Photo: Calvin Klein
If there is a single lesson from the interwebs that I have failed to take to heart (or rather, that I have refused to take to heart) it is the adage “don’t feed the trolls.” The idea behind the saying is that I shouldn’t get mad in response to things that were deliberately designed to make me mad, as that only plays into the trap of the idiot on the other end of the internet who delights in the idea that I’m electronically blowing my gasket while they’re perfectly unconcerned by the havoc that they are causing. It’s an idea that makes sense in the abstract—why play into their hands? Why give them the attention that they crave? But at the end of the day, that response leaves power in the troll’s hands just as much as my anger does, if not more. By saying provocative things, they have broken me. They have chased me from the internet, prevented me from engaging in a dialogue with them, and ultimately, left their voice as the only voice in the “room.” It’s victim-blaming rhetoric: if only I hadn’t fed the trolls, they wouldn’t have been able to win. The troll in question gets away scot-free with a “What are you gonna do? People on the internet are terrible,” and a shrug. So even knowing that attention and reaction is exactly what trolls want, I usually take the bait. Because the alternative is stewing in my own anger while the overall “proper behavior on the internet” needle doesn’t move an iota. I will tilt at those windmills, dang it.
Which is why, like Amanda Marcotte, I’m going to respond to Calvin Klein in probably the exact way that the company wants: Calvin Klein, what the hell do you think you’re doing? Calvin Klein is a brand that is well known for making ads that they would like people to call “risqué” but that people actually call “gross.” They have a history older than I am of trying to push buttons (usually ones related to sexuality, weird pseudo-pedophilia and sexual violence). This ranges from having a fifteen-year-old Brooke Shields brag about the lack of an underwear-like barrier between her body and her jeans, to a topless seventeen-year-old Kate Moss, to a series of ads that look like they were shot in Uncle Touchy’s Naked Puzzle Basement, to an advertisement that seems to take place just prior to a gang-rape. Calvin Klein has a tradition of ads that try to come off as “edgy” and mostly come off as “ew.”
So it’s no surprise that the company’s new ad campaign is trying to be daring, but is mostly reading as sad and out of touch. The campaign includes images that suggest masturbation, a Kardashian using a grapefruit to suggest she performs oral sex (though if this ad makes it on the New York City subway and the Thinx one does not, I’m gonna claim grapefruit-based discrimination) and even something called a “belfie” which I had to look up (it is a butt-emphasizing selfie. You’re welcome and I’m sorry) that also seems to show a lack of understanding about which way pants are supposed to go. Calvin Klein’s MO is to try to court controversy, then revel in it. I refuse to pretend anything like shock about grapefruit or masturbation.
The part I do take offense to, however, is one particular image that seems to suggest that women are purposefully going out and about in the world in dresses because they want you to take upskirt photos of them. The photo itself is upskirt-style, a low-angle shot that catches the model’s spread legs, spotted underwear, and light skirt. The model herself is looking down at the camera with what they probably hope is an air of mystery and challenge but reads more like a “same shit, different day”-style apathy. The text over the advertisement says “I flash in my #Calvin’s” implying that the upskirt photographer is not improperly invading the woman’s space and denying her bodily autonomy, he’s just responding to her “flashing” him. I get so confused sometimes, I’m glad that Calvin Klein can help me out.
The problem with this ad is that it is deeply, deeply stupid, and replicates harmful “my lips say no but my body says yes” stereotypes about women. Why would you wear a dress if you didn’t want some creep to look up your skirt with his camera and take a picture? Don’t you secretly want your undergarments to appear on Reddit because you happened to go into a public place? Like many other things in our culture, this advertisement is suggesting that women don’t actually know their own minds when they are refusing sex and attention—they’re just overlooking their deeper “instincts” that revel in the fact that some stranger with an Android wants photographic evidence of their thigh gap. Amanda Marcotte helpfully sums up why this whole thing is outdated, not edgy:
All of which is why this Calvin Klein ad should not be regarded as rebellious or daring. On the contrary, it’s deeply conservative, in that it plays off old-fashioned and bigoted ideas about women being mendacious cock teases who only pretend not to want it and therefore need to be forced.
Someday I am going to marry Amanda Marcotte. Or at least say hi to her and tell her that she is amazing.
Calvin Klein did this ad to get attention, and got it. But I’m still thinking it’s not quite the type of attention that they wanted. Your gender representations are as outdated as your styles and your attempts to be provocative, Calvin Klein. Go home.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not trying to explain all the things wrong with CK’s advertising strategies, she studies gender in popular culture.
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