The deconstruction of a M.A.C makeup campaign
A poster in a shop window in downtown Bergen caught my attention. This was late autumn 2018. I could not pin down what caused me to step off my bike to take a photo. (Illustration 1) My first reaction was not intellectually founded. I had no clear idea or intelligent thought. Not even an opinion. There was just this feeling that something was off as I continued to study the poster to understand what mesmerized me. In this text I return to my memory of how I came to interact with the photo. I will investigate it in the light of multimodal theory and finally contextualize it to a bigger frame of how females and particularly women of color have been rendered historically.
Doubtlessly, that day in front of the shop window, it was the woman of Caucasian complexion that first attracted my attention. She holds her head slightly tilted, as if the weight of the neatly combed bun of ginger hair on the top of her head is a bit heavy to carry, and the photographer has struggled to fit both the hair and the woman beneath it within the image frame. The woman’s face is at the upper left margin of the image, radiating a matte whiteness probably achieved by elaborate layers of translucent pale powder. Her lips are closed, delicately rendered in glimmering pink. But the focal point of the image is somewhere else. I was drawn to the intensely lavender blue eyes framed with matching blue eyeshadow. The color once again repeated in her shiny blue gown. Her eyes have the effect of stealing our attention. The white woman in the blue dress directs her hand in a slightly diagonal movement towards the right side of the image to touch the chin of another woman. The second girl appears slightly lower than the girl on the left. Their foreheads touch as if they exchange a brief hug. Her make-up is different. It reflects the intense light of the camera lamps. In contrast to the white woman, she keeps her eyes closed, exposing a pink shade. Yet another difference: her mouth is open, revealing a pearly white row of teeth. Eyes closed, big smile, dark tanned skin. She is a woman of color.
Now we get to the really odd part: In the upper left corner and on the bottom of the image some of the visual information has been rendered twice, as a result of clumsy photoshopping. The arm belonging to the Caucasian woman and the hand and mouth of the woman of color has been copied, cloned, repeated, doubled.
The deconstruction is not quite complete without taking the linguistic message and choice of type into account. The calligraphic type is reminiscent of icing on birthday cakes or balloons (It’s party time!), and the written text is this:
Shiny Pretty Things
Since there is literally nothing else to see in the image but two young women (with an extra hand and mouth) the viewer would link the text to these females. Standing in front of the poster in the shop window I wondered why anyone would think of referring to women as shiny+pretty+things in the 21st century as being a good idea. Whoever got the idea to clone an extra hand and a mouth? Not to mention the uneven representation of the two young women. Could the advertising in the window be the end product of a failed communication between photographer and art director? Could it be a rejected photo published by mistake? Could the hiccup be blamed on the shop; a mismatch between the poster format they had ordered and the photo that was taken? And then someone locally tried to fix it? If not – what could these things signify?
On the 5th of June 2020 I scrolled down my phone finding the image taken on that autumn day in 2018. Almost two years have passed, and altered perspectives on gender, equality, body, age and skin color are emerging in the world, not just in one culture – it happens everywhere. #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have become democratic movements that engage people all over the world.
Staring at the advertising photo, an impulse sent me searching the web for what kind of context it was published in. It turned out there was a series of photos with the two women, wearing identical make-up and the same clothes as I had seen in the shop window in Bergen. There was a whole cosmetic M.A.C campaign complimenting the poster I had seen.
(Beauty Makeup Pro, 2018)
Web pages often change content, and so has this one. In order to preserve the content of the 5th of June, I downloaded some of the images; here they are:
Four days later, on the 9th of June, I went browsing to see if it had been used in other web sites. I found it, downloaded the text, and some more images.
(The Curvey Chapter, 2018)
The campaign is consistent in its use of scenography, costumes, models, even the odd photoshopping is used throughout the whole material. My thoughts are led in the direction of Christmas and New Year’s parties, with gift ribbons, pompoms and glitter garlands seen through the lens of a kaleidoscope. The women pose in dresses that resemble the wrapping of confectionery. In the group photos one also finds other representations that resemble toys or balloons. Even though these also have eyes that stare at us, the effect is not as captivating as with the woman dressed in blue.
