Over hundred years of advertising, the use of sex to sell in the entertainment industry influences the ideal body image and gender role for women in our society. This is depicted in La Loie Fuller (1893), The Seven Years Itch (1955), and Burlesque (2010).
Follies-Bergere: La Loie Fuller was created in 1893 by Jules Cheret. It advertises an image of an American erotic dancer La Loie Fuller for her Paris debut. La Loie Fuller began her career as a professional actress, and moved on to choreographed and performed in burlesque in the United States. As a pioneer of modern dance and theatrical lighting, she successfully improvised her own dance techniques such as combining her choreography with silk costumes illuminated by multi-colored lighting in the performance Serpentine Dance (1891). She wanted the public to take her seriously as a dancer. In 1893, feminists in the United States began the women’s suffrage movement, which promoted empowerment. She created the Serpentine Dance for Follies-Bergere and entered the Paris entertainment market as a sensual dancer.
The Seven Year Itch American film poster (1955) features Marilyn Monroe, a Hollywood sex symbol. She started out her entertainment career modeling, and then moved into an acting career where she usually cast as a sexy blonde. The Seven Year Itch was one of the first movies that started selling her as a sex symbol. She played the role of a sexy young model, for a television commercial, who moves into an apartment floor above a typical middle-aged Manhattan man, played by Tom Ewell, whose wife and kids are away for the summer. The movie revolves around the guy being tempted, by her innocent, sexy talk and body language. Although nothing really happens between them, the movie raises erotic tension of an affair similar to effects of the burlesque dance by La Loie Fuller. This movie is also a good indication of the role women played in the time period after World War II. For example, married women who had taken men’s jobs were encouraged to go back to being housewives. Women that continued to work went back to low-paying and less-respectable jobs.
The movie poster for the 2010 movie, Burlesque, feature Cher and Christina Aguilera, as burlesque dancers. Although some career fields are still male-dominated, nowadays women are encouraged to be independent and pursue a professional career along with being a good housewife. The movie is about a talented small town girl who goes to Los Angeles in pursuit of fulfilling her dream of be a singer and she ends up dancing and performing at a burlesque bar. Christina Aguilera, seeing burlesque bar for the first time, is enthralled by the whole concept. Like Monroe and Fuller, she uses her sexual attractions, the burlesque dance, to start gaining recognition.
As a medium of advertisement, the image of the three posters uses sexuality, at the same time, but attempts to keep the provocative nature within the boundaries of cultural acceptance. La Loie Fuller captures the viewer’s attention by exposing Fuller’s body, under a vivid-colored see-through garment, in a flamboyant sensual dancing movement. The way she is holding a garment and bending her head back reveals the top of her chest and shows a part of her leg. The garment is carefully drawn in so as not to reveal the parts of her body that would not be acceptable to show in public. The poster successfully shows her performance style and displays the entertainment of contemporary urban lifestyle.
Similar to Cheret’s advertising method, The Seven Year Itch shows Marilyn Monroe in her famous white dress pose revealing her legs to attract the viewer’s attention. Her signature pose is a scene in the movie where she is standing by the underground train that blows her dress up, and she is shown innocently attempts to lower her dress. The art director was careful in covering to show nothing more than her legs. The Monroe poster, 50 years after Cheret, is more risqué, showing that the public is becoming more open minded about sexuality in the mass media. The film itself also portrays this acceptance level. Although the film is about tempting sexual behavior, there are no sex scenes. Besides showing the woman’s body, the poster also shows Monroe dressed up in a beautiful white dress, high heels, make-up, and hair done similar to Fuller’s flamboyant and colorful style.
The Burlesque poster also uses the female in a sensual way to appeal to the audience. Cher, Aguilera, and other back up dancers all wore skimpy burlesque dresses that fully expose their legs. Compared to the previous two posters, this poster can freely expose women’s legs because, in 2010, it is socially acceptable to show it in the mass media today. Aguilera and the dancer pose in a way that shows off their body curves much closer to the way La Loie arched her neck. Even though the dancers are hidden and blurred by the light, they also pose to show their feminine figures. Although Aguilera plays a role of a talented singer; the poster shows no indication of this.
Each of these entertainment posters contribute to the viewer’s idea of ideal female characteristics and assign gender roles for women. The use of female figures in capturing the audience’s attention has a subtle influence on what the public considers “beauty” during that time period. According to Drucker and McVarish’s textbook, Jules Cheret said that the ideal height for a woman should be 8 feet high. In the 19th century, Fuller’s poster shows her as more curvy, skinnier, and taller than photographs of her Serpentine Dance, which was performed around the time she entered Paris. Her body in the poster is much closer to our ideal of a woman’s body. Then, in the 20th century, Marilyn Monroe’s role is an attractive model in the film, so the poster sends a message to the public that this is the what we consider as attractive: skinny legs, well groomed, and sexy. She, then, became a sex icon of Hollywood and contributes to how an attractive actress should look. In this century, the advertisement still sends similar message to women, evident in the Burlesque poster, where both Aguilera and Cher have what the public considers to be a good body.
These advertisements also subtly assign a specific gender role to women. According to the film Codes of Gender, advertisements depict women as vulnerable and insecure by using off-balanced poses, whereas men were shown in strong, rigid, upright poses. This is evidenced in all three posters: Fuller lifts one of her legs and tilts her head backward while Monroe and Cher tilt their heads sideways and spread their legs off center. Moreover, all of these women are performers: Fuller is an erotic dancer, Monroe is a model, and Aguilera is a burlesque dancer and singer. These are one-sided messages that are sent to the public and set the stereotypes for women to be entertainers rather than use their intelligence. All three are also know for their flamboyant personalities, especially Monroe, who almost always acts as a sensual dumb blond with a bubbly persona. While Fuller is also a pioneer for her theatrical lighting, very little of that is the selling point for her debut poster to Paris. Instead, the advertisement depicts the woman as something beautiful to be looked at. The Seven Year Itch poster shows Tom Ewell, the actor from the film, standing in smaller size and gazing at Monroe’s revealed leg. All three are looking sideways, inviting the viewer to freely look at their bodies.
The three posters representing the media from 19th, 20th, 21st century all uses the sensuality of women bodies as a marketing point to appeal to the public’s interest. As a result, they create impossible expectations for women in society: on how to look, how to act, and how to be. No matter how the role of women in society changes through the years, advertisements still depict women as entertainers to be looked at and as having vulnerable, dependent characteristics. This creates a specific gender role for women in society.
Burlesque [Blu-ray]. Blu-Ray. Directed by Steve Antin. Culver City, CA: Screen Gems, 2010.
Drucker, Johanna, and Emily McVarish. “The Graphic Effects of Industrial Production.” In Graphic design history: a critical guide. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2009. 158.
Nelson, Richard, and Marcia Ewing. Loie Fuller, goddess of light . Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997.
The Codes of Gender. DVD. Directed by Sut Jhally. Massachusettes: MEF Executive, 2009.
“The Seven Year Itch (1955) – IMDb.” The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0048605/ (accessed January 28, 2011).