Two Pornographies: a Feminist View of Sex in Advertising

Barbara B. Stern, Rutgers University
ABSTRACT - This paper presents the feminist concept of two pornographies, one for men, and one for women. It first distinguishes between them, and then presents the themes, characteristics, and underlying values of soft-core pornography known as the "women's romance." Next, it analyzes an advertisement to illustrate the romance elements. Last, it discusses the implications of different pornographies in three areas: alienation of target markets, feminist evaluations of romances, and the "pornographic society."
[ to cite ]:
Barbara B. Stern (1991) ,"Two Pornographies: a Feminist View of Sex in Advertising", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 384-391.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 384-391


Barbara B. Stern, Rutgers University


This paper presents the feminist concept of two pornographies, one for men, and one for women. It first distinguishes between them, and then presents the themes, characteristics, and underlying values of soft-core pornography known as the "women's romance." Next, it analyzes an advertisement to illustrate the romance elements. Last, it discusses the implications of different pornographies in three areas: alienation of target markets, feminist evaluations of romances, and the "pornographic society."

An "omnipresent sexuality" is said to permeate consumption, for advertising frequently relies on symbolic representations of sexuality (Gould 1990)- for products not directly related to sexual activities. Some researchers say that the prevalence of this imagery reflects the importance of sexuality as an essential consumption element -- a bonding agent between consumer and product (Dichter 1990). The abundance and ubiquity of sexual imagery has been castigated at best as "Sex-cess in Advertising" (Pollay 1989), and at worst as commercial pornography (McLuhan 1951; Miller 1989; Prewitt 1990).

However, while all pornography (defined below) contains sexual imagery, not all sexual imagery is pornographic. Controversy surrounds the definition, nature, and function of pornography, and its differentiation from other kinds of sexual literature such as erotica and/or romances (Sontag 1967; Steinem 1978). Further, recent research indicates that the nature of pornography differs depending on whether its authors/audience are men or women. The concept of consumer "lovemaps" -the "patterned acquired tastes that delineate an individual's erotic fantasies and corresponding practices" (Gould 1990) -- suggests the role gender differences play in what is experienced as sexually arousing. Thus two inter-related questions about sexuality, pornography, and consumption are of interest to researchers, one concerning text (the advertisement), and the second concerning reader response to text (the consumer). The first question is, what is the distinction between pornography and other sexual imagery? The second is, what is the distinction between what men and women consider sexually arousing stimuli?

The purpose of this paper is to address these questions. It presents the feminist concept of "two pornographies, one for men, one for women" (Snitow 1978, p. 257) and pays special attention to erotic romances as pornography for women. The paper will first distinguish between the two pornographies, and then present the themes, characteristics, and underlying values of soft-core pornography known as the "women's romance." Next, it will analyze an advertisement to illustrate the romance concepts. Last, it will discuss implications of the two pornographies for consumer research in three areas: unintentional alienation of target markets, feminist evaluations of romances, and societal effects of sexual advertising.

The rationale for this paper's reliance on feminist research is that it provides new insights into sexuality and consumption by viewing phenomena from the vantage point of the "other" -that is, the female -^ sex. Most of the sex-related research up to the 1970s was based on assumptions of male norms, implicitly held applicable to females as well. Feminist scholarship has questioned these assumptions. Its major contributions to cultural self-awareness have been the identification of a "masculinist" bias and the discovery of a female culture coexisting with- the predominant male one in patriarchal societies. Since the most fundamental distinction between the two cultures is based on sex, feminist scholars often begin by hypothesizing differences between men and women in relation to words, images, and ideas related to sexuality.

Feminist scholarship is thus an additional but under-utilized resource available to consumer researchers bent on understanding the still-relevant question, "Why does sex sell?" (Russell 1990, p. 58). Since sexually-oriented appeals are unlikely to disappear, more accurate knowledge of what pornography is and is not as well as what sexual imagery appeals more to women than to men may encourage creation of advertisements that are more socially responsible and more effective.