Returning to the Bergen poster: Let us for a moment imagine we had reversed the roles of the two women – could it have been used in advertising? What if the woman had changed positions and poses? Or, as a mental experiment, we could imagine the effect of replacing young women with young men, skinny with obese, young with old. And here lies a dichotomy; as a spectator I might not respond to the image. Its salience would be altered. The salience of an image means its ability to be particularly noticeable or appearing attractive. Attraction is not a constant factor. Who is considered worthy of attraction will vary according to the dominating culture. Time is another factor; every society is influenced by new ideas and changes that bring new ideals, new perspectives. Companies who want to survive in a competitive market must select their messages carefully. Brand values matter. In their own words: “M·A·C celebrates diversity and INDIVIDUALITY – we are for All Ages, All Races, All Genders” (MAC Cosmetics).
In order to understand what has been put into action here through means of visual communication, I turn to multimodal theory to explain how different semiotic modes interact. I once again return to the first poster, starting with the composition. In their of-referred-to book Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design (Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996, 2006), Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen have a chapter called “Narrative representations: Designing social action”.
In early communication theory models, the chain of communication was limited to a sender-receiver universe. In contemporary understanding of semiotics and how interaction is created, one would also take into consideration how the communication chain, in addition to the models, the makeup artist and photographer, also includes the advertising company, the M.A.C company etc. The receiving part of the chain is equally complicated, as M.A.C products are re-distributed by influencers on social media as a sort of franchise concept. With the contribution of influencers one may reach a variety of ‘recipients’ of the message and a meta-level of communication. However, the success of a message will depend on its ability to narrate stories that suits the majority of the population.
Kress and van Leeuwen distinguish between narrative and conceptual patterns in visual representations. While the function of conceptual patterns is connected with ambience, narrative patterns serve to present unfolding actions and events, processes of change, transitory special arrangements (ibid, 59). The dominating participants in narrative images, be they animals, humans, objects or geometrical shapes, are referred to as actors in the multimodal terminology. When these participants are connected with a vector, a visual cue that directs our gaze, this vector functions as a token of doing something to or for the other (ibid, 58). What vectors have in common, independently of connotations or how the image is made, is that they are oblong shapes. When humans are depicted, their limbs (and oblong objects and tools they may be holding) constitute vectors, and the function of vectors is to initiate an action; the image starts to narrate. In accordance with a western reading pattern it seems the Caucasian woman is giving something to the woman of color: a caress. However, when studying the image closely, one sees the blue collar of the woman on the left is photoshopped together with the hand belonging to the woman on the right. The gesture is represented twice (since the hand has been cloned), and the woman of color responds by smiling twice with her eyes shut.
How are we to ‘read’ this image? The head of the woman in the blue dress is directed towards the viewer, gazing seriously out of the image. The way she looks towards the camera/viewer is what multimodal theory calls ‘a demand look’. Kress and van Leeuwen underline this aspect: There is, then, a fundamental difference in pictures from which represented participants look directly at the viewer’s eyes, and pictures in which this is not the case. When represented participants look at the viewer, vectors, formed by participants’ eyelines, connect the participant with the viewer. Contact is established, even if it is only at an imaginary level (Kress & van Leeuwen, s. 117).
The image becomes an act where the white woman comes alive in front of us. She is represented as an actor. Eyes play a significant cultural role, as demonstrated in the Bible: “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:22, KJB)
Usually when we see a photo of a person with eyes shut, we reject that image, regarding it as failure. Here we are deprived of the possibility to connect with this woman of color, since her closed eyes shut us off from communicating. She cannot operate on the same level as the white woman. She is merely a smiling reactor. As visual theorist John Berger writes “[...] the painted poor smile as they offer what they have for sale. (They smile showing their teeth, which the rich in pictures never do.) They smile at the better-off – to ingratiate themselves, but also at the prospect of a sale or a job. Such pictures assert two things: that the poor are happy, and that the better-off are a source of hope for the world.” (Berger, 1972).
