Sunday 19 February 2012

Crossdressing and advertising

I think advertising is an excellent barometer of society's attitudes. It's not so much about what products people want to buy, but the way in which they are marketed which interests me.

I have seen a lot of television from all over the world, and I think certain patterns can be discerned. The UK, for example, seems to favour understatement ("Try our product. It's actually quite good and you might find you like it."), whereas the US seems to favour overstatement ("Our product will change your LIFE by how good it is!"). Of course, there are many exceptions to this sort of broad statement.

TV ads have 30 seconds to grab your attention, interest you in the product, and burrow into your memory so that the next time you go shopping, the product resurfaces in your mind and you go and buy it. The means by which these goals are achieved is sometimes clever and interesting, and sometimes dull and banal. Agencies seek to associate the product with something attractive: sex, humour, happy children. Advertising jingles are an especially insidious way to drill a brand into your memory: I loathe their irritating jolly little melodies and instrumental stabs.

But a really good ad makes you laugh, think, or sit up in surprise. And it gets progressively harder to do any of those things because all the good ideas (the low-hanging fruit) have all been seen a thousand times before (and some of them, like brand slogans or jingles, have been done to death). It's no suprise to me that there are now awards for good ads, where someone in a tux reads out the results in reverse order from the back of a golden card.

Ads which speak to women about femininity (whether that be clothes, cosmetics, perfume, or even chocolate), speak right to the heart of crossdressers too: that's how I want to look! That's how I want to feel! Where can I get some of that product? (I might explore this a little further in a different post).

Let's take a look at some advertising featuring cross-dressing. Take a look at this one first:

In this UK commercial for kitchen paper, we meet "Brenda" and "Audrey", two blokes in drag, complete with bristly chins and big square hands. I saw a series of such ads on British TV; though they have since stopped, thankfully. (This was the most typical of the series I could find on YouTube). I suppose the ad agency is trying to get a new angle on the "overworked housewife" archetype. You know the one: youngish, pretty but not gorgeous, struggling to keep up with baby poo and toddler dribble and slobbery dogs with dirty paws and sinks which won't drain properly. Perhaps what she really needs is a big hairy man in a dress to do her chores for her.

This sort of ad is just awful for me. The crossdressers here are figures of ridicule, and this sort of sniggering and poking fun at grotesque crossdressers has never been funny; not even in a 1960's cartoon seaside-postcard sort of way. This exact trope is regularly found in the comedy show Little Britain, where "rubbish transvestite Emily" parades around insisting she is a "laydee" and fooling no-one. I cringe when I see this: I stopped watching the show because I found it so distasteful. Little Britain has a lot of very clever comedy (and is very popular), but this just misses the mark for me. However, the shows creators, Matt Lucas and David Walliams, continue their comic crossdressing in other shows such as Come Fly With Me.

So let's move on. When I first saw this ad, I thought it was my worst nightmare come to celluloid:
This ad works in a whole different way from the kitchen paper one. Once again, I saw this on TV in the UK, and found myself bracing myself for the inevitable slew of ridicule. However, it didn't take place. The young, attractive and cool driver of the car sees the drag queens in the queue for the club. We assume his look of surprise is horror at recognising his father (although he probably doesn't dress like that for the office!). However, then we release a collective "phew!" when we realise the driver isn't shocked at his father's appearance; he just wants in the club.

I like this sort of ad. In fairness, the drag queens in the queue are much too gaudy for my personal taste (though I suppose for the advert's purposes, they need to be unmistakeable; a convincing crossdresser wouldn't cut it here at all). On the other hand, the message of the ad ("We live in modern times") carries (for me) a great note of positivity. Okay, it says. Some men like to crossdress. Get over it. Hey, son, bring your friends and we'll all go partying together.

Here is my third offering. This is one I never saw on the screen, but found on the Internet. Take a look:
Very different in tone and theme this time. This advert makes no attempt at humour at all, but still attempts to surprise us. (Whose idea was that awful music?) If you hadn't seen this before, you would know from finding it here that the girl in the dress was really a boy, but in a bit of a breach of the traditional plot element, you might not have spotted that the boy in the suit was really a girl. And the discussion which follows renders all my careful use of pronouns to be a confusing waste of time. I shall do my best.

Interesting though this ad is, it doesn't quite hit the spot for me. The girl in the dress looks amazing. The boy in the suit looks convincing enough to begin with (he seems to have miraculously acquired a bit of makeup by the time he takes his hair down). Both of these actors make me think of the model Andrej Pejic, a man who is so androgynously beautiful he can successfully model both men's and women's clothing on the catwalk, and is in considerable demand to do so (What does that say about our idealised image of women?).

