Jeremy Allen White’s campaign: why is it ok and FKA twigs’ isn’t?
Jeremy Allen's White's shoot for Calvin Klein has set social media - and loins - alight, and brings up questions around gender ogling discrepancies, particularly in light of the FKA twigs censorship
Jeremy Allen White’s shoot in his pristine white pants for the new Calvin Klein campaign has produced a response close to frenzy. For my part, a heterosexual man somewhat jaded by Men’s Health covers, when I first saw the photos I casually thought he looked good; I like White, am a fan of his breakout series The Bear – which hinges on the fallout from the suicide of chef Carmy’s (White) older brother, and in its first series is as powerful and real a depiction of the wide effects of such a death as you’ll ever see – and even aspire to the kind of arms he rocked as he chopped his veg. However, my girlfriend did not casually think he looked good, I realised she was locked in a serious paroxysm of ill-concealed excitement, fuelled by a constant stream of social media shares and chats with her friends, which suggested I was missing something. When I asked her what this missing something might be, she, all a-fluster, said, “This is basically porn. It’s porn. I can’t even look at the video. It’s too much. It’s not fair.”
Rather than pick up on her line about why it she feels it’s not fair – that she’s not with Jeremy Allen White? That my body is not like his? Generally, why has her life ended up in this way with an average chap like me when there are Hollywood Gods out there just waiting to be ridden like a stallion? – I investigated further online and indeed discovered that the world outside of hetero men was absolutely cock-a-hoop. Fashion bible The Cut posted, ‘If you haven’t seen the photos yet, I don’t know how you’re living your life,” while comments on the pics were along the lines of “I’m pregnant”, “Hot plate”, and “I’m barking.”
Hmm, so I guessed people were actually finding something attractive about this heavily muscled, perfectly sculpted beefcake in tight white pants with piercing blue eyes and tousled hair? (weirdly one response online was that White is ugly, and wouldn’t be much without his muscles – er, right, like a Gene Wilder/Marlon Brando mash-up isn’t cute)
Despite my personal bitterness, it seemed fair enough, on the hottest actors on the scene revealing himself to be even more of a stacked Bear than anyone imagined, and a hell of a lot more sexy too. And really, the campaign was clearly pure sex to a huge slice of the world.
And then came the news that FKA twigs’ advert for Calvin Klein had been banned in the UK by the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) for being “overly sexualised”. An advert in which she was actually wearing more clothes than White was in his ad, and certainly wasn’t thrusting her groin around anywhere near the way White was. But it seems there are different rules when it comes to women, if there’s a breast involved, or women’s buttock. The “double standard” which twigs has now called out, was absolutely bone-headed and appalling. Why is there a fear of female nudity, and not male?
The ASA said FKA twigs’ campaign “objectified women.” Presumably White’s campaign did not objectify men. Why? What’s the difference?
The difference is society’s attitudes to male and female bodies. To do with power and control over women, and a puritanical judgement over what parameters there should be.
In some ways, the ASA is coming from a place that is aiming to battle the historical objectification of women.
The idea of women as objects, as pretty decorations to be looked at rather than taken seriously as people, has been historically dominant prevalent in Western culture, and still forms the basis of the evolutionary psychology teachings of hierarchy worshipping traditionalists like Jordan Peterson. It is obviously something women have been battling for centuries; think of Mary Woolstonecraft writing in A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, “Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming around its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.” Much has changed since then, obviously, but not too much. Sexual harassment and abuse cases point to a remaining sense of ‘ownership’ over women which is linked to the mere sight of them and interpretations of passive availability.
Therefore, the ogling of women is against a backdrop of historical repression via the idea that they are just objects, primarily there for sexual attraction, and beauty is their key sceptre. It has always been reductive, and to continue to reduce women to that level clearly has power and control built into it, and can act as a fundamental constraint on freedom.
