Lavender Language Conference 2000
American University, Washington DC
Text Analysis Workshop
Reproduced below is a small section from an editorial essay by the publisher of XY magazine, a popular magazine