Distinction Between Pornography Erotica

Both pornography and erotica are terms categorizing literary texts whose goal is sexual arousal (Sontag 1967). Yet the etymological roots of the terms reflect differences: pornography comes from the Greek porne, meaning "prostitute, harlot," and probably derived from pernemi, meaning "sell, as captives." Etymologically, the word's denotation of financial profit from the sale of female captives implies the connotation of an imbalance of power in a sex-for-sale marketplace. Erotica, in contrast, comes from the Greek eros, meaning passionate love (Steinem 1978). The denotative concept of sensual awakening connotes mutual rewards for equal partners in a love relationship.

Pornography is thus rooted in the concept of domination of women, and is often associated with sadomasochistic violence, in that the participants in the exchange are either male conquerors (sadists) or female victims (masochists). The literature sends messages of male aggression and superiority, for standard themes are misogyny, mistreatment of women as objects, and sex as a weapon. Nearly all pornography is written, sold, and bought by men (Morgan 1978), for, like rape, its aim is power through sexual humiliation rather than mutual erotic satisfaction (Brownmiller 1976). Some critics feel that the main subject of pornography is pain leading to death (Sontag 1967). Erotica, on the other hand, is the literature of pleasure (Steinem 1978): it depicts sensual images of shared sexual joy.

True pornography is said to "serve as aversion therapy for sex" for most women (Steinem 1978, p. 54), apparently repelled by the woman-hating themes and violence commonplace in X-rated literature. Feminists point out that what arouses women is different from what arouses men, a distinction that has led to the concept of "two pornographics" (Snitow 1978). One is "hard-core," more likely to arouse men sexually, and the other is "soft-core," more appealing to women. Erotica has been defined as synonymous with- soft-core pornography since 1977, when the term first appeared in the journal Lancet (Oxford English Dictionary 1989, italics mine):

A distinction could be drawn between erotic art (or soft pornography) and hard pornography, which by connecting sex with violence, hatred, pain, and humiliation, stimulated gratification of sexual desire in deviant ways.

Discussion of male-oriented hard-core pornography lies beyond the scope of this paper (see Prewitt 1990), and we now turn to closer examination of romances as pornography for women.

Pornography for Women: "Romance" Characteristics and Themes

The "romance" genre is considered a form of "soft-core pornography that women find socially acceptable and non-threatening" (Coles and Shamp 1984). The genre includes many species variously called gothics, historical romances, soap operas, and erotic romances (Ellis 1975). Its ancestry is traceable to Greek romances, and it bears remnants of medieval Arthurian tales and post-eighteenth century popular gothic novels. Unlike hard-core pornography, soft-core literature has traditionally been written by and for women. It describes sexual activities in veiled rather than overt terms: lovemaking is "bathed in romance, diffused, always implied rather than enacted" (Snitow 1978, p. 257). In a word, soft-core women's pornography presents foreplay, whereas male pornography describes penetration.

The reason that romances stop after foreplay is that they have but one major theme: courtship. Romances end with marriage -- "they lived happily ever after" -- a goal attainable only if the heroine retains her chastity. They are an unusual literary genre in that they are told from the woman's point of view, with a woman as the major protagonist (Cawelti 1975). The heroine occupies center stage in a love relationship, for in this literature, the male is the inscrutable "other" (De Beauvoir 1952; Stern 1991). Romances characteristically feature a lonely heroine, emotionally and often physically isolated, who tries to keep her virginity intact under pressure from a sporadically available but nonetheless powerful male. The gulf between the sexes is widened by this romanticized sexuality, for women's pleasure derives from the excitement of waiting to unravel the male mystery: "Not knowing may be more sexy than finding out" (Snitow 1978, p. 250). The Freudian question ("what do women want?") is reversed, and heroines puzzle over what men want.

But male-female communication is less a concern than sexual fantasizing. Because romances rarely depict sexual activities below the waist -- they are popularly called "bodice-rippers" -- they do not present mature sexual relationships. Since the only adventure open to women is the hunt for marriage, romances fantasize the early stages of love. Once the woman gets her man, this particular story is over. Romance literature, then, is the literature of courtship rather than of consummation, for "sex means marriage, and marriage, promised at the end, means, finally, there can be sex" (Snitow 1978, p. 248).

