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.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Yep. Crossdressing isn't funny. It's too close to the bone for me. And poking fun at grotesque crossdressers is just cruelty.
      Some crossdressers are beautiful. I don't find that deceptive or disturbing, although it makes me envious (see my post Green Eyed Monster). Likewise I can say that Andrej Pejic is beautiful as a man or as a woman. When he is made up like a woman, he is dazzling; more beautiful than many genetic women. When he is trying to be a man, he looks androgynous, but he still looks beautiful (IMHO). I don't think there is anything inherently repellant about androgynous people.
      If we were created by God as males and females, how do you explain intersex conditions like Klinefelter's syndrome or testicular feminisation? In these conditions, people may have sexual characteristics in between the traditional male and female archetypes. About 1 in 1000 babies born has genitalia which can't immediately be assigned as "boy" or "girl". Where did these conditions come from, if not made by God? (I suspect my answer might differ from yours!)

  2. To clarify about androgynous people. I'm not being down on strong women or men who aren't super muscular or something like that. I'm talking about people who are purposely trying to appear in such a way as you don't know whether they are men or women.

    Those are tough questions about intersexed people. I compare them to people born with genetic defects or those born blind or disabled. They are still God's precious creatures loved by him. They are still people made in God's image. But the Fall into sin in Genesis 3 has marred all of creation including all people. When Adam and Eve brought sin into the world, it affected everything. So all of us have imperfect bodies in so many countless ways. Some people's bodily imperfections are much more visible than others. It's easier to see a blind person than to see my personal bodily abnormality which I've struggled with all my life. Also let me make very clear I don't mean that it was any person's specific sins that caused them to be born blind or intersexed. We are all sinful. But these conditions are the result of living in a fallen broken messed up world that we are waiting for God to fix. (see John 9)

    So these people were made by God just as I am. But just like I don't call my physical abnormality "good" since it has caused me pain, I don't call their intersexual condition "good" since it has caused them pain. We do what we can to deal with those problems. But they are problems, and they are not good, and we look forward to Jesus' return to this earth and the resurrection of the dead when he will raise us to new perfected bodies that are not marred anymore by disease, genetic defects, or painful abnormalities.

    If God is all powerful, which he is, then that means he at least "allowed" people to be born that way. But allowing it does not mean it's a "good" thing. God also allowed the holocaust and September 11th to take place, but those were not good either. We are getting into theodicy here and the problem of evil. I'm not going to explain why God allows these things. My point is just that intersexed conditions are no different from being born blind or deaf. It's not good but they are still God's beloved creatures.

  3. A person with an Intersex condition is still either male or female. It is not like there is a third or fourth sex... There are chromosome irregularities that mess up the physical sexual attributes and internal organs, sometimes threatening the life of the baby depending on the condition. Sadly, many Intersex conditions are infertile.

    1. Intersex is a difficult thing to nail down. How do you define "male" and "female"? If it's in simple behaviour and dress, we all know men who dress and behave like women, and women who dress and behave like men. So that's no good.

      If it's in the presence of certain body tissues, some people have both testicular and ovarian tissue present at the same time inside their bodies. Some people born with a penis can go on to develop breasts and hip fat at puberty.

      If you are looking at genes, a person with the karyotype (genes) XX becomes a female, and a person with XY becomes a male. But some people have the karyotype XXY (Klinefelter syndrome), which seems to supply both. Some people have XYY, so-called "supermales" (though they aren't really that), and some people born XY (the normal male karyotype) have a condition called testicular feminisation syndrome, which means their cells are not sensitive to the androgenic effects of testosterone. These individuals are indistinguishable from ordinary women, except that they are infertile, and unless you karyotype them.

      There is of course male and female. But they are black and white. Someone who is intersex isn't purple, but grey. And there are plenty of grey people out there!

  4. Nature defines males as having XY chromosomes and females having XX chromosomes. Our primary and secondary sexual characteristics are completely dependent on those chromosomes. The fact that Intersex conditions exist do not negate this fact. They are not a blurring of male and female and they are not new or different sexes. Even though there are people with XXY or XYY chromosomes, there isn't anyone with YY chromosomes. If Intersex were truly a third sex or a blurring of sexes, there should be lots of people that are YY. Intersex conditions occur because of congenital defects or mutations that causes things to go wrong during fertilization or shortly thereafter. Many of these conditions are repaired soon after birth. Even though Intersex conditions do occur, they are very small in number.

