The latest Dove advertising campaign, “Real Beauty Sketches,” has already garnered its share of well-deserved criticism: That “Dove is owned by Unilever – the same company that owns Axe, king of misogynistic ads.” That “the real take-away is still that women should care whether a stranger thinks she is beautiful.” That the women in the ads don’t look like the women one sees “on the subway, at highway rest stops, in suburban malls.” That the “main participants” are mostly Caucasian, blonde, thin, and young. Etc.
All that is true. But my interest in the ad is pedagogical. For me it is the perfect illustration of what I call the “bent-stick theory of ideology.”
This is the view that ideology is like wearing glasses that distort the world. All we need to do is apply the correcting lens of critique and we will be able to see the world as it really is. Calibrated correctly, our anti-ideological lenses will enable us to see the straight stick we know is there, not the bent stick distorted by the water. Or at least, like a hunter fishing in a stream, we will know where the stick really should be even if we can never truly rid ourselves of the distorting effects of ideology.
In the case of the Dove ads, this is illustrated by the women’s confrontation of the sketches showing them how they see themselves compared with how their friends see them.
Since the picture on the right more closely fits with what the audience sees, the message is clear: the image on the left is a distorted image caused by low self-esteem. These women will need help from their friends and loved-ones to better see themselves as they really are: beautiful.
That Dove wants you to associate their product with this demystification is besides the point. They are like Penn and Teller, magicians who have made a career of dazzling audiences with magic even as they reveal their secrets.
Like Penn and Teller, Dove are doing advertising with clear plastic cups. They are still selling beauty, but they are doing so by associating their product with the “real,” “undistorted,” “inner-beauty” that our friends and lovers see in us but which we ourselves cannot see. Dove isn’t hiding anything from us, so revealing that they are still in the business of selling beauty products doesn’t really get us any closer to understanding the distorted self-images we see from these women’s self-descriptions.
In my discussion of David Graeber’s Debt I wrote:
Marxist ideology is not some kind of “false consciousness” which is simply imposed upon people by the media, it is the product of their lived experience within market based societies. Markets make us see the world in a certain way because markets involve us in certain forms of social action that lend themselves to see the world in a market-oriented way.
I would like to make the same argument for these women. A recent study of attitudes towards female politicians found that any mention of a female candidate’s appearance “whether those mentions are flattering, unflattering, or neutral — has a negative impact on her electability.”
Why might that be? One explanation might come from Bourdieu, who would talk of beauty as a kind of game. Just mentioning how a politicians look (as Obama did with Attorney General Kamala Harris) takes them off the political stage and places them on the stage of a beauty pageant.
The critiques of the Dove ad I linked to above all made this point in the sense that they understand that the ad ultimately reinforces the importance of “beauty.” What I want to add to this discussion is to point out that a distorted self-image is a manifestation of misrecognition, not of false-consciousness. What is the difference? False-consciousness would imply that these women are simply deluded as a result of watching too many advertisements (presumably those advertisements made by Dove’s competitors). Misrecognition, on the other hand, is an accurate assessment of the beauty game (even if it mistakenly blames the individual for their inability to win the game). When lined up next to a dozen other women on the beauty pageant stage, the fact that their chin is too pointy or their brow too wide suddenly matters. Our society puts women in that lineup every day, whether or not they wish to be there. What is wrong with the Dove ad isn’t that it is selling beauty, but that it depoliticizing and psychologizing sociological critique in order to do so.