mouths for subjugation and decadence
Content warning: this essay deals with topics and imagery that might be upsetting, including sex, violence against women, sexual violence, and food/eating, death and dead bodies.
I’ve just finished reading Maggie Nelson’s “The Red Parts” which details the trial of the alleged murder of her mother’s sister, Jane Mixer in Michigan in 1969. As Nelson was releasing a book in verse she wrote about her and her death called “Jane”, the murder case reopened after some new DNA evidence was matched to a suspect. Nelson’s book tells the story of the trial but also, what a murder like this, of a young female college student, shot and strangled, means to her personally and her family, most obviously (Nelson is known for her careful balance of public and private in her writing, her generosity and rawness always in check) and the way the images around such violence create mythologies themselves. Nelson’s telling is really about imagery, the gruesome autopsy photos her and her mother sit through during the trial, the row of photos of young women killed by a serial killer printed in a local newspaper, the callus and intriguing guilty pleasure storytelling of contemporary true crime fiction and television shows like 48 Hours.
I work hard to control my image in the role of “young woman, alone.” Everything is calibrated. Learning about “the male gaze” in college was not news to me, as I was raised in a world where knowing what you looked like and looking at yourself being seen is an everyday tool for survival. I’m often on my own. I’ve been this way for a long time, since I was twelve or so. Alone at home, alone out in the world. This is my chosen modality. When I was young and just starting this project of solitude and independence, my mother impressed upon me the importance of being aware of your surroundings. My first lesson in the gaze, the first rule by which I’d operate in this constant public-private persona building. Pay attention to who is around you, where you are, how you might leave. Always have your keys ready before walking to the front door. Save your mother’s name in your cellphone as “Mom ICE” (In Case of Emergency) I did not move from fear, I aspired towards awareness and control.
Last year, Postmates had these ads that were up on a few subway cars and most visibly, in that long sloping corridor at the West 4th subway station in Manhattan. The campaign is made up of photographs shot by Jonpaul Douglass and depict intimate close crops of (mostly) young women’s faces, with interesting bites of foods in and around their mouths. Chins tilt upward, foregrounding open, insistent, prone mouths bordered by pink textured lips. Un-made-up eyes are softly and serenely closed. An active red wet tongue curls around inky black noodles dangled from above out of the frame. Modelesque baby buck teeth, including generous gap, frame a green speckled macaron. A fleshy square of salmon is held at a mouth at a teasing distance, not in such a way to approach for a bite. The deeply dark void of the inside of her mouth (All but one of the ads feature models that are presumably female. The exception is a model who is a black man), so dry, so empty, is contrasted with the very human veins and taste buds and pores. Her complexion is borrowed from the subway ad neighbors at Glossier; The unblemished, even toned pale skin of most of the models is perfectly freckled and sun kissed but certainly not smooth and porcelain. There is warmth and moisture and movement.
The campaign is from last fall and I haven’t seen them in a long time but the audacity of the images and the discomfort and anger they’ve caused me has stuck around. I’m relieved to know that the campaign was not well received in its choice of imagery. Quartz called it “uncomfortable bordering on repulsive” but endorses their attention grabbing approach. I see that Postmates is trying to distinguish themselves in the food delivery space from it quotidian competitors, like seamless who cater to (and potentially even create) the presumed base need of the New York City commuter, namely to be at home alone and comfortable and fed a reliable meal as soon as possible. In this campaign, Postmates is telling you that they are not interested in providing you this service, which those of us of a certain class have come to expect with the certainty of groceries and 24 hour delis. The ads came out at the end of the “netflix and chill” moment and feel like a direct rebuke of the banality of the (also brand-manufactured) dating ritual of intermittently watching a dozen episodes of a series, fucking, and eating pad thai. This routine is vanilla whereas, these ads want you to be a little more luxe, a little more experimental, sensuous, edgy, kinky, sumptuous.
This is my read on what I think the photographer pitched to Postmates CEO Bastian Lehman, with whom, according to his portfolio, he directly worked on this campaign. It’s so easy to picture the collaboration between these two men. It’s not a stretch to imagine their excitement at putting together a campaign to reach their audience, men just like themselves. I could see them dismissing any notion of negative reaction to these photos as prudishness or a symptom of the illness of politically correct culture or attacks on free speech and modern liberated thought. It is so clear to me. It is so clear to me that my involvement in the scenarios as depicted in the campaign is the square white teeth, the delicate freckles, a bottom lip precariously dripping a blend of saliva and ketchup.
All through design school, we were required to take a suite of classes that might help to contextualize our making in history and theory, simultaneously teaching us how to read and write about images. We learned Klein and Barthes and Berger. I saw you there. I don’t know if you remember me - I guess I looked pretty different then. You sat behind me and in front of me and to the side of me. I’m sure you remember when we saw those horrifying ads that ran so freely in mass media in a certain time of American history -- bodies of people like me contorted to construct furniture on which a man could rest his feet. Disembodied limbs and fingers. Objects, household and food alike, standing in for breasts, vulvas, asses and assholes. Mouths full of fingers and barrels of guns. When the Guerilla Girls asked if people like me have to be naked to get into the Met. And I know you must remember when John Berger said,
“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another….
One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”
We were coming off of the high flash glossy mid-2000s (everything reeked of Axe body spray, including gender dynamics) and the images we saw, so flagrant in their sexism and violence and degradation were repugnant and tasteless. We were in the same place, learning the same theory and history and we both took notes on the mistakes of the past. Since then, you’ve grown smart and cold and you use the visual language of today to speak the words of subjugation we learned in those classes and have been repeated and repeated for the past century. You’ve executed on the objectification of people like me in flawless contemporary style, hiding your words behind a palatable aesthetic. You’ve rebranded it and made it aspirational.
