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John Zaixin Zhang

 
 
 

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(De-)Legitimizing Black Femininity: An Analysis of Ads Featuring Misty Copeland  

2017-04-26 00:35:40|  分类: +广告创意与陷阱 |  标签: |举报 |字号 订阅

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(De-)Legitimizing Black Femininity: An Analysis of Ads Featuring Misty Copeland

Elaine Yiran Zhang

TD ’17

Yale University

April 2017

 Appendix

(De-)Legitimizing Black Femininity: An Analysis of Ads Featuring Misty Copeland - John - 张在新

Figure 1 

(De-)Legitimizing Black Femininity: An Analysis of Ads Featuring Misty Copeland - John - 张在新

 Figure 2

(De-)Legitimizing Black Femininity: An Analysis of Ads Featuring Misty Copeland - John - 张在新

 Figure 3

(De-)Legitimizing Black Femininity: An Analysis of Ads Featuring Misty Copeland - John - 张在新

 Figure 4

(De-)Legitimizing Black Femininity: An Analysis of Ads Featuring Misty Copeland - John - 张在新

 Figure 5

     In 2014, sportswear company Under Armour created a series of image ads featuring ballerina Misty Copeland (see Appendix), with slogans such as “I will what I want” and “Will Trumps Fate”. The ads feature various choreographed poses by Copeland, a biracial black ballerina who came to success despite having a muscular and sinewy body that does not quite fit the “ballerina type”. Combined with the heartening slogans, the obvious message of the ads is to challenge the ingrained social norm that one needs to look white, delicate and swanlike to become a ballerina. Here is a counterexample, they state – if one possesses the determination and work ethic of an outsider such as Misty Copeland, one could also overcome such stringent beauty standards. However, the advertisers impart their message through a set of visual arrangements that subtly perpetuate the very pre-existing beauty standards that Copeland set out to subvert. Playing with clothing and gaze, they reinforce the preconception that black femininity and inner agency belong in the masculine athletic realm, but not the feminine ballet realm.

       In “Marketing Blackness”, David Crockett claims that when blackness is used as a “source of fresh, constantly reproducing symbolic material for appropriation”, the message employs the strategy of “essentializing” (Crockett 256). This process requires “privileging some traits while marginalizing others” (Crockett 256), and in the case of blackness, relying “almost exclusively on masculine notions of blackness” and “problematizing black femininity” (Crockett 256). In other words, there is a stereotype in advertising culture that selects masculinity as the defining feature of blackness, imposing itself on other experiences of blackness as well. I have selected the abovementioned five ads from Under Armour because even though they conceptually encourage challenging such conventions, the execution of its ads featuring Misty Copeland conforms to the practice of essentialism and attempt to mold Copeland’s version of femininity into a traditional one.

     The “primary discourse” of these ads, namely “the messages that advertising openly purports to convey” (O’Barr 3) is to advocate embracing one’s uniqueness and being unapologetic about one’s body shape. Since Copeland’s story is one of overcoming the odds as a ballerina in spite of her “unfitting” body shape – exemplified by her chiseled bulky calves, the slogans “I will what I want” and “Will Trumps Fate” legitimize her status as a ballerina. However, the primary discourse is undermined by its “secondary discourse”, or “ideas about society and culture contained in advertisements” (O’Barr 3). The secondary discourse is embedded in Copeland’s meticulously arranged clothing choice. In the first three ads, they associate Copeland’s natural chiseled body, accentuated blackness, and a bold, direct gaze with an athletic identity. In the last two ads, they associate a feminine, clothed version of her body, de-emphasized blackness, and an averted gaze with Copeland’s ballerina identity.

     In figures 1-3, she is either wearing sneakers or sitting barefoot by a set of lockers, indicating an athletic image. She wears shorts that reveal most of her legs and muscles. In two of them she is also gazing directly back into the camera. In figures 4-5 Copeland is wearing pointe shoes, signifying her professional status as a ballerina. She dons long leggings that cover up her toned calves, giving them the illusion of being smoother and softer. Her gaze is directed either downward or upward, avoiding looking directly at the viewer.

As a result, her natural muscle mass is less prominent when the viewer is primed with her ballerina identity than with a separate, manufactured athletic identity. The longer tights not only cover up her calf muscles, but also her blackness. The total area of skin exposed when she dons these tights is a lot less than when she wears shorts. As a result, she appears softer and more color-neutral in her ballerina identity. By showing her muscular calves only with sneakers but covering them up with pointe shoes, the ads still conform to the traditional aesthetics that de-legitimize Copeland as a ballerina. She could only be an athlete with her natural body, but needs to cover herself up with clothing and present a semblance of a softer, smoother body to fit the ballerina type.

     The correspondence of a direct/averted gaze with her athletic/ballerina identities dictates that an athlete could possess agency but a ballerina should not. Copeland is endowed with agency and gazes directly at the camera while situated in the masculine realm of sport. By breaking the fourth wall in the photograph, her unabashed gaze implies an awareness that she is being looked at and an effort to level the power imbalance by returning the gaze. However, in the feminine realm of ballet, she is supposed to be no other than an object to be gazed at, mostly for her slim and soft form. By turning away from one’s gaze, she acquiesces her inferior status in the interplay of gazes, as it “can be seen as having the consequence of withdrawing from the current thrust of communication, allowing one’s feelings to settle back into control while one is somewhat protected from direct scrutiny” (Goffman 62). The averted gaze implies “some sort of submission” (Goffman 62).

     What, then, is Under Armour’s point in purporting to challenge a set of social norms but sub-textually condoning them? This dual process is capable of attracting both those who admire Copeland’s body as it is and those who disapprove of it. The former could identify with Copeland’s perseverance in overcoming body image norms and the latter could affirm their tastes in the more feminized version of her body. More importantly, the ads imply that its sportswear products provide a comfortable solution that negotiates the opposing preferences of the public: a black woman with an unorthodox body form could become a ballerina without affronting the taste of the cultural establishment. Its tight-fitting leggings could make a black woman with an athlete’s figure an object of the male gaze.

     In conclusion, Under Amour melds two contradictory discourses into the same ad campaign to cater to the largest consumer pool possible. It masquerades black female power within the confines of traditional white gender norms. The sportswear products that it manufactures sit at the nexus between the two aesthetics: Copeland’s naturally athletic and muscled body vs. the traditional ideal of a graceful and slender ballerina. Along with the play of gazes, these ads reinforce the gender norms of women in the athletic and artistic realms by portraying constructed appearances, behaviors and ideologies as natural.   

Bibliography

Crocket, David. 2008. “Marketing Blackness: How Advertisers Use Race to Sell Products” Journal of Consumer Culture, pp. 245-268.

Goffman, Erving. 1976. "Gender Commercials". Gender Advertisements. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

O’Barr, William. 1994. "Culture and the Ad". Culture and the Ad: Exploring Otherness in the World of Advertising. Boulder: Westview Pr.


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