As they take a walk through any mall in America, it is almost guaranteed shoppers will see one store in particular which exudes the color pink and is filled with mannequins dressed in women’s undergarments. They look up to see this store name they know all too well: Victoria’s Secret. Even if they avoid the store altogether, chances are customers will see posted advertisements along walls within the shopping center they are in. Those who aren’t even shopping, but instead are sitting down somewhere in the mall, flip through a magazine and come across an advertisement for that same company. The family member who even decided to stay home that day turns on the television only to see a Victoria’s Secret commercial appear. Clearly, the brand wants their audience’s attention, and with the advertisements they provide of seemingly perfect and flawlessly gorgeous women in minimal clothing, who wouldn’t be attracted to what they must be selling? However, most customers do not think twice about the images they view from Victoria’s Secret advertisements and the amount of damage which comes from the messages those ads are sending out to women, particularly young women, everywhere. Through use of queer theory and ideological criticism, the aspects which Victoria’s Secret promotions hide and push away from the public eye can be brought into view.
Queer criticism, or queer theory rather, looks directly at the established identity of a certain artifact and aims to focus on what that identity pushes out of view and why. More specifically, queer criticism examines the disidentification of the objects deliberately hidden in the background. With the use of queer criticism, advertisements by Victoria’s Secret can be analyzed to determine what objects or messages are slid to the side and out of the spotlight. Going along with queer criticism, ideological criticism identifies the ideograph being used in this spotlight. This criticism takes further look at what the ideograph represents and the consequences which arise from its use. Furthermore, it is necessary to look at the motive for the ideograph being used. Within Victoria’s Secret ads, one particular ideograph stands out the most to viewers everywhere.
This ideograph can be seen by looking first at one campaign made by the brand back in 2014, where a Victoria’s Secret advertisement displays models dressed in different versions of the company’s newly designed undergarments for women with the slogan “The Perfect ‘Body’” in all capital letters across the front of it. Although the initial intention of the ad may be to promote the new line of various types of bras which would be offered, deeper observation of this ideograph reveals a harsher message. The advertisement can be seen below.
Taking one glance at this ad might be harmless, but with a simple connection the reader can easily infer that ‘the perfect body’ which Victoria’s Secret is talking about is the body shared by all eight of their models in this promotion. This idea of ‘the perfect body’ is the ideograph presented in many of their company ads throughout the years. That body includes a cinched in waist and toned stomach along with a very lean and slim figure. The image in this campaign makes the message evident that this body type is the one Victoria’s Secret believes to be the ideal, leaving little room for anything else in the picture. Through a queer criticism outlook, the ad also disidentifies the average female figure. Yet what is the motive behind this ideograph of ‘the perfect body’? Why implement it in this format at all? One large motive of this slogan is that in western cultures, sex sells. In other, more specific, words, the sexualized female body sells. No one wants to have sex with an imperfect female body, right? Well if that were truly the case, the human race would have been long gone by now. However, the sexualized, perfect female body is attractive to most prospective audiences, gaining the ad more views and more views equates to more customers, thus sales increase. With Victoria’s Secret and other multi-billion dollar companies, their promotions are simply meant to bring in more money. This explains the motive behind the ideograph ‘the perfect body’ which Victoria’s Secret implores; it’s just good business. On the other hand though, the brand did not anticipate the large negative feedback they would receive from audiences everywhere due to the ads underlying, inconsiderate theme.
By using the slogan ‘the perfect body’, the message pushes out any concept of a different body type which might exist as the norm. This has a massive impact on target audiences, such as young women, who view the ad. These young women see the image before them as something they need to strive to become and if they don’t achieve it, they’ll never truly be part of the exclusive Victoria’s Secret club. They’ll never see themselves as having ‘the perfect body’. As a result, the campaign received large amounts of backlash as audiences took huge offense to the hidden meaning in the ad. Viewers argued the promotion was sending out the wrong message and that all female bodies of different shapes and sizes should be considered acceptable. They all highly agreed Victoria’s Secret should not be allowed to define what the perfect version of the female body is. The company quickly changed the slogan to “A Body for Every Body”, but other brands were already responding to the campaign with ads of their own. One promotion from Dove in response portrays multiple women of all shapes and sizes with the words “The Perfect Real Body” across the front. Dove’s advertisement can be seen below.
In addition to Dove, the brand known as Aerie also indirectly responded to the Victoria’s Secret ad with their new campaign #AerieREAL where real women are used as models along with their photos which have not been altered through retouching. A more recent ad placed by this campaign can be seen below with the slogan “The real you is sexy” posted in all capital letters, similar to the ad placed by Victoria’s Secret in 2014.
Through the advertisements placed both by Dove and Aerie, they specifically aim to bring to light those body types which Victoria’s Secret directly avoids. Using a type of queer rhetoric, their promotions disrupt the normal ads of ‘perfect’ female bodies seen by Victoria’s Secret and other lingerie companies with their use of real, average female bodies. By doing so, Dove and Aerie create their own ideograph of ‘the real body is perfect’. Looking at this separate ideograph presented by both ads through a queer criticism lens, it’s easy to see this new ideograph pushes away the thought that any body could be imperfect. The only body disidentified with this new ideograph is perhaps one which has been photo shopped, such as those ever so ‘perfect’ photo shopped and retouched bodies of models Victoria’s Secret has in their ads.
Diving deeper into this message portrayed by Aerie’s slogan, “The real you is sexy”, an investigation into the Aerie website shows just how committed the company is to keeping it real when it comes to their models. Two screenshots are seen below, the left of Victoria’s Secret website, and the right being the Aerie website, with both selling push-up bras.
