Advertising uses images to evoke a state of desire. Less and less often
these days do ads even direct that desire toward a specific product;
more often their intent seems to be to evoke a sort of dreamy trance of
diffuse desire, to keep us in a state of prolonged yearning that may
attach itself to any number of different material objects over the
course of time.
The standard image employed to invoke this state is the beautiful face,
the tender body of a young woman. Usually she looks right at us;
implores us to enjoy her, provokes us with the plea in her eyes. What is
it that we want when we gaze at her? To be her? To have her? To have
what she has? Or to merge with her image in some kind of hazy, adrenalin
surge of continuously sustained consumption, continuously sustained
What happens when the image is not of a young woman -- whose
are used to seeing co-opted for the sake of selling products -- but of two
very young boys, two very aesthetically pleasing blond boys, posed to
look as if they are playing unself-consciously in their underwear? This is
what happened last month, when Calvin Klein launched an ad campaign to
line of children's underwear on giant billboards in Times Square and in
full-page spreads in the New York
Times and Martha Stewart Living: It was denounced by everyone from New York Mayor
Rudy Giuliani to Rosie O'Donnell to the Rev. Donald Wildmon, and Klein
finally pulled the billboard. For critics, the issue was clear: The ad
would provide fodder for pedophiles.
But is the lurking presence of pedophilia the true source of our
distress? When I look at the photograph, I suspect that the issue is far
more complicated than this. Of course, the image is sepia-toned,
larger than life, soft-focus, romantically lit; that is the graphic
vocabulary of advertising. But
that has also become the established language of our desire. The image
forces a conjunction of "innocent" childhood and commercialized desire.
It makes us uncomfortable -- not just uncomfortable, but erotically
uncomfortable. There is something erotic about the image, and we search
for the source of the eroticism we perceive: Is it in us or in the
picture? In the eye of the photographer who took the picture, the
producer who conceived it, innate in the children themselves? We cannot
look at the photograph without imposing upon it what we already know
about adult desire. We are not innocent; we know what is inside adults'
underwear. We know what adult genitals do and how they look when they
are aroused, we know what it is like to feel sexual desire for another
person and we know what it is like to be trained to feel that desire in
response to billboards in Times Square.
And who is this picture for? Certainly not for children, who do not buy
their own underwear and, if they have a say in the matter, prefer
it featuring Barney or Spiderman. It is for the parents of
children. Perhaps our discomfort with the image is because it forces us to
confront the fact that when we buy
clothing for children, we make our choices not only to please them but
also to turn them into aesthetically pleasing objects for our
appreciation. For the appreciation of other adults. We want our children
to have integrity, to own themselves and their own bodies, and we cannot
help but treat them like possessions.
I ask myself if there is any way a photographer could take a
billboard-size photograph of little boys in their underwear
that we would perceive as innocent, as protecting our children's
vulnerability. Any way that a photographer could take a photograph of
beautiful children in their underwear that did not evoke our desire?
Don't we always want to crawl into the beautiful picture, to possess the
beautiful picture, to do what every museum has guards to caution us
against -- simply touch it?
I try to think of the neutral photographic images of children in their
underwear that I have seen. There are the slides that physicians show at
medical meetings, overlit photos of sick children stark against
monochromatic backgrounds, sometimes with rulers in the picture to show
the scale of their tumors or misshapen limbs. Their eyes are blindfolded
with black bars, medical peek-a-boo: If we can't see your eyes, we can't
tell your identities. Covering their eyes is meant to protect them, as
if their not being able to see us means that we can't gaze upon them with
anything but clinical interest.
Then there are the boys in the Sears catalog, photographed with the
same neutral aesthetic as the power tools and kitchen mixers. There is
no privileging of the body here; the boys are mannequins present only to
model the product. They are always doing something unrelated to their
being in their underwear, some above-the-neck task, like playing with their
baseball glove. They are completely innocent of their own undressed
In the Sears catalog, the boys' crotches are airbrushed to look as
flat as the front of baby dolls' bodies. But now I have another memory.
As a child myself, I turned to those pages and gazed long and hard over
those images of little, nearly naked boys. Those pictures felt a little
forbidden. They were not the same as those of power tools or mixers for
me. I pondered them, I studied them. Perhaps I blushed. And then I
quickly turned the page to the toys section, where I could settle in,
comfortably direct my wanting.
The Calvin Klein images are aesthetically appealing, and they are
directed at adults -- not adults who are shopping for simple, utilitarian
underwear or physicians looking to match their patients'
maladies with the visual presentation of a slide, but adults who have been
trained to look and feel desire. And they are not hidden at the back of
a book. They are in Times Square, saying, "Look at me, look at me, don't
you just have to have something, don't you just have to touch?"
We cannot look at those altogether too aesthetically pleasing boys,
their portraits taken in the graphic vocabulary of late-20th century
advertising allure, without feeling confused, without projecting our
adult knowledge and desire and guilt about that desire onto them. We would
like to keep our children innocent, innocent perhaps of our
own reactions to their sexuality. And of what our society has done with
sexuality. Maybe we would simply like our children to be off-limits to
the Calvin Kleining of the body. Our society has taken sexuality and
translated it into a wash of sepia and soft light and half-visible
nipples and provocative smiles that can be used to bathe anything that
anyone ever wants to sell us in the language of fundamental physical
desire. Maybe we would just like to keep our children innocent of