously constructing and dismantling the concept of the self-determined female individual.

In view of this significant change in the perception of consumerism, Gill defines "postfeminism", similar to the term postmodernism, as having "become overloaded with different meanings" ("Postfeminist Media Culture" 147). In contrast to the numerous contested understandings of postfeminist notions, Gill proposes that "postfeminism" is to be understood "as a sensibility that characterizes increasing numbers of films, television shows, advertisements and other media products" (148). Moving beyond the concept of sensibility, Gill ascribes postfeminism the ability to construct "an articulation or suture between feminist and anti-feminist ideas" (162). In order to pinpoint postfeminist media products, Gill provides us with a "number of interrelated themes" that accompany the rise of postfeminist media culture (147). For Gill, these include the display of "femininity as a bodily property" (149), the allusion of female sexual subjectivity (151), an emphasis on female "choice [,] empowerment" (153) and "self-surveillance" (155), as well as the use of the "makeover paradigm" (156) and "irony" (159). These themes and their relatedness to postfeminist sensibility will be elaborated on here by using the example of a Roberto Cavalli perfume advertisement for women from 2012. In this perfume advert, a young and attractive woman wakes up from an afternoon nap in a lavishly furnished bedroom, puts on a dress and Roberto Cavalli necklace, and then makes her way through an Italian palace to an extravagant garden party. Her walk to the garden is continuously juxtaposed with a trotting tiger, who appears to be heading for the same direction. As the woman arrives at the palace garden, all eyes are focused on her. She approaches a man sitting in a luxurious chair and throws her necklace at him. Not until then is the perfume properly being introduced to the viewer alongside a read-out copy: "Roberto Cavalli – the new fragrance for her." In this essay, I will argue that Roberto Cavalli's perfume advert reflects postfeminism.

The advertisement's narrative as well as technical and mise-en-scène codes are continuously used to emphasise the representation of the actress' body, which happens in accordance with Gill's remark that "femininity" in postfeminism "is defined as a bodily property" ("Postfeminist Media Culture" 149). Furthermore, Gill states that the "'sexy body'" is the "key (if not sole) source of [female] identity" (ib.). Taking into consideration that cultural identity can form around multiple "points of difference", such as "class, gender, sexuality, age, ethnicity, nationality, political position […], morality, religion, etc." (Barker and Jane Cultural Studies 273), Roberto Cavalli's perfume advert mainly pays attention to the female protagonist's figure as her identity's focal point. In the first shot of the advert, the viewer is presented with a nearly naked female body on a bed (0:00-0:02). On the one hand, the body's visibility is emphasised by a top down view and a medium long shot; on the other hand, moderate low-key lighting highlights the body's contours without leaving any body part obscured in the shadows. The following shots alternately focus on different body parts with the same lighting, scant or no clothing, and either a medium close up shot, such as on arms, neck, face and bosom (0:02-0:03; 0:11-0:12), or a big close up shot, such as on the feet (0:03-0:05). Furthermore, shot size, scant clothing, low-key lighting and the rule of the thirds highlight the female body throughout the dressing scene and the actress' walk to the palace garden. In 0:12 to 0:14, the top-right lighting accentuates the actress' immaculate skin and her back dimples while the rule of the thirds leads the viewer's eyes from her head to her barely covered bottom. Afterwards, when the protagonist is fully clothed on her way to the party, the shot size decreases rapidly from a very long shot to a medium long shot and finally to a medium close up of her legs (0:16-0:20). During this change in shot size, top-left lighting obscures the actress' skin but puts emphasis on her slim figure. This focus on the protagonist's "sleek, toned, controlled" and thus successful figure (Gill "Postfeminist Media Culture" 150) culminates in the quick succession of medium long and big close up shots of the female protagonist upper body and face (0:32-0:41). While the woman's face is made visible a couple of times, her maintained 'cool' facial expression (e. g. in 0:10-0:12) does not offer much indication on how she feels about the narrative that unfolds in the advert. Moreover, the advert's story is told without a word of dialogue. As a result, the concentration on female body parts in combination with a near lack of emotion and absence of dialogue leaves no other noteworthy point of difference for female identity apart from the woman's bodily properties. In other words, the protagonist's body is exposed to the degree that it represents the "ideal" of contemporary beauty norms "toward which all women must aspire in order to complete their identity" (Lewis 270). Thus, the representation of the sexy female figure in Roberto Cavalli's advertisement ties in with the notion of postfeminist femininity stemming almost exclusively from a "young, slim and beautiful" female body (Gill "Postfeminist Media Culture" 152).