First examining the Victoria’s Secret web page, there is an immediate theme of the same ideograph ‘the perfect body’ which can be seen. All four of the models have very similar body types, seemingly flawless skin, and, interesting enough, perfect breasts. Moving over to the Aerie web page, all four models displayed have different body types, imperfect skin with freckles and scars, and actual, realistic breasts. Without the photo shop and retouching, Aerie gives their customers models they can relate to. They give them a more real representation of the female body as opposed to Victoria’s Secret models who, no offense, have make up a minority of female body types. Further analysis of images of models from the Victoria’s Secret website seen below convey, again, that same ‘perfect’ body type.
Another aspect of almost all Victoria’s Secret models seen in each figure so far is the fact that they all have long hair. Whether their hair is straight or curly, it seems as though it has to be long. One other feature the Victoria’s Secret models have in common are their ages. Unlike Victoria’s Secret, Aerie’s models for their #AerieREAL campaign, or movement rather, have a much larger age range along with varying lengths of hair. Two models from Aerie can be seen below.
The model on the right illustrates an older woman as the model who does not have the luscious, flowing locks like the Victoria’s Secret models do, but instead has incredibly short hair. The photo on the left shows a model for Aerie who has type I diabetes as clearly indicated by her insulin pump attached to her bra. Both of these pictures of models from Aerie demonstrate the inclusiveness the company is striving towards. In addition to these models, there are many more with disabilities, stretch marks, tattoos, and even down syndrome. All of these images reinforce the ideograph Aerie and other businesses are trying to catch fire with that ‘the real body is perfect’.
As shoppers scroll through the online Victoria’s Secret web page selling push-up bras, one aspect of the models they may not even notice is that a large majority of them are not smiling. Researching this web page, out of the forty four images of models shown, only two of them are smiling. These two images can be seen below.
Comparing this to the Aerie web page, twenty nine photos out of the first forty four seen are smiling. This is more than ten times the amount of models smiling within the Victoria’s Secret web page for selling push-up bras. In addition, both of the only two Victoria’s Secret models shown to be smiling are not looking at the camera. While Aerie’s models are also displayed not looking at the camera in certain images, the majority of their pictures have women smiling directly at the camera, comfortable in their own skin. With queer theory in mind, it’s important to consider what Victoria’s Secret pushes out of view as they only display the majority of their models on this web page not smiling. Perhaps hiding the smile allows for the face to stay conformed to that ‘perfect’ body type. When people smile, they create wrinkles and display their teeth which might not be up to that ‘perfect’ standard of being straight and having a pearly white glow to them. Going off of these thoughts, the message inferred from a lack of smiles in Victoria’s Secret model photos is simply that smiles are not sexy. This connects back to the sexualized female body from earlier which the company often tries to sell. Without a sexy aspect of a perfect smile, the brand may believe their products won’t do so well. An even stronger hidden message from this is that the company does not want their models to be themselves and smile, which tells audiences that maybe they shouldn’t be themselves either. This deconstruction of the ideograph of ‘the perfect body’ takes a larger look at harsh messages being slowly ingrained into the customers minds as they see these advertisements online.
Adding onto this point that the queer criticism looks at where the real version of the woman is pushed away from view, the Victoria’s Secret commercial advertisements on television severely sexualize the female body. Looking first at the Dream Angels Commercial of 2018, many frames portray the models as objects of desire and sexualize their bodies. In addition, almost all of the music being used in the background contains sexual themes such as the songs Rihanna’s “Wild Thoughts”, Ariana Grande’s “Into You”, and Fifth Harmony’s “Work From Home” where lyrics state “when I’m with you, all I get is wild thoughts”, “a little less conversation and a little more touch my body”, and “I don’t need no explanation ‘cause baby, you’re the boss at home” respectively. Clearly, the female body is being sexualized within this commercial. The full commercial can be seen below.
Through the advertisement, the women do not speak once and towards the end of the commercial continually look at the camera with blank stares and sexualized bodies as the audience understands it is their body which is being sold, not the garments worn on it. Reviewing the commercial further, it can obviously be seen that all of the women within it have that same body type once again, disidentifying any other type which the viewer might think of. In complete contrast to this commercial, the 2018 Aerie commercial for their #AerieREAL campaign highlights the phrase, “Don’t change you. Change your bra!” The full commercial can be seen below.
Throughout the entirety of the advertisement, the audience hears the women taking part in it express their own thoughts and opinions. There are no frames with the female body being sexualized and the music throughout the commercial contains the lyric “I’m me”. Viewers get to see the real models and who they are as a person, not just their bodies. The message is clear that women should be happy to be who they are and female bodies should not need to be sexualized in order to sell a product.
Circling back to the criticisms at hand, the ideological side of the criticism identifies the ideograph to be ‘the perfect body’ where a one size body fits all in the Victoria’s Secret mindset. Looking at this through queer theory, the company is hiding away other body types from view, disidentifying them In contrast, the ideograph from Aerie’s point of view, along with Dove, is ‘the real perfect body’ where inclusivity of all body types is the theme. Again now using queer theory, this other ideograph pushes out any bodies which are not real. Aerie disrupts the normativity of women’s undergarment advertising as shown by Victoria’s Secret through its use of real female models who’s bodies are not sexualized in photos or commercials. Aerie ultimately seeks to change the Victoria’s Secret message of “change your body to suit the bra” to “change the bra to suit your body”, promoting more body positivity among women and giving the female population a more realistic representation within lingerie advertising.