I am Dr. Chocolate. In 2008, I earned a PhD from the University of Washington by studying chocolate. Now, I am on the hunt for the best chocolate in the world.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

From the mother's breast: chocolate ads gone awry

Know who that is? It's Heidi Klum, Victoria's Secret supermodel, television star, wife of Seal, mother of four children, charity supporter. I want to take at least one sentence to represent Heidi in all her varied selves, because the this post is going to quickly forget the fact that this woman spends at least part of her day changing diapers and running a million dollar industry, and become instead more interested in the social mechanisms by which she has created an entire industry of images around her body. The most recent of which stars chocolate.

Please don't think that I don't love Heidi Klum. Who doesn't? I haven't owned a television for like ten years, but most Thursday nights see me driving far across town to my friends' place on Capitol Hill to watch Project Runway. We enforce strict rules of silence during this hour of programming, so that we may all focus properly as the drama unfolds. We pay Heidi respect. But these photos of her make me think very seriously about what it means when we are asked to consume, along with images of people working hard at a craft (making clothes, modeling clothes, hosting television shows), images that utterly blur the distinction between subject and object, seller and thing, woman and chocolate.

On Thursday, I gave my annual guest lecture to an Intro to Women's Studies class at UW. In this lecture, I have students consider the fact that chocolate, as a tradable commodity, has both an economic and a social "life" - that is, it has a monetary value but also a social value - it means something to us that cannot be captured by a price.

To illustrate one way that this social value is created, I showed students a series of chocolate advertisements. All I did was google "chocolate ads", and what came up was a litany of images that not only featured women, but in effect made women into chocolate. Images whose message was, consume them, eat them - they are the same.

I want you to keep two things in mind when you are looking at these images. One, that in contemporary Western culture, chocolate is marketed mainly to women, thus raising the question of why use sexually charged images of women to sell something back to them? In a culture where we also assume, for the most part, that everyone is heterosexual, this seems counter-intuitive. And two, what the heck would happen if it was a man in these images instead? Would they be as attractive, sexually? Aesthetically? As effective as advertisements for a food?

I used a lot of images in my lecture; here I'll just give you the best of the sample.

Images from AdPunch.org

These two are contemporary ads from Brazil, made by a marketing firm to advertise dark and white chocolate. Even for an industry that commonly conflates the object being sold with the one selling it, these are incredibly explicit. There is NO distinction at all here between the chocolate and the woman. She is chocolate. She is made of chocolate. The boundary between who we are as persons with lives and loves and goals and talents, and this food that gives us momentary satisfaction - that has been erased, eroded, it no longer exists. We are literally what we eat.

Lest we think that chocolate is unimportant here, that this is just another feminist analysis of the use of the female form, let us remember that it would be very difficult to do the same thing with broccoli.

No, chocolate is also central. It is central because of its social value. It means something to us, beyond its function as a food. Love, romance, indulgence. Reward and comfort. It is our friend and companion and caretaker when we are in need.

This is not a new idea. This Cadbury ad, taken from a 1928 postcard, does the same thing, only in a more sexually muted fashion:

Image from Flickr

I love this ad. I love it because it is freaking hilarious. LOOK AT WHERE THE MILK IS COMING FROM. Directly from this woman's breasts! It is practically pouring out of her nipples.

On first glance, students on Thursday said that they saw a mom in a kitchen, preparing chocolate for her family, whom she loves. It gave them, they said, the sense that Mom made chocolate, although they knew this not to be really true.

When we looked more carefully, we could see that in fact the ad went further: that this woman was pouring out her own breast milk into the nice Cadbury bar, which she will then serve to her family - all of them: husband, kids, sisters, aunties, grandmama. No matter how old they are, everyone can partake of the lovely, milky bar of the breast. Talk about a comfort food.

When I sat down to write this morning, I thought I might do a post about Halloween. I read the morning chocolate news and the first thing that came up was a warning about keeping the dog away from Halloween candy. But then there were these pictures of Heidi Klum, and I could not take my eyes off them.

For they are the same kind of image, even though they are not advertisements per se. They are selling something - maybe Heidi's own image-dependent career/industry? Maybe the dream of women who want to be models or fashion designers or married to a humble rock star? Frankly, I don't know what was going through her mind when she made these pictures.

Heidi Klum images from TheHollywoodGossip.com

Except that in a culture that finds it so easy to conflate women and chocolate, these images seem as if they make sense. Women love chocolate. Men often admit to loving it too. We all love Heidi Klum. Put them all together - yum!

Only not yum. To me, all the images here have a certain creepiness about them, even though they are aesthetically also pleasing. The ads that show women made of melting chocolate recall a Dalian sense of impermanence and chaos, the 1920s ad the straight jacket of suburban housewifery.

The photos of Heidi Klum covered in chocolate are also nerve-wracking. It just looks so goddamn uncomfortable. I think, write, love, and eat chocolate every day of my life, and yet I never want to be as covered in chocolate as Heidi Klum is in these pictures. Chocolate in my hair, getting all over my contacts, running down my back, glommed up in my armpits and bellybutton? No thanks.

Because what on god's good earth can Heidi Klum do in such a state? Nothing at all, except be looked at, desired, available to be literally eaten. It is the ultimate in passivity and, to my mind, forces together two things that really ought to stay quite separate: chocolate, which we eat, and a woman, who can actually go out and do a whole lot else with her waking hours.

I personally would rather eat a piece of chocolate and not have to think about it running down someone else's body. Isn't chocolate good enough to stand on its own? Do we really need Heidi Klum to colonize chocolate for us to enjoy it? No, I think we do not. There is enough room in the world for both to be as nature meant them.

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