Honey Birdette and the convenient co-opting of “female empowerment.”

You won’t be surprised to learn that Honey Birdette’s latest campaign, ‘Bodyguard’ comprehensively fails the Campaign Bechdel test.

If you’re not familiar with Honey Birdette, allow me to give you the crib notes: lingerie retailer; favours soft porn-style campaign photography; subject to frequent complaints against it for filling its store windows with imagery of pseudo-lesbo models pressed against each other, wearing next to nothing. Not the most family-friendly campaign at your local shopping centre.

Not that there’s anything wrong with lingerie, or lingerie advertising in general. It’s Honey Birdette’s particular approach that’s problematic. Let’s take their most recent campaign as an example. The entire premise of the ‘Bodyguard’ campaign appears to be a narrative device designed to justify the lone female model wandering around in her lingerie while five men in suits surround her. This campaign feels like it was created with the logic that a four-on-one set-up can’t be called a gang-bang if the guys are called her security. While the male creative director, male photographer and male videographer behind this campaign may believe they’ve gamed the system with the ‘Bodyguard’ premise, it’s indisputable (according to the Campaign Bechdel rules) that this commercial is a complete female representation fail:

1. Does the ad have at least one unobjectified woman in it?

No. The sole female in the spot is wholly, constantly objectified throughout the entire spot. She exists as a two-dimensional sexual object designed for consumption by the male gaze.

2. Whose screentime is not devoted to supporting a man’s story?

The spot is literally called Bodyguard. She is the human prop in not just one, but FIVE men’s stories.

3. And who has personal agency / her own narrative arc?

In both imagery and narrative, this woman has no personal agency. In every frame, she is claustrophobically surrounded by her Bodyguards. It’s visual and physical imprisonment by five male models. (Much less fun than that sentence sounds.) These men are sometimes nearly nude themselves, but mostly they appear fully dressed in suits, while she swivels and bends in various degrees of undress. The power dynamic here is clearly unbalanced. And to add insult to injury, inherent in the premise of a Bodyguard is that she is not allowed to be on her own or to be independent, because it is in her best interests to be controlled/protected by men. Domestic abusers often manipulate their victims with the same logic.

I’m actually not going to post the YouTube link to the commercial itself – I don’t want to contribute to their view count. Here’s the film’s key frames:

The lingerie could easily have been modelled and made desirable without the guys around her. The narrative device of male bodyguards being necessary to protect this sexy VIP-type woman is as flimsy as the underwear.

Even flimsier is the brand’s faux-outrage to deflect the real outrage. Claiming to be champions of women’s rights, Honey Birdette is now attempting to suggest that objectified nudity is a form of female empowerment, and that protests against the brand are a repression of free speech. This manipulation of cause-based advertising is so deviously Trumpian, you almost want to applaud their chutzpah. But the problem is, some audiences believe what they’re saying, meaning that advertising like this is chipping away at gender equality, one set of lingerie at a time.

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