Romance themes (Coles and Shamp 1984) can be summarized as follows:

-- the glorification of courtship, that point in a woman's life cycle when she is the center of male attention and most optimistic about-marriage

-- the ideal of virginity, for women's value in the marriage market depends on her purity (otherwise, she is "used goods")

-- the sign of success for women as marriage, postulated as the final truce in the sexual war ("living happily ever after")

-- the importance of domesticity, for women are judged by their goodness as wives and mothers

-- the emphasis on consumption, for women must fill time while waiting for their men by buying clothes, furniture, food, and so forth

These themes suggest values most recently enshrined in the 1950s, for romances can be read as pre-feminist stories about women whose lives center on men. Despite the societal changes in the past generation, traditionally feminine values seem to be coexisting with newer liberated ones. In this context, romances may function as repositories of fantasy as well as descriptions of reality, fulfilling the dual literary mission of defining sexuality while at the same time reflecting it. Advertising, like literature (Light 1986), plays a part in constructing sexual ideology and in defining the multiplicity of "femininities" that come to be lived, and its articulation of romance themes in 1950s terms indicates a pervasive media influence.

Analysis of A Romance Advertisement: Prell Shampoo

The romance advertisement selected for full analysis is a Prell shampoo ad from January, 1950, originally published in The Woman's Home Companion, and reproduced in Advertising Age's special section, The House that Ivory Built: 150 Years of Procter & Gamble (Freeman 1987, p. 46). It is used as an exemplar here for two reasons. First, it was selected by Advertising Age's editors as representative of one of Procter & Gamble's "memorable images," an indication that it tells society something important about itself. Second, it provides enough rich verbal and visual detail to enable close analysis of the romance themes that define the nature of this image.

The date of the ad suggests a link to popular romance themes, for 1950 was the start of the postwar decade most closely associated with "the feminine mystique" (Friedan 1963) and the full development of modern romanticized sexuality. This mystique is rooted in post-war optimism and prosperity (Light 1986). In the environment of abundance, women's "place" was once again the home (Welter 1966), for sexual and social fulfillment were circumscribed within the confines of marriage (Light 1986). "Normal" sexuality was what a woman experienced in her relationship with her husband, and femininity flowed from a guilt-free identity as wife and mother. A contemporary survey by Dichter points to the centrality of marriage in terms of the mystique (Friedan 1963, p. 210):

The modern bride is deeply convinced of the unique value of married love, of the possibilities of finding real happiness in marriage and of fulfilling her personal destiny in it and through it.... the modern bride seeks as a conscious goal that which in many cases her grandmother saw as a blind fate and her mother as slavery: to belong to a man, to have a home and children of her own, to choose among all possible careers the career of wife-mother-homemaker.

Glorification of Courtship: The Two Protagonists

The ad's romance themes cluster around four characters. Three are realistic -- the hero, the heroine (protagonists), and the doctor (see next section) -- and one is symbolic -- the Prell figure (see below). The first theme, the glorification of courtship, introduces the protagonists and the product message. The ad is about the heroine's entry into the marriage mart, and the product's benefit is to make her a winning player. The realistic level concerns the heroine's activity in the business of getting a man, step one on the road to domesticity. She is the center of male attention, winning admiration for her beautiful hair. Long shiny hair as a sexual lure links this text to folk-lore antecedents -- fairy-tales such as Rapunzel, Biblical tales such as Samson and Delilah, and modern variants such as the musical Hair.

The respective size and placement of the main characters (heroine and hero) illustrate their importance in the romance world: in the main picture, the woman is centered, and larger than the man. Interestingly, the heroine's hair (ha bangs) obscures the hero partially. He is on a line with the conversation bubble below her fan, and seems to be emerging from the top of her head as a continuation of the unspoken thoughts signified by the bubble. The alignment of these thoughts, the heroine, and the hero on a diagonal suggests that his identity springs from her imagination. The heroine is thus the major character, with the hero off to one side, perhaps more imaginary than real.