And yet, to police the actual actions of women when it comes to expressing their sexuality and their bodies is not protecting them, is not acting on their behalf, but is a further constraint on freedom. The problem is not women’s, but men’s. Their attitudes to women and women’s bodies need to change; in other words, women shouldn’t have to constrain expressing themselves just because men might objectify them. Particularly when men can have the right to show off their bodies in a sexual manner. Why is it that when women showcase their bodies, it is considered old school passive, but when men do it, it’s considered active, empowering.
Certainly in the case of White. There is no question that his career will suffer by getting his pecs out, that he will be treated as a bimbo. Indeed the framing of the campaign from his perspective has been about the work he put into building his body for the shoot (running and calisthenics apparently) rather than him being just naturally, effortlessly beautiful; it is him as active participant not passive model.
Yet, FKA twigs was actually coming to it from the same kind of perspective. She said her instagram post: “I do not see the ‘stereotypical sexual object’ that they have labelled me. I see a beautiful strong woman of colour whose incredible body has overcome more pain that you can imagine.”
Well the ASA thought different. A judgement was made on her, acting on a perceived understanding about what women should and shouldn’t do, on the belief that if women are semi-naked, then they are passive objects. This isn’t just patronising, it’s an attack on inner lives, on intellect and participation in the world.
This can be seen in the way White was interviewed around the campaign, how he was talked to and understood in the context of the shoot. It was the training, the humour, the bigger picture of advertising; he was questioned in a way FKA twigs wasn’t. He played it well, by underplaying it all, telling journalists, “In my head, I was just like, ‘I can’t see myself on a billboard. I shouldn’t be here’. Just real imposter syndrome.”
Projecting it as a mildly embarrassing accident is a nice approach. And shows, from a brand point of view, how immensely canny the campaign was, in the harnessing of a rising star very much suited to our ‘authenticity’-loving time. The accidental beefcake: see also Paul Mescal. These guys are humble, self-deprecating, while also diligently slaying it at the gym.
And that slaying is seen as part of their job now. It is almost utilitarian. We all know actors must do it for roles now, and can appreciate it on those terms. A shoot like White’s is not generally understood by, or presented to, men as an impossible ideal they can never aspire to and which brings out negative feelings. Now, body dysmorphia is real for men, substance abuse more prevalent, extra pressures to fulfil a more worked out ideal. But in the case of actors, we understand this is part of the job. So long as – and this is important – we are seeing a range of body types on our screens (and we’re by no means there yet), we can appreciate that these top leading men types have to spend many more hours at the gym and eating chicken than most of us would ever care to.
Such a perspective is not yet there for women. Although Jodie Foster said this week that she enjoyed picking up praise for how ripped her body was in a recent movie, the body beautiful of women on screens is not usually framed as active, it’s to do with whether there’s clothes on it or not. For them it is not presented as work, more of a reduction. It’s not about workout regimes, it’s about weight, and the losing of it.
The rush to understand the whys behind advertising or film nudity, is not afforded to women in the same way that it is with men. The ogling of White is a different beast.
In a way, the treatment of White is close to what you want. It is proper sexy but he is an active empowered participant to a point that he can feel a bit embarrassed by it all, to be spending his time doing it. I do not overly worry for young men seeing it and feeling negative about themselves. I can see a lot of young men seeing it and getting on the weights, but this may be no bad thing, within reason; so long as they have other men – which White does – to tell them that kind of body is rendered specifically for a shoot; it ain’t the day-to-day way you’re going to be. I see active discussion from this, not a passive sense of lack.
If only the same was afforded FKA twigs. Where the images are received as achievements – as she felt they were – not troubling exploitation. This is not to say that women aren’t exploited elsewhere, just that if we want to achieve a freedom of the individual in society – which we surely do – then discourse has to treat women as they do men, where different perspectives are taken, where the women are spoken to and understodd.
And let’s make sure, in the real world outside the Hollywood world, boys and girls are similarly empowered to be active with their bodies and minds.
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