I am sure the ad agency (and I think this ad has a European pedigree) is trying to show that its Italian aperitif may look similar to other drinks, but underneath it is quite different. On the other hand, I am not sure that the final bit of action, spilling the drink on the dress provoking the big reveal, is meaningful in any way, although I am sure they needed some pretext for it. Does this imply a restitution of social norms somehow? Maybe I am overthinking it. I find myself coming away saying "Hmmm....ok", rather than "Hey! Wow!"

Once again, though, I take some encouragement from this ad. Both protagonists are beautiful, whether as a boy or a girl. Both are enjoying their crossdressing, publicly and successfully. They are not in drag; they are not grotesque or overcooked. There is an undertone of the forbidden or the spicy, but I suspect that's what the agency is trying to associate with the product, and I certainly associate with crossdressing myself. Overall the ad doesn't grab me or make me want to buy the product, but it doesn't repel me and want me to shout at the screen (like the kitchen paper ad).

So the winner for me is the Twingo ad, with Campari in second place. Congratulations. A wooden spoon with two golden raspberries to Bounty. Sorry lads.

The Internet has dozens of ads featuring crossdressing. In a future blog post, I might get on and talk about a few more.

Monday 13 February 2012

High heels!

High heels! Could there be a more tangible object of crossdressing desire? A clearer icon of feminine aspiration?

I've been thinking about them a bit lately. Pondering high heels tells me, I think, something about my own femininity. But first, let's take a look around.

Impractical: heels
Wikipedia tells us (correctly, I am sure) that high heels started off as a form of male attire, as a means of preventing the heel of the boot from slipping out of the stirrup when riding a horse, like a cowboy boot. That makes a lot of sense for me. Later, in several countries, stacked heeled footwear was fashionable for both sexes as a symbol of status and wealth, from which comes the phrase "well-heeled". Wikipedia tells us that high-heeled shoes became fashionable for only women from about the mid 19th century onwards. This fits with some of my beliefs about crossdressing, that things only started to get interesting for us from the Victorian era onwards. But for that, you will need to wait for another blog entry.

So much for the official history. How about this one? Oscar Kiss Maerth, in a distasteful pseudoscientific work from the 1970s, called The Beginning was the End postulated that modern humans evolved from a more primitive species of cannibalistic, brain-eating ape, which nonetheless had several behaviours in common with modern humans (though being unclothed, cross-dressing isn't among them):
Maerth: The rape of the female apes was... no simple matter and the mating could not be carried out as is usual among apes, that is, with the male animal entering the female from behind... Therefore the females normally had to be pulled to the ground by several cannibal ape-men and laid on their backs so that they could be raped... The legs of the females being raped were raised when they lay in this position and the tips of the feet were extended forward at the moment of orgasm so that the ball of the foot was pushed up. This was a sexually exciting sight for the males... and has remained in their subconscious right up to the present. That is why female legs with the tips of the foot stretched downwards and the [heels] of the feet raised are still sexually stimulating today. This is the origin of high heels.
Man the pumps!
Sorry to put you off your dinner with this. This is only one of a hundred junk science theories to explain human sexual behaviour. Before we move on, Maersk has a point: high heels are no longer about height, status, or horse riding. They are about sex.

The best book about crossdressing ever written is, in my opinion, My Husband Betty by Helen Boyd. This book is simply stunning: insightful, articulate, powerfully written, forthright to the point of agony, deeply sympathetic and yet occasionally ruthless. I couldn't finish it in one go, since the book told me so many things about myself that I couldn't confront them all at once; the book still makes uncomfortable reading, since it so effectively demolishes the facade I live behind. You can find Boyd's blog, which is regularly updated, here, and I intend to explore many of her other points in future blog entries.

Here she is, in typical style, giving it both barrels. Watch also her deliberate use of pronouns.
Boyd: Meredith tells me that her husband Victoria claims to be more comfortable in women's clothes. "How can he tell me that? They're not comfortable. I have to wear them. I know they're not comfortable. He's full of it." I can't help but agree. High heels, bras and pantyhose are not comfortable, and the types of lingerie many crossdressers really love-- garters, stockings, and corsets-- are something close to sartorial torture. What I've learned is that Victoria means he is psychologically comfortable, and that dressing as a woman satisfies him so deeply that the physical discomfort is immaterial. 
Ouch! Once again, Boyd hits home here. After a lovely day of crossdressing, the next day I sometimes get a twinge (say in my ankle) which reminds me of the previous day. It may be physically uncomfortable, but since these episodes are few, I welcome reminders of them. And high heels are painful! And awkward to balance in. Despite much experimentation and very careful balancing, I still can't walk comfortably or naturally in stilettos, although wedge heels are easier to balance and walk around in.