My artistic research project investigates stories we tell about ‘us’ and ‘the others’. When visual communication treats two humans differently, we must examine the intention behind. This poster is made to serve an audience who agrees to the perspective illustrated. Since I belong to the white population in the Northern hemisphere, there are many perspectives unknown to me. It is the effect of the socio-economic, geographical and cultural context I have been provided by heritage. We, white people working in the field of visual culture, should inform ourselves. It is our educational and professional obligation to broaden our perspective about the history of different cultures. And some of these cultures are in an infrathin distance, an expression coined by Marcel Duchamps (Schwarz, 1997, s. 258), where there are phenomena that surround the dominant culture, but the dominant culture operates as if these phenomena have no relevance or do not exist. One of these is the Jezebel stereotype, according to David Pilgrim at the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.
He claims the Jezebel has replaced the Mammy as the dominant image of black women in American popular culture. The black woman as prostitute, for example, is a staple in mainstream movies, especially those with urban settings. The black prostitute and the black pimp supposedly give these movies cutting edge realism. Small budget pornographic movies reinforce vile sexual stereotypes of black women. These women are willing, sometimes predatory, sexual deviants who will fulfill any and all sexual fantasies. Their sexual performances tap into centuries-old images of black women as uninhibited whores. Televised music videos, especially those by gangsta rap performers, portray scantily clad, nubile black women who thrust their hips to lyrics which often depict them as 'hos, skeezers, and bitches. A half century after the American civil rights movement, it is increasingly easy to find black women, especially young ones, depicted as Jezebels whose only value is as sexual commodities (Pilgrim, 2012).
In this context the image gains clarity; the woman in blue represents the white woman, a model of self-respect, self-control, and even sexual purity. The woman to the right is not permitted to face us, only part her lips and show her teeth. Twice. If she were granted permission to look at us, to see us, what imagined or real processes could be set into action? Despite the politically correct reputation the cosmetic brand is trying to sell us, the image tells something else. And other contradictions to the company narrative are appearing; in June 2020 Karla Quiñonez Leon, a black makeup artist who had worked previously for the company, spoke out after seeing M.A.C posting statements in support of the Black community and Black Lives Matter. Frustrated at what she saw as systematic racism at many levels of the company she chose to quit her job (Peters, 2020).
Sunday 11th of October 2020, preparing to keep the deadline of YMT, I followed the campaign link to take a final look. The page was altered again. Please have a look at the current image.
My attention this time was automatically led to the representation standing to the right, since it is the only human in the photo (and my human brain searches for patterns and representations that resemble me). Actually, the left representation is equally if not more intriguing. It is a human size golliwogg. If you are not familiar with the term, please look it up.
Berger, J. (1972). Ways of Seeing. London, UK: Penguin Books
Kress, G., & van Leeuwen, T. (1996, 2006). Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. Oxon, Canada and New York, USA: Routledge
M.A.C Cosmetics. (n.d.). Our Story. MAC Cosmetics [online] Available at: https://www.maccosmetics.co.uk/our-story [Accessed 25.10.2020]
Methods, N. C. (2020). Gaze. Glossary of Multimodal Terms [online]Available at: https://multimodalityglossary.wordpress.com/gaze/
Peters, A. (2020). A Black Makeup Artist Speaks Out ABout The Racism She Faced Working For MAC. Dazed Digital [online]Available at: https://www.dazeddigital.com/beauty/head/article/49478/1/black-makeup-artist-karla-leon-speaks-out-racism-she-faced-working-mac-cosmetics [Accessed 25.10.2020]
Pilgrim, D. (2012). The jezebel stereotype, Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorobilia. Ferris state University Available at: https://www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/jezebel/index.htm
Schwarz, A. (1997). The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp (3rd edition). New York, USA: Delano Greenidge Editions
The Bible (Vols. Matthew 6:22-24).
The Curvey Chapter. (2018). Happy girls shine brighter. The Curvy Chapter [online]Available at: https://www.thecurvychapter.com/shiny-pretty-things-m-a-c-cosmetic-festive-collection/ [accessed 6.9.20]