Sunday, 12 June 2011

Heroes and Villians

Regular readers of my blog will know that I often rant extensively about advertising and what I perceive to be wilful attempts to bash the public’s self-esteem, in a bid to flog products. I’d been left rather with the impression that I was ‘on my own’ with this one - Generally, people acknowledged that advertising has a detrimental effect on people’s self-perception, but were unwilling to concede that there might be any kind of malign will behind the whole sorry process.

I’ve come to the conclusion that children’s films and, most specifically, Santa Claus the Movie, are in no small part responsible for this line of thinking. Why? I hear you cry! It’s a lovely wee film with elves and Dudley Moore and sparkly things and flying reindeer. Well, yes. But it also features a stereotypical fat cat villain in a big leather armchair, plotting on how he can bring further evil into the film for his own financial gain. And when we think of the World and all its nasties, we want someone specific to blame. It’s partially because we want to absolve ourselves of any responsibility for the state of affairs and partially because it’s just easier than trying to digest the actual complexity of the matter.

That’s how Cheryl Cole ends up being blamed for our desire to be thin. Logically we know it’s not her fault, but she’s an icon of everything we wish we could be and can never realistically attain, so we impose a conscious will onto her slender frame, make ourselves feel a bit better by deciding she’s a nasty cow, and go about our business.

In a similar way, there is no Advertising Exec sitting in a squishy leather throne, smoking a cigar and cackling maniacally to himself, while he thinks of all the people frantically scooping up beauty products in the vain hope they’ll soothe their constant feelings of inadequacy. Life is, unfortunately, not that simple.

And so we move into the realms of blaming a concept, an attitude, prevailing social standards, rather than some elusive Simon Cowell type figure we’ve never met. It’s difficult to get your head around and even harder to explain.

Which is why I was so delighted to be invited to a screening of Jean Kilbourne’s ‘Killing us Softly’ last Monday, as a representative for Body Gossip at the All Party Parliamentary Group (and then to a Q & A with the great lady herself, no less).If you’ve never heard of Jean Kilbourne, stop reading and Google her now. This instant. She’s a lady whose devoted her entire professional life to observing and commentating on the effect advertising has on society and, much like a conversation with your Mum about boys, you initially want to argue before deciding that she’s right about everything.

One phrase in particular stuck in my mind, if only because I’m now going to whip it out in any situation where someone suggests to me that people must start taking responsibility for themselves and stop blaming the advertising industry and media for all their woes.

The effect of advertising is cumulative and unconscious.

It’s brilliant. Cumulative because, of course, it would be daft to suggest that one advertising campaign could ever be blamed for our collective body confidence dilemmas. Unconscious because when we think about it, we know the messages we’re being given are wrong, but it doesn’t stop us, to some extent, buying into them anyway.

Killing us Softly grapples extensively with body image but the apex of the film changes tack slightly and makes an unique and valid point about violence towards women. In a sphere where women’s bodies are compartmentalised and scrutinized and where women are literally objectified (often they are transformed into the objects they are being used to advertise), we’re also promoting lack of respect towards them. “The first step towards violence is in dehumanising your subject” says Jean “it happens with racism…….and it happens with women”.

And so we get a glimpse into how far reaching and multifaceted the beauty debate really is. It permeates every area of our lives. Fat is indeed, as the legend that is Susie Orbach has been insisting since 1973, a feminist issue.