Another characteristic of the advertisement that fits Gill's approach to postfeminism is the protagonist's portrayal as a "desiring sexual subject" ("Postfeminist Media Culture" 151). According to Gill, postfeminist sexual subjectivity acts as a neoliberal mirage in which "sexual objectification can be (re-)presented not as something done to women by some men, but as the freely chosen wish of active, confident, assertive female subjects" (152-153). Furthermore, postfeminist advertising constructs this wish "to become sex objects" through a "status of active subjecthood" by promising its female viewers "power" (Gill Gender and the Media 90). Sexual Power is evoked throughout the Roberto Cavalli advert by cross-cutting shots of the female protagonist with shots of a roaming tiger. For instance, as the protagonist walks through her bedroom, the tiger also appears to be walking on the same hardwood floor (0:03-0:07). Dispelling the idea that the protagonist keeps a dangerous predator in her room, the similar big close-up shot, low-key lighting from the top-right and the fluid transition from the woman's to the tiger's feet movement indicate that the animal is in fact a representation of the protagonist. This representational connection is further established during the main character's walk to the garden party, her descent from the stairs and the confrontation with the man on the chair albeit that the shot size equivalence is not given in these scenes (0:14-0:22; 0:26-0:30; 0:34-0:36). At last, the main character's animal-print dress mirrors the fur of the tiger and demonstrates the representation of the woman as a tiger. In light of this equation, the advert attributes sexual self-determination to the protagonist. Furthermore, similar to a determined animal disregarding the looks of bystanders, the female protagonist appears unperturbed by the attention of both the garden party attendees and her own object of desire, i. e. the man in the chair (0:28-0:41). This indifference implies the postfeminist notion that women themselves have sexual desires to pursue and therefore are not only to conform to the "heterosexual male fantasy found in pornography" for the external male viewer (Gill "Postfeminist Media Culture" 152). However, the actress in Roberto Cavalli's advert, Elisa Sednaoui, fits this postfeminist fantasy as she is "young, slim and beautiful" and represented as a woman "who desire[s] sex with men" (ib.), which becomes apparent in the protagonist's determined approach to the surprised man in the chair. Added to this alleged sexual self-determination, the advert's theme tune connotes the danger that lies in 'playing the game', i. e. engaging in a sexual relationship with the woman in question. The lyrics of the advert's song mention the "game" from which "there is no escape" (0:18-0:22), which occurs at night ("pale moonrise on a darkened day" [0:06-0:10]) and begins with a "spark and a flame" (0:10-0:14). The notions of nighttime, fire, no escape and playfulness suggest that the song refers to love play. The connotation of love or sex with playfulness is reversed at the end of the song, while the lead character approaches her love interest, with the line "playing with fire ain't no game" (0:26-0:34). The intertwining of the lyrics and the advertisement's narrative reveal that firstly, the protagonist's object of desire, the man in the chair, engaged in a playful relationship with the female character and secondly, by doing so, he is playing with fire, i. e. his love interest. As a result, the perfume advert follows the postfeminist construction of women as allegedly active desiring sexual subjects by ascribing (predatory) sexual power and dangerousness to its protagonist and granting her sexual desires while having her meet heteronormative body and sexual expectations.