Colors and clothing provide an important clue to the hero and heroine in romance, for this is a genre in which the characters are unidimensional and simplistic -- they are what they wear. The ad's hero is a generic "everyman," present only as an image of a future husband. He could be any available man, for he is a depersonalized character whose hair and dress -- brown-haired, clean-shaven, well-groomed, wearing a tuxedo -- describe anonymity. Brown is the commonest hair color in the United States, and a tuxedo resembles a uniform in that it masks distinctions among wearers. However, since tuxedos are commonly associated with wedding attire, the uniform also indicates that the hero matters less as an individual than as husband-fodder.

The Case for Chastity: The Virgin Heroine

Colors and clothing also provide insight into the more complex and ambiguous nature of the virgin heroine. She embodies the second theme -the ideal of virginity. This ideal equates a woman's value in the marriage market with the cardinal virtue of chastity. Romances present women who are determined to preserve their virginity for their husbands, since non-virgins are considered, in marketplace terms, "used goods." Because marriage is the key to feminine identity, and because virginity once lost is irreplaceable, the chaste heroine symbolizes the pinnacle of desirability. However, her sexuality is ambivalent, since she must simultaneously project virtue at the same time as sufficient sexual availability to make her interesting to prospective mates.

The heroine's virgin/whore ambiguity is suggested by her blonde hair (a sign of virtue) versus her clothing, some of which is more vampish than virginal. Her black glove, most notably, is a sign of sexual experience, yet its color is what connects her visually with the hero's wedding attire - his black tuxedo and tie. Her ambiguity is further complicated by the colors of her garments -- pink and blue -- hinting at baby innocence. Moreover, each garment has some white in its pattern, suggesting bridal innocence as well, for brides wear white in this culture as a symbol of purity. Thus the heroine reveals innocence as well as provocativeness, holding out the promise of an end to virginity, if it is preceded by matrimony.


The Doctor: A Character From Ritual to Romance

In the smaller picture, a secondary male character occupies a pivotal role: the doctor. His presence is noteworthy, for he is the link between the third theme -- marriage as success -- and the underlying mythic level first identified by Weston as the foundation of modern romances (1919, repr. 1957). These mythic associations have been familiar since Eliot's The Waste Land popularized arcane folk matter for modern audiences. The doctor is a descendant of the "Medicine Man" in fertility rituals, a stock character whose function was to restore to life the wounded representative of a vegetation deity. By the time of the Arthurian romances, the Medicine Man had taken on elements of the Redeemer, for his original pagan task of healing the body had metamorphosed into the priestlike Christian mission of healing the soul.

The ad retains echoes of the doctor's dual function as both healer and priest. In the first role, he is a scientific authority schooled in medicinal remedies to cure physical ailments. As such, he provides the data that convinces the heroine of the shampoo's benefits -- "Doctors' examinations proved" Prell's ability to remove dandruff. But in his second and more important role, the doctor does more than simply describe or prescribe a remedy: he guides the curing ceremony, holding the shampoo while the heroine washes her hair. This is an allusion to the baptismal rite, where immersion in water becomes part of a purification ritual. The doctor's dual function is thus a remnant of fertility myths that has endured in quest-romances, paving the way for consideration of the sexual symbolism underlying the fourth character.

Prell as the Fourth Character: Sexual Symbolism

The Prell-figure's enactment of a sexual act harks back to familiar archetypal patterns that resurface in modem romances. The courtship theme, in Frye's words, is a reworking of an ancient one: "the search of the libido or desiring self for a fulfillment that will deliver it from the anxieties of reality but will still contain that reality" (1973, p. 193). The romance "reality" that subsumes fertility motifs is marriage, but the genre's conventions depend on resolution of the tension between the heroine's virgin/whore aspects. Tension exists because the heroine is in the difficult position of having to use virginity as a weapon in the war of sexual conquest without herself being conquered. In the romance literature, women have to "get" men by holding out sexual bait strong enough to attract a marriage proposal, but not so strong as to risk being judged an easy mark.