To go to the movies is to imagine what I might look like dead. To watch a television show is to imagine what I might look like dead. To watch the news is to imagine what I might look like dead. I am young enough and feminine enough and white enough for these images to be proliferated and commodified.
There is greater representation of what I might look like as a beautiful young murder victim than what I might look like as an older woman.
I subsist on the notion of control, that I can control my time, my body, my interactions, my image. When I dress and groom, I control for gender, class, race, weather. When I leave my house, I control for arriving at work on time, taking a break, meeting up, coming home. When I eat, I control for budget, calories, energy, cravings, nutrients. I’ve been on my own for almost ten years and I still forget about how far my control can go, my ability to make decisions for myself. Maybe I’ll stop at a store on my way home. Maybe I’ll linger a little longer in the park. Maybe I’ll stop for an ice cream on my way back to work after my lunch break.
“Of course my ex didn’t walk me home. Instead I wandered, drunk, from Main Street down to the railroad tracks, lay down there and listened to the quiet world. Smoked a cigarette on my back, feeling a part of the ground, one of night’s dark and lost creatures.
For as long as I can remember, this has been one of my favorite feelings. To be alone in public, wandering at night, or lying close to the earth, anonymous, invisible, floating. To be “a man of the crowd,” or, conversely, alone with Nature or your God. To make your claim on public space even as you feel yourself disappearing into its largesse, into sublimity. To practice for death by feeling completely empty, but somehow still alive.
It’s a sensation that people have tried, in various times and places, to keep women from feeling.”
― Maggie Nelson, The Red Parts
The mentality that created the Postmates campaign is the reason people like me can’t eat ice cream on the street in peace. When even my selfish indulgence ($3 soft serve twist cone from the truck by Washington Square Park) is made generous, an unwitting gift of an image of a girl licking an ice cream, distributing my internal moment of control and decadence as a spectacle.
My thin body is congratulated for eating, as if I’ve been silly to keep myself from this basic obligation of owning a body. It’s adorable to see me gorge myself in a way that it might be to see something absurd but benign, like a dog singing like a human adult.
Some eating bodies are sexualized and some eating bodies are condescended and we are all hated for our specific styles of sustaining.
In “The Red Parts”, Maggie Nelson talks about seeing the images of her aunt’s body in the autopsy photos. She had been shot in the head twice and then strangled immediately after and the stocking used to do the act left an impressive and horrifying indentation in Jane’s neck. Later she talks about her boyfriend (consensually) choking her with a stocking during sex. I feel bad even asking for more because she’s been so gracious already, and I know that Maggie isn’t responsible for helping people like us to reconcile desire and violence, but I wish she could.
Now I’m going to talk about all the ways I’ve had to learn to see the past debasement of people like me to “appreciate” “art” and “culture.”
Remember the episode of Mad Men late in the series where Don Draper dreams that he strangles that woman he’s cheating on his wife with? But it doesn’t really happen and it’s a metaphor for something? And then we wonder what our own strangulations might be a metaphor for in a man’s narrative?
Remember the entirety of Mad Men?
Remember how the show Twin Peaks hinges on the rape and murder of a teenager whose beautiful bloated young body is found washed up, wrapped in plastic like a formal wear shawl, and you worry that this smart and artistically important show and it’s creator whose work you appreciate and resent devised this contemporary genre and device of the pretty and tragic dead girl? And in the same way that he’s refuted assigning meaning to his stories and character he also refutes acknowledgment of the gendered imagery he’s created?
Remember all the promo for the movie Gone Girl, like that image of Ben Affleck caressing Rosamund Pike’s dead body as they lay on a metal coroner’s table? Or the trailer that ends in her body, dressed in a slip, eyes open floating in dark water? Remember how it made you wonder how you might know if any of the men in your life might hurt you or people like you, or might have already in the past?
Remember all those scenes in the Japanese movie Tampopo where that rich man in the suit makes love to that woman, salting her nipples, eating food off of each others bodies (obviously a major reference point for our Postmates photographer), even tickling her bare belly with a live prawn? And later he eats the oyster form the palm of that very young girl? And you realize that the campaign in question has cast you as the nipple, as the palm that holds the oyster.
My empathy is stretched thin and I am tired.
It took me a long time to realize my attraction to women because it didn’t work the way I saw it in movies. I don’t love people like me like men do/ I don’t want the same things from them. Multiplying the gaze is not subverting the gaze. There’s a music video by the artist Torres that tries to do what the boys do. Naked disembodied female limbs reach out for the artist’s body, dressed in a slightly oversized suit. St. Vincent/Annie Clark does something similar in her new imagery around her latest album release. I want better for us. I don’t want to make objects of us as a means to assert the validity of our attraction and sexuality or to subvert gender. I don’t want to consume myself/us.
The conversations about whether people like me dress for or wear makeup for or walk down the street for an audience of men are tired, outdated, irrelevant. I am clear on my desire to be seen and appreciated at times while also not seeing these signals as an invitation for engagement or violence. It’s been thirty-seven year since Barbara Kruger made her piece that reads, “Your gaze hits the side of my phase” and five years since Barbara Kruger, reacting to the brand Supreme’s appropriation of her iconic imagery called the brand, in an amazingly titled document, fools.doc “a ridiculous clusterfuck of totally uncool jokers.” These totally uncool jokers seem to have done the same amount of homework as our photographer, Jonpaul Douglass. They saw the slides, took nothing of the criticism and warnings and pledges to move forward and twisted the imagery into something that fits right into the 21st century and becomes yet another something people like me have to learn to appreciate to move through the world in peace.
Graphics designed by Joelle Riffle, compositing images from the ad campaign in question.