Closely linked to the postfeminist supposed abandonment of the passive objectified woman, Roberto Cavalli's advertisement reiterates postfeminism's discourse of "choice, of 'being oneself' and 'pleasing oneself'" as well as of "empowerment" (Gill "Postfeminist Media Culture" 153). 'Choice' and therefore also 'autonomy' are some of postmodernity's catchphrases which have already been debunked as illusions, as for example Roland Reichenbach summarises in his work on pedagogical ethics (cf. Ethik der Bildung und Erziehung 89). Likewise, for Gill, postfeminism's promise of autonomy and free choice concerning the female body does not tie in with the "resulting valued 'look'" being "so similar – hairless body, slim waist, firm buttocks, etc." ("Postfeminist Media Culture" 154). As has already been mentioned above, the actress' bodily properties perfectly match this valued look. Indeed, while the protagonist is putting on her Roberto Cavalli necklace in front of a mirror (0:07-0:12), one can detect a faint smile on her otherwise mostly emotionless face as if she admired not only her necklace but also her own body in the mirror. As she caresses herself in front of the mirror, her conventionally beautiful body provides her with pleasure (0:10-0:12). This pleasure is further emphasised by the following shot in which the protagonist has her back turned to the camera, but instead of seductively or coyly looking back at the viewers, she looks down at her own body with a slightly opened mouth. As a result, while the camera may act as an objectifying male gaze in this scene, the protagonist's desirability is depicted as being solely for her own pleasure. However, Gill states that the postfeminist attitude of "'leaving him wanting more'" stands contradictory to this self-fulfilled pleasure (155). This contradiction can be seen at the end of the advert: Here, the protagonist seemingly rejects the man in the chair by confidently throwing the necklace, which was most likely a gift, at him while presenting herself to him according to conventional heterosexual fantasies. In addition to the focus on female choice and self-pleasuring, Roberto Cavalli's advertisement emphasises the empowerment of its protagonist. Power is ascribed to the advert's female lead character in two ways: Firstly, except for the tiger, she appears to be the only figure in the advert that moves across boundaries and acts in different spaces, such as the bedroom, the Italian palace structure and the garden party. The transition from one space to another is accompanied by a shift in colour scheme. Whereas the bedroom scene is embedded in golden and bronze (0:00-0:14), the palace scene with its flora introduces the colour green (0:14-0:22) and at last, the garden party scene includes more green hues as well as other, more intense colours, such as black, blue, purple, orange, yellow and red (0:22-0:39). This change from a uniform colour scheme into a more multi-faceted one implies a reversal of Yuri Lotman's concept of the "shift […] from the frontier area into the centre" (141). In the advert, the protagonist alone has the power to move from the "nucleus", which is "lacking in colour or scent", to the "periphery", which is "brightly coloured and marked" (ib.). Secondly, the camera angles chosen for the party scene implicate that power or dominance is assigned to the protagonist and that the man in the chair is in a vulnerable or weak position. While the main character descends from the stairs, the viewer and the partygoers watch her from a low camera angle, which is also used during her approach to the man in the chair (0:26-0:30 and 0:32-0:38). In contrast, the man in the chair is filmed from a high camera angle, which matches his nervous facial expression and inferior position to the female main character. As a consequence, the narrative and technical codes of the perfume advert suggest that the protagonist maintains a position of power, that she adheres to contemporary beauty standards in order to actively and consciously please herself and that she still tries to be irresistible and not to be 'easy to have.'

In connection with its emphasis on women's choices, Roberto Cavalli's perfume advert displays the postfeminist notion of "self-surveillance, self-monitoring and self-discipline" (Gill "Postfeminist Media Culture" 155). This notion complies with Michel Foucault's "technologies of the self", with which the media impose the "ethical duty to monitor their appearance, make sacrifices to achieve a better body, and 'treat' themselves to a range of cosmetic treatments and adornments" on women (Gauntlett 139). The 'treat' that comes with the advert is Roberto Cavalli's signature eau de parfum. However, not only the importance of a woman's scent but also the requirement of surveilling her body and the proper apparel are thematised. In the advert, self-surveillance occurs at the beginning, when the protagonist looks at her mirror image (0:07-0:12). During these few seconds, the camera angle first slightly imitates the protagonist's point of view from behind her back, whereas the second shot takes the point of view of the mirror. In this change of point of view, the camera moves closer to the protagonist as the shot size changes from a mid-shot to a close-up. The protagonist herself sits close to the mirror on top of a luxurious dressing table. Due to this close inspection of the female body by both the camera and the protagonist, no blemish, freckle or pimple is unobserved. The "increased intensity of self-surveillance", as Gill puts it, becomes evident in this mirror scene ("Postfeminist Media Culture" 155). At first glance, since Elisa Sednaoui already successfully keeps her appearance as close to the contemporary beauty standard as possible, the protagonist's intense self-monitoring in the mirror appears unnecessary. Nevertheless, Gill demonstrates that in the postfeminist media landscape, "ongoing and constant monitoring" is required of women in order to handle "'problems'" concerning "bodily shape, size, muscle tone, attire, sexual practice" and more (ib.). In addition to self-monitoring, a later scene in the advert also shows that the protagonist has internalised "the objectifying male gaze" (152): As soon as the female protagonist arrives at the garden party, all eyes are on her (0:22-0:33). The first onlookers that are presented in the scene are two men of different age (0:25). Both men appear to have a serious and scrutinising look on their face although the low-key lighting makes it harder to discern their true emotions. In the following shots, partygoers with varying degrees of pleasure, astonishment or scrutiny watch as the protagonist approaches the object of her desire (0:25-0:38). In spite of being closely watched, she does not once lift her eyes from the man in the chair. As a result, her stoic appearance at the party and the dressing table scene indicate that external surveillance is replaced by an internalised self-surveillance. To sum up, Roberto Cavalli's perfume advertisement reiterates the postfeminist notion of female internalised monitoring and surveillance by incorporating different disciplining gazes, such as the self-policing gaze of the protagonist or the scrutinising looks of the partygoers.

A closer look at the representation of the perfume in Roberto Cavalli's advertisement reveals the use of the "makeover paradigm", which is constitutive of "postfeminist media culture" (Gill "Postfeminist Media Culture" 156). Within this paradigm, women are to realise that "they or their life is lacking or flawed in some way" and that these shortcomings can be overcome by "practising appropriately modified consumption habits" (ib.). In the advert, the female protagonist assumes the role of the consumer and implicitly uses Roberto Cavalli's eau de parfum to make her appearance over. The parfum first appears as a rather large flask in front of the mirror of the dressing table (0:07-0:10). During this scene, the protagonist puts on a necklace with a pendant in the shape of the perfume flask cap. Due to this similarity, the viewer understands that the protagonist is actually putting on the perfume in front of the mirror. The same link between perfume and necklace is established in the final shot of the advert: Here, the necklace enters the screen from the top, the pendant lands on the flask and the chain falls through the bottom of the screen (0:41-0:45). While the protagonist is applying the Roberto Cavalli perfume on the dressing table, her reflection shows that there is no perfume present in the 'mirror world' (0:07-0:10). According to Foucault's account on heterotopian spaces, "the mirror is a utopia after all" and it grants us visual access to an "unreal space" or to its "mirror utopia" (179). If we apply this concept to the perfume advert, the reflection of the protagonist exists in a utopian space, a space of either "perfected" or reversed "society" (178). Consequently, in an unreal perfected or reversed space, the protagonist does not need or have Roberto Cavalli's perfume. As she realises that only her utopian mirror-self displays perfection (or an assumed reversed reality) without the perfume, she resorts to Roberto Cavalli's eau de parfum in order to conform to the heterosexual norm that is imposed on her by the partygoers, the man in the chair and herself. Thus, she overcomes her flaws and succeeds in her olfactory makeover. Accordingly, the use of the mirror in the dressing table scene as a utopia and the representation of the perfume as a necessity for ideal beauty in Roberto Cavalli's advertisement tie in with the postfeminist concept of the makeover paradigm.

A further analysis of Roberto Cavalli's advertisement's copy and narrative reveals another aspect of postfeminist sensibility, which Gill describes as the usage of "irony and knowingness" ("Postfeminist Media Culture" 159). For Gill, irony enables media constructors to express "sexist, homophobic or otherwise unpalatable sentiments […] while claiming this was not actually 'meant'" (ib.). Stéphanie Genz and Benjamin A. Brabon agree with Gill's view on postfeminist irony usage in that they stress that these ironic jokes are "shared by women and men alike" whereas "critics who object" to these problematic jokes "do not have to be taken seriously" (150). Although irony is employed more subtly in Roberto Cavalli's advert than in Gill's example from FHM (cf. "Postfeminist Media Culture" 160), the usage of this figure of speech questions both the aforementioned notion of women's choices and the promotional intention of the advert as a whole. At the beginning of the advert, the protagonist chooses to wear the Roberto Cavalli perfume in an act of self-pleasuring. However, as she throws her necklace, i. e. the perfume, at the man in the chair and thus rejects his gift, the significance of her earlier choice is ironically reversed. This gesture is interconnected to her seductive albeit restrained smile in the second last shot of the advert (0:40-0:41). Here, her mimics indicate that the portrayed refusal is not to be taken too seriously. Given that postfeminism advocates the importance of female choice, in the end, her chosen perfume does not appear to matter much anymore. This reversal of importance as an embedded irony aligns with irony's general definition in that a figurative expression is used to signify its opposite meaning ("Ironie"Metzler Lexikon Literatur). In addition to this inversed meaning of choice, the advert's copy "Roberto Cavalli – the new fragrance for her" (0:41-0:45) adds another layer of ironic ambiguity. Here, the meaning of "her" is twofold: On the one hand, "her" refers to women in general, i. e., Roberto Cavalli's new fragrance is the perfume of choice for any woman; on the other hand, "her" indicates that this perfume is meant for the woman in the advertisement, our female protagonist. Due to this double meaning, the female viewer is left in suspense whether the advert prompts her to buy its promoted perfume or offers a display of a conventionally beautiful woman with her new eau de parfum for the audience to marvel at. By subtly employing the rhetorical figure of irony, Roberto Cavalli's advertisement conforms to the postfeminist attitude of "'having it both ways'" (Gill "Postfeminist Media Culture" 159): It promises its female viewer the significance of individual choice and puts its relevance into question while alluding to the idea that the promoted perfume is as fitting for any woman as for Elisa Sednaoui and reversing this equation and implying that this fragrance is only meant for this particular female character.


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The Illusive Promise of Women's Choice and Autonomy. Postfeminism in Perfume Advertisement
Universität Zürich  (English Department)
Language Skills and Culture: Higher
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
Postfeminism, Advertisement, Postfeminist Media
Arbeit zitieren
Christian Schulz (Autor:in), 2018, The Illusive Promise of Women's Choice and Autonomy. Postfeminism in Perfume Advertisement, München, GRIN Verlag,


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