    1. Thanks for posting Robyn.

      I think intersex conditions _are_ a blurring of the boundary between male and female. Whatever way you cut it, there are always some people who don't quite fit into just one category. An individual with XY karyotype would, by your definition above, be a man. On the other hand, that person would be indistinguishable from a normal woman by any test short of a karyotype, if they had testicular feminisation. Would you call that individual a man, or even a male? I know I wouldn't! It would strike me as absurd.

      It's a bit more complicated with the Y chromosome. It's a lot smaller than the X chromosome (in fact, it's the smallest human chromosome). The X chromosome is required for the formation of a fetus; if you have an embryo with a YY karyotype it doesn't develop into a baby but instead a mis-shapen, semi-malignant mush called a hydatidiform mole, which is, in effect, a grotesquely abnormal placenta. It needs to be removed or it can actually threaten the mother's life. Thankfully, as you say, it's very rare, and it's very responsive to medication. But that's why there isn't anybody alive with a YY karyotype.

      You only need one X chromosome, however. There are people with only one sex chromosome, the XO karyotype. This is known as Turner syndrome (and they are all female). Most people have one (XY) or two (XX) but some people have three (XXX or even XXXY) or even more, and that doesn't seem to cause too many problems (not like trisomy 21, Down syndrome, or trisomy 18 or 13, which are even worse).

      Intersex conditions are not that uncommon. If 1 in 1000 babies has genitalia which can't reliably be assigned to either "boy" or "girl" at birth, then that's four kids a year at my local hospital, and probably yours too. Those kids might need treatment or even surgery to develop "normally", but it can be pretty tough on the parents for a while: "We were thinking of Andrew but now it might have to be Andrea".

      I hope you will forgive my saying so, but you seem remarkably rigid in your categories for someone who celebrates crossdressing as much as you do! How do you reconcile the views above with your crossdressing?

  5. What is there to reconcile? Intersex is purely congenital and is determined by examining the chromosomes. However, there is no chromosome test that determines if one is CD, TV, TS, TG, or some combination. Intersex and CD/TG/TS are independent. Certainly, there might be some CDs who are Intersex and some people who have an Intersex condition might be crossdressers.

    And I am not sure how Intersex can blur the boundary between male and female... There are a small number of very specific Intersex conditions, each of them having different impacts, some of them very different. So the 1 in 1000 baby would be 1 in 20 or 1 in 30 (whatever the number of types of Intersex conditions there are). There would be 1 in 20000 or 1 in 30000 chance that someone would have a specific Intersex condition.

    You look at people and see a spectrum of sex and gender as M <--> F with Intersex blurring everything between the M and the F. I see people in two different trees, the M (XY) tree and the F (XX) tree. Intersex conditions are not other trees between these two. XYY is just a branch on the XY tree and it is different from most of the other branches on the tree. The same is true for XX Intersex conditions.

    Whatever tree, whatever branch a person might be on says nothing about how a person looks, their gender identity, or their sexual attraction. That is a completely separate discussion...

  6. In general on this one, I have to agree with Robyn. A person is born as a male or female. In rare cases they may be born as a male or female with a genetic abnormality, and that might even make them look vastly different, but that doesn't make them some kind of third sex.

    1. Hey Thorin. Thanks for posting. I'm not suggesting there is a third sex! If you read above, what I am saying is that male and female are not separated by some impassable gulf; instead they overlap. Whichever way you look at it, genetically, histologically, developmentally or even (in my case) behaviourally, there are some people who cannot be assigned to only one sex. I am not suggesting those people are purple (some mysterious third sex), but instead grey (neither fully male nor female).

    2. Sorry if I misunderstood you at all. I'd still disagree that there are people who are not fully male or female. However, if we want to talk about overlap, I'd fully agree. All of us overlap in many ways in our genetics and behaviors, whether men or women, because we are all human. We are far more alike as men and women than we are different! So yes, I'd go for plenty of overlap. But not people that are neither fully male nor female.