The ad communicates this tension between the virgin/whore sides of the heroine by means of her garments, and resolves it symbolically. The mythic theme -- "the victory of fertility over the waste land....the union of male and female" (Frye 1973, p. 193) -- is acted out by symbolic consumption of Prell. The Prell tube is a fourth character, an allegorical figure with a name ("Tallulah the Tube"), bearing all the hallmarks of medieval allegory (Stem 1988; 1990). Prell is a phallic symbol, a penis-substitute serving as a fictionalized character who acts out a consumer quest. Symbolic consummation is represented by the action of the tube: it is erect at the top of the ad and limp at the bottom, a mimetic representation of the tumescence-detumescence pattern of orgasm. The Prell character disguises the phallicism slightly with a female name, perhaps to render it more acceptable to women consumers.

Nonetheless, the character's penile nature is introduced as early as its name, the first clue to the symbolism: the name is "Tallulah the Tube" (italics mine), an unusual allegorical reference to the package rather than to the product (cf. Stern 1988). This directs attention to the qualities of the tube (rather than to its contents): upright, filled to the brim, and throbbing rhythmically. Further, the Prell-penis tells the audience what is wanted -- "all you've got to do is get ahold of me" (italics mine). The doable entendre of the lyric introduces the heroine's ambiguous good girl/bad girl qualities, connected by subsequent word-play ("get"). If her hair is nice and shiny because she "gets ahold of Prell," she will also "get ahold of" the man. However, different meanings of "getting ahold of" depend on whether object is the man/marriage, his penis/sexual satisfaction, or the tube/shiny hair.

These meanings underline a basic romance difference between men and women: to men, "getting hold of" means sex, while to women it means marriage. In the context of the ad, the unmarried heroine must remain virginal in fact if not in fantasy. The only long hard object she can "get ahold of" is a sex substitute. Her participation in the sex act is vicarious, as revealed in the bottom picture, which presents the climax of the real action and the symbolic sexual one. Here, the heroine holds an upright hairbrush in her right hand, and touches her hair with her left hand. She thus "gets" Prell, and "goes further than" any time before. Even more pertinent, she has also succeeded in getting hold of her man, for on the third finger of her left hand she is wearing a diamond ring, the traditional symbol of engagement. The ad, then, relies on symbolism and allegory to develop and structure the romance themes of courtship, virginity, and marriage.

Words and Sound Patterns

Those themes are reiterated by the words and sound patterns, further reinforcing the orgasmic sexual structure. This is presented in terms of a problem/solution format. At the outset, a problem is introduced: the needs of the erect penis, which must be relieved -- "removed," "fast." The sexual nature of the problem is stated in the following words -- "harder," "cream." The resolution in the next line hints at sexual satisfaction: a "curl" that is "easy to manage" and "do in any style." A solution is promised at once, for Prell "goes farther" than any other shampoo because it is "more concentrated" --that is, it is about to spurt out of the tube. The rhythm of the last line mimics this orgasmic spurt, for it is a three-word imperative ending a block of longer word groups (9 to 17 words). "Get Prell today" is the verbal analog to the sexual climax, bursting forth as a short, insistently trochaic command. The sound scheme thus reinforces the symbolic and thematic matter -"getting" shiny hair (use Prell), getting a man, getting sexual release -- in a synergistic blend of form and content.

The language adds a richer dimension to feminized sexuality, for the ad relies on "women's language," the habitual tongue of romance literature (Lakoff 1976; Spender 1985; Stern 1991). First, the song ends with an exclamation point, an early indication of the hyperbole that characterizes women's colloquial speech. There are eight more exclamation points, totalling two-thirds of the ad's twelve sentences. Numerous italicized words and modifiers signifying excess ("beautifully, amazing, shiningly, gloriously") add to the stylistic overstatement.

The most frequently repeated word -"radiant," used five times -- links stereotypically feminine overstated language with the heroine's success as a woman. It is a key word highlighting success in the romance quest, for the term refers not only to hair, but also to a popular diamond shape, the round or "radiant" cut. The gem symbolism is reinforced by a second key word -- "emerald" -- a rare instance of a word used by the heroine herself. "Emerald" is significant as a reference not only to the clear green shampoo, but also as the name of another popular diamond cut (rectangular). These key words hammer home the romance theme by associating Prell with the symbol of engagement: at the ad's end, the heroine's hair is shown in metonymic juxtaposition -- association by contiguity -- with the diamond on her ring finger. Thus, the ad is a rich source of romance themes, symbols, and language, all interwoven in a gestalt of form and content.


