Liaison Dangereuse, a German online lingerie store, recently released a new video advertisement. With Arabic-sounding music in the background, a woman is shown getting out of the shower (we can see, from the back, that she has no clothes on), putting on her make-up, then walking (wearing nothing but high heels–to each her own, I suppose) to her dresser, where she puts on her underwear, bra and socks, all the while looking at herself in the mirror. Last (anyone see where this is going yet?), she puts on a burqa. The final scene is of her face at a window, with this phrase showing up: “Sexiness for everyone. Everywhere.”
Some have suggested the add may be empowering (and, according to this one, especially empowering for “women in certain desert nations.” I’m not even going to go there.) As Dodai of Jezebel writes, with some reservations, “You could view the woman in the commercial as confident and self-assured.” True. Furthermore, unlike the major impression given in a different discussion about Muslim women’s lingerie, the confidence and “sexiness” that this woman displays are seemingly for her alone; she is not wearing this clothing simply to be attractive to a man. We can perhaps even take from this an empowering message for everyone, the idea that we can all feel sexy, if we so choose, without anyone else having to see us or to think of us as sexy.
All of that said, the empowerment message doesn’t really hold up. There is a whole lot of irony that these images are made so explicit in a public advertisement, given that they are supposedly valuing a sexuality that isn’t overtly expressed on the outside. The public spectacle of an apparent private moment of expressing confidence in one’s own body obviously negates the privacy of that moment.
All the other arguments aside, it seems therefore pretty hard to argue that this ad is something positive or empowering, if it would probably be rather offensive and disrespectful to most of those who would presumably be the ones it attempts to empower.
And, although the message seems to be about personal sexuality, there’s definitely still a strong male gaze and sense of objectification (and exoticization) at play, and it’s pretty unlikely that this was irrelevant in the construction of the video. One online response to the advertisement referred to its protagonist as an “exotic hottie” that the audience (and I’m guessing this is referring specifically to the heterosexual male component of the audience) is “treated to.” Another says:
Welcome to Friday, gentlemen, a day when your mind drifts to thinking about risking surfing porn from your work desk. Well, here’s a video appetizer, via Berlin ad agency glow GmbH, for German online lingerie store Liaison Dangereuse. Tagline: Sexiness for everyone. Everywhere.” It’s got brief bare butt, and an ending twist that’ll make you Catholics feel a little guilty.
So yeah, sexiness is “everywhere” and “for everyone,” ready to be served up as your pre-weekend porn appetizer. Great.
More important is the bigger context in which this ad appears – the fascination about Muslim women’s bodies, and the curiosity about what’s “behind the veil.” In fact, this isn’t even the first time that Muslim women’s lingerie has been discussed on MMW; apparently, it’s a hot topic. Why? As I’ve said previously,
What could be a more titillating image than that of a Muslim women (presumably veiled, of course) picking out something sexy to wear when in her private harem home? It might as well be proof of the Orientalist fantasy of the seductive, exotic temptress that exists within every Muslim woman, if only we could unveil her. (*shudder*)
Sadly, this isn’t even remotely new; see, for example, the kind of work that’s been done on the behind-the-veil/into-the-harem writing of colonial times. Meyda Yegenoglu’s Colonial Fantasies or Malek Alloula’s work (summarised fairly well here) are interesting places to start. The obsession with the veil (and with what’s under it) has a long history, and one that is intricately connected to colonization, racism, and sexism. This advertisement does nothing to disrupt that history, leaving us with a character who is still being objectified, as a Muslim and as a woman, even when this is under the guise of female empowerment.