High heels have become a powerful expression of femininity. This is associated with the traditional (outdated!) notion of women being delicate and sensitive creatures, ill-suited to coarse manual work. It's also associated with beauty (since high heeled shoes are deliberately highly crafted with lots of gorgeous detail); with reward (since they are expensive, women reward themselves with buying new shoes); and with sex appeal (for which high-heels are practically a synecdoche). High heels make you feel fabulous.

So women don't wear high heels for comfort or practicality; they wear them because they value the associations which the shoes have more than the drawbacks, which is that they are gloriously impractical, quite amazingly uncomfortable, and eye-wateringly expensive (at least the good ones are).

Alluring: Emma Bunton
For many women (such as the model with the red shoes in the picture above) the shoe causes the forefoot to be a linear extension of the calf, which accentuates the apparent leg length. But a few women, such as Emma Bunton, (always my favourite Spice Girl) pictured here, can hyperflex the ankle, so that the contour of the ankle is slightly greater than 180 degrees, and this is powerfully alluring (I am sure it is quite intentional).

So where does that leave me? I flatter myself that, for me, crossdressing isn't a fetish. It's simply about expressing a side of me which would otherwise be suppressed. And yet, I can't find a pair of flat girl shoes I like, no matter how sparkly, or how elegant, or how flattering. I would rather wear high heels every time.

What this tells me is that, one way or another, crossdressing does have a fetishistic component for me. If it were not so, I could simply wear clothes that women themselves wear, and that would suffice. The fact that this doesn't satisfy me reveals that simply wearing what women wear (which is flats or trainers almost all the time) isn't enough. This is a powerful (and, if I am honest) uncomfortable truth about my own crossdressing.


Addendum: 12th March 2012

I've been thinking a bit more about this post. I haven't changed it, since I wrote what I was feeling at the time. However, for me, cross-dressing is an unusual event. It doesn't happen every day; not even every month, and therefore I want it to be as special as possible. I suppose for a real woman, going to an unusual event (a particular birthday party, or a family celebration) she would want to wear something special too, and turning up in trainers or flat shoes might not be it.

A small number of women seem to want to wear high heels all the time: on long-haul flights, for example, one would think that high heels would be extremely impractical, yet one still sees women wearing high heels on such flights.

But most women wear high heels on special occasions, and so do I. I honestly think that if I could crossdress freely every day, I would very shortly change to more comfortable footwear, or perhaps invest in a pair of bionic ankles. So maybe my interest in high heels isn't so fetishistic after all?

Addendum: 28th January 2013

Just this week the good old BBC have run an article on their website about this very subject, entitled Why did men stop wearing high heels? You can read the full text here. And the BBC also has an interesting magazine article here, called Sex on Legs: The Stiletto.

Addendum: 23rd December 2016

More about high heels from the BBC. I am beginning to think they may be obsessed. There is a wonderful podcast called The Why Factor, presented by Mike Williams. The Why Factor is a series of short (15-20 minute) explorations of "why we do the things we do". I hope to discuss the episode which discusses crossdressing, in more detail, in a future article. However, this one is about high heels. (Interestingly, the episode on the BBC website is an abridged, 12-minute version. The full, 18-minute episode which I heard came from iTunes). This podcast confirms the things I discuss above: that high heels were originally worn by men; that they became a symbol of wealth, and then they become an image of sexuality.

Interestingly, Williams turns up for a lesson in how to walk in heels. In her dance studio in London, Sarah Toner runs workshops to teach people (and freely admits some of them are men) how to walk elegantly in high heels, and of course Williams does poorly.

But the new insight, which I found unexpected and slightly disturbing, came from Toner herself, when she discusses why high heels are popular.
Toner: I also think it has to do with the way that you can't really run away. You become a more vulnerable person in a sense, and I think that also has something to do with it.
Williams: I hadn't thought of it like that but when you consider it like that, the fact that the woman is more vulnerable, it's quite sinister.
Toner: It is quite sinister.
This is an interesting take on the phenomenon of high heels, coming as it does from someone who makes her living (at least partly) out of teaching people how to walk in them.