We had just cooked and enjoyed a romantic dinner at home when my husband engineered his way over to the laptop. He wanted my opinion about a new ad doing the digital rounds. It’s for a famous brand of mineral water, so I prepared to be bored for a minute or two by ruddy-faced hikers or euro-teens drinking out of fancy shaped bottles.
Up pops a dark swirly atmosphere. Dita Von Teese opens a mansion door and beckons me in to join her. Husband is watching my reaction so I give him a quick eye roll, our shorthand for “No, I’m still not up for a faux lesbian romp.”
Dita swishes and undulates through the darkly lit but sumptuous hallway, throwing me beguiling glances over her shoulder. There’s a look on her face that says she’s just about up for anything.
We enter a room and she disappears off. I’m given a choice of two rooms and she whispers, “Pick one.”
I briefly wonder how she manages to make those two words so heavy with the promise of sexual fulfilment. When I say “Pick one” it sounds like I’m in the supermarket impatiently tapping my foot as the kids dither other the red or the yellow smoothie. “Pick. One. Now!”.
Dita is an expert, though. She’s 37 and has single-handedly headed the revival of burlesque as an acceptable form of entertainment for both men and women in the unlikely age of Zoo and Nuts Magazine.
I pick a room. Dita takes a picture of me. I check the web cam isn’t on. That would be embarrassing – to find my face on some Perrier pin board of sad gits who spend their time fruitlessly following Dita Von Teese around an imaginary mansion, hoping she’ll take off all her clothes.
Because that’s the thing with burlesque, when done well. It’s all about the tease and not being denuded. The woman is tantalisingly in control of how much she dresses, how much she shows and, crucially, how much she doesn’t show.
Dita gives me the camera and tells me to take pictures of her. We are in the dark now, with just a dim outline of the room about us. Clicking the left button takes the picture and lights the flash. Dita is arched in several sexy positions. Though revealing little more than a bit of stocking top or cleavage, it seems so much more illicit than page 3 could ever manage.
The more I click the camera flash the more often I see the sexy bottle of Perrier water on a silver tray, Von Teeses creamy outer thigh just out of shot.
The other room is a game of dice. She suggests I roll the dice and they come up with several moves, from squeezing her breasts together, while fully dressed, to sucking her finger.
The last throw of the dice directs her to take a little shower with her bottle of Perrier, for which she strips down to a really rather demure slip, knickers and stockings and proceeds to poor one little bottle of Perrier all over her chest.
There’s another feature in which she starts to strip and if the mouse wanders over to her body she stops. Even when I moved the mouse right over to the edge side of the screen it wandered over on its own and stopped her ever going further than bra and knickers – highlighting how much of an illusion my control was.
After a couple of stops she threw me out of the house for “not respecting her rules”.
“What do you think” asked Husband, salivating just slightly, through desire and fear of my expected rant about patriarchy, women as sex objects etc etc.
The thing was I found it totally inoffensive. It was brilliant. Yes it’s using sex to sell. But the difference here was there was absolutely no doubt who was in charge and who was being, albeit gently, played for a fool.
There are instances where a womans pure sexuality can be incredibly powerful. Dita has captured her power and used it to great effect. I see nothing wrong with this. Far from exploiting women’s bodies I think she cleverly uses hers to cast a spell of empowerment over her viewer, who is never allowed to control the situation.
Unlike the simplistic, exploitative and downright manky images of the recent Hunky Dory ads (“Are you looking at my crisps?” asks the model on the rugby field in the bikini top, her ribs painfully visible though she was leaning forwards.), the Perrier ad is subtle,seductive and sexy without stereotyping women as two-dimensional, dull, talentless sex objects.
Dita Von Teese does not have a models bland looks. She is a media personality, known for her expertise in a once abandoned art of seductive dance. She is fabulous and I for one will happily purchase Perrier bottles with her face on them. We know who she is and we know what she stands for. What she does is sexy, but it isn’t porn. She isn’t allowing herself to be exploited, if anything the opposite is taking place in this ad. There is humour and talent in what she does, and a relationship between the performer and the audience that shows the performer in complete control of proceedings.
At first glance it might appear that Von Teese is inviting “the gaze”. The gaze is an idea from 1960’s postmodern philosophy on the relationship between viewer and subject, be they painted, photographed, filmed, etc. This theory was widened out by 1970 to the concept of the male gaze, outlined in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975) by Professor Laura Mulvey.
In her book Mulvey teases out the idea that the blueprint for Hollywood movies was to put the film viewer in the protagonists shoes, who tented to be a man. The female characters through the 50’s and 60’s were mostly used as a break from the main narrative flow (the love interest) and were mostly there to be looked at. Mulvey delineates 2 types of male gaze from this set up, the voyeuristic (seeing the woman as a Madonna) and the fetishistic (seeing the woman as a whore).
Von Teese manages to be both of these characters and neither in the final analysis of the Perrier ad. The Daily Mail managed to freeze frame an image that reveals her vagina. This says more about the Daily Mail than Von Teese.
When online and playing the ad the image lasts not more than a second. You cannot peer up at her minge like the scornful, yet titillated, Daily Mail readers are invited to do.
Considering the Internet, before social media, was most used for viewing pornography, it is a twist to see digital advertisers meld together so successfully gender, sexuality, interactivity, control and “the male gaze”, while Von Teese is conquered by none of them.