The Alienated Consumer

An understanding of romances as soft-core pornography appealing to women can assist the creation of advertising appeals that attract rather than alienate target markets. The creation of more accurately-targeted sexual appeals depends on sensitivity to differences between male and female sexual fantasies. Failure to recognize such differences can result in portrayals likely to alienate the very consumers they are designed to attract. This is a special danger when products are much more likely to be bought by one sex than the other, for if the target sex is turned off, who is left to buy the product?

One example of an alienating campaign seems to be the Maidenform ad series using Pierce Brosnan as a spokesman to sell women's lingerie. Since Maidenform products, like most basic undergarments, are bought primarily by women for their own use, the advertisement should logically appeal to women consumers. However, Brosnan seems more like a romance villain than a hero, and may appear threatening rather than enticing. The ads feature a large picture of Brosnan (no product is shown) delivering a solo recitation of a conversation about lingerie "with a woman friend." He appears as one of the people "listening" to the 150 ways Maidenform helps women "express themselves." Yet this campaign seems to appeal more to male fantasies of voyeurism, conversational sex, and undressing women in public than to female ones of virginal resistance culminating in marriage (Garfield 1990). Sexual imagery as the substance of an advertisement requires careful execution to insure that it does indeed appeal to the designated target market.

Male and Female Evaluations of Romances

Understanding some differences between male and female pornographies can also shed light on differences between male and female evaluations of sexual images in advertising. Here, feminist reader response theory (see Fetterley 1978; Flynn and Schweickart 1986) provides insight into the way men and women differ in reading a text's values. Male critics generally denigrate romances (and by implication, their readers) as masochistic, regressive, and passive. Questions have often been raised as to whether the polarizations of romance (hero vs. villain), its stereotypically bad characters (men) versus good ones (women), and its teasing depictions of incomplete sexual expression may be constricting. Romances have been called anxiety-enhancers, said to intensify women's conflicted sexuality (Modelski 1984) by presenting unrealistic values that distort the reality of male-female relationships.

But this view has not gone unchallenged by feminists, aware that "50 per cent of all women reading at any given moment are likely to be reading romance" (Radford 1986, p. 14). Not all feminist scholars are willing to label the sizable romance audience as neurotic. They are in opposition to the male critical model of reading as inadequate and reductive, pointing out that romances may contain positive values overlooked by the male literary establishment. A feminist point of view suggests that reading romances may have an integrative effect on women's lives (Radway 1983; 1985). In this view, romance narratives offer heroines (and readers) the love of a strong man, a satisfying mature sexual model of nurturance rather than the infantile one of seduction. Further, the hero's ability to care for the heroine is said to enhance her self-esteem by fostering her self-perception as the valued center of expert care and attention. Feminists also note that for the majority of American women, whose primary role in the family and workplace is a nurturing one, the romance convention of marriage to a strong and supportive man may represent their most utopian aspiration. Thus, romance literature -- including advertising based on its conventions -- may promote socially beneficial values by raising feminine self-esteem and presenting role models for adult sexuality.

The "Pornographic Society"

Differing evaluations of romance, however, exist in the context of a culture that seems to include a multiplicity of pornographies based not only on sex, but also on race, social class, gender orientation, and even age. The most important issue may not be how to use our understanding of what different segments view as pornography to encourage construction of better advertisements, but whether we should be doing this at all. More socially responsible advertisements that treat male and female sexuality with respect may best be achieved by decreasing the emphasis on sex rather than by getting it precisely right. Warmth, joy, love, and intimacy may be a more attractive set of appeals to all humans rather than violent hard-core or romantic soft-core depictions aimed at one sex or the other. The goal of humanization in advertising depends on a willingness to create messages that dignify the whole person rather than relying on those that reduce consumers of both sexes to no more than their sexual parts.


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