The Madonna, the whore, and the BMW (a short academic offering)

If the art of a culture is a reflection of its values, advertisements should be considered no differently than a sculpture or a painting. Advertisements, too, reflect what we value. In terms of gender ideologies, our advertisements show us to be a culture rooted still in the Madonna/whore dichotomy of womanhood and the accompanying ideas of how men should react to feminine gender performances. In this paper I will focus on how this plays out in one particular commercial. 
For my analysis, I’ve chosen a commercial from the car company BMW, promoting a line of convertibles (BMW commercial – youtube). In this commercial, we see a rakish man driving, presumably, away from a liaison with an attractive woman who tosses her scarf down as he drives away. The setting appears Italianesque and affluent. As he drives, he neatly avoids the steady stream of increasingly intimate apparel being tossed down to him by attractive women on balconies. Finally, he gets to his destination, which seems to be his own wedding. His bride waits on the steps of a cathedral, waiting for the groom and surrounded by the men of her family. The groom hands the bride handkerchief so that she can dab the pending tears from her eyes. This move gains the groom the renewed approval of the bride’s family members. The scene cuts away to show text: “The new 3 Series Convertible/It could just save your life”. We come back to the cathedral scene and all seems well, until the bride unfolds the handkerchief and discovers that it’s actually a pair of lacy white women’s panties.
Certain things should be noted about the scene which plays out in this advertisement. First, there are two opposing feminine ideologies portrayed: the seductresses, throwing their underwear at the groom (who seems to be late to his wedding after a dalliance with one of them), and the bride who is virtuously waiting for her roguish fiancé. This dichotomy of feminine ideologies is representative of the commonly referred to “Madonna/whore” ideology (Tishkoff 2005), in which women fit into one of two roles – the virtuous Madonna, or the disreputable whore. Second, all of the women in this commercial seem to be in places of power by their positioning, specifically by their relative elevations to the men in the commercial. These two things – the dichotomous female roles and the placement of the women – work together with the many details of the scene to create tacit approval and even encouragement of certain Western gender ideologies.
Let’s begin by examining the representation of the two feminine ideologies in this commercial. The women throwing their lingerie at the groom from their balconies are the “whores” in the Madonna/whore dichotomy. They are presented as alluring, seductive, and quite likely to get the man into trouble. There’s a ‘naughty’ element to their behavior which creates the idea that the groom is making his way through a gauntlet of temptation in order to make it to his bride’s side. However, he is pleased by the attention, as evidenced by his smiling demeanor, and he takes on the masculine role of a playboy. In that role, he is characterized as suave, debonair, and because of that, prestigious. The luxurious setting and expensive-looking car add to the aura of prestige surrounding the groom. That the groom’s prestige is wrapped up with his intimate connection to several women, indicated by them tossing their lingerie at him, reinforces our cultural ideology that connects male virility with male prestige. Female virility, however, is not so celebrated. The groom dodges the intimate clothing being offered, showing clear preference for the virtuous bride waiting at the cathedral. The bride’s virtuousness – her prestige – is reinforced by the groom’s avoidance of the balcony women in his efforts to get to her. Hollandand Eisenhart discuss this application of prestige in romance to great length in chapter seven of their book, Educated in romance (1990). There are subtle indications, though, that while the prestigious groom prefers the faithfully waiting bride, it’s merely humorous is the groom is caught being, or appears to be, less than faithful. The end of the scene, in which the bride unfolds the scrap of cloth to discover that her groom has handed her another woman’s panties, is intended to be funny. It’s a lighter note to end the commercial on, leaving the audience laughing. On the other hand, the audience is also subtly encouraged to contrast the freedom enjoyed by the women in the balconies with the danger of walking into a marriage because the bride will expect her faithfulness to be returned, and there will be dire consequences if it is not.
At first glance, the relative elevations and sizes of the men and women in this commercial would seem to – literally – raise women up in status. All of the women stand above the groom; even the bride is higher up on the stairs than he is. When the groom offers the bride his ‘handkerchief,’ he has to reach up to hand it to her. Additionally, in frames which show only one face, the women’s faces are shown higher in the frame than all the men’s faces are, and larger than the groom’s face is. The women are indeed portrayed as the protagonists in this commercial. The groom must evade the women on the balconies, not confront them. Then he must face his bride from a lower position, and use a peace offering to appease her when she is upset. The bride’s family members are not placed at a lower elevation than the bride, but they are still in a subordinate position, reacting as they do to the bride’s temper (which is another indication of the pitfalls awaiting the groom, should he proceed with the wedding).
The ramifications of commercials such as this one become painfully clear when viewed alongside Holland and Eisenhart’s work (1990) concerning the priorities of young women. If the virtuous woman is the one who waits faithfully at the cathedral rather than the one who independently pursues the man while eschewing committed relationships, then it’s no wonder so many young women reprioritize their romantic lives upon entering adulthood. Who wants to be called a whore? However, I do not think it fair to say that this advertisement and ones like it have the potential to change a person’s gender performance. Instead, I would hypothesize that these commercials merely encourage an already-indoctrinated gender ideology to continue. Thus, while not harmless, the role played by this commercial and its like is that of a mirror – they only reflect what is already there, providing validation for those people who already are invested in the gender ideologies these commercials show. 
Advertisements are, in general, reflective of the cultures which produce them. The advertisement I’ve analyzed is no different, and what it says about us isn’t pretty. The difficulty in finding an advertisement that uses gender ideologies to sell its product isn’t in searching out a suitable subject, but in narrowing down the field. We are inundated with stereotypes that paint men and women into oppositional corners, because in our culture, men and women are oppositional. The commercial described above merely illustrates that.


References
BMW commercial – YouTube. (n.d.). YouTube. Retrieved June 25, 2013, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=snVZhCgy37Y
Goffman, E. (1976). Gender commercials. Gender advertisements (pp. 24-45). Washington: Society for the Anthropology of Visual Communication.
Holland, D. C., & Eisenhart, M. A. (1990). Why study women’s responses to schooling?. Educated in romance: women, achievement, and college culture (pp. 3-9). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Holland, D. C., & Eisenhart, M. A. (1990). Gender relations culturally construed: Romance and attractiveness. Educated in romance: women, achievement, and college culture(pp. 93-107). Chicago: University of ChicagoPress.
Tishkoff, D. (2006). Madonna/whore: the myth of the two Marys. Bloomington, Ind.: AuthorHouse.

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