. . . Not Offered to Me
I’ve just been reading Henry A. Giroux talking about child beauty pageants in the US and the way that they teach children to assume particular, very narrow, powerless, and sexualised identities. Giroux argues that this constitutes a form of child abuse, and frankly, I’m inclined to agree with him.
Part of his argument is that corporate advertising, among other aspects of culture, teach children “to become little women while in the adult society women are being taught to assume the identities of powerless, child-like waifs” (“Nymphet Fantasies: Child Beauty Pageants and the Politics of Innocence,” p. 139, The Giroux Reader, Ed. Christopher G. Robbins, Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers, 2006). He uses the example of Kate Moss’s advertisements for Calvin Klein (but seems to have missed the whole ‘heroin chic’ thing, which I think undercuts his claims about innocence in this regard). The line that he takes is pretty standard Cultural Studies fare; that advertising offers to us a particular identity and interpellates, or calls us to identify with, the myths and ideologies of that identity. So far so good, we teach this to first years.
But I think that there is another side to it; that it also clearly defines that certain identities are not for us. Those advertisements clearly tell me that I am not a ‘Calvin Klein customer.’ It is not just advertisements in the media, but also the way that shops are fitted out and the music they play, their layout, the eateries that they are adjacent to, the dress and demeanour of the sales assistants.
I’ve been shopping for clothes with my daughter recently. At our local shopping centre we know precisely which shops it is acceptable for her to shop in, and which ones it is acceptable for me to shop in. I know that I should stick to the bottom floor, where the sizes and styles are ‘appropriate’ for my age. My daughter knows that her age group is ‘supposed’ to shop on the third floor. There are a couple of shops on the second floor where we both feel quite comfortable. If we are in doubt, a few minutes listening to the music playing in the shop quickly sets us straight. But it is even more subtle than this. When I poked my head into one shop on the second floor, my daughter remained firmly planted outside and informed me that if I bought something from there she would not be seen with me because only particular types of girls bought things from that shop and they were the ones who wore that or wore very little at all. Even within the broadly-defined categories, there are subtle distinctions.
My point in all of this is that advertising and promotional culture doesn’t just offer us the possibilities of desirable identities and ways of being. They also clearly demarcate who is allowed to take up those offers and who really should ‘stick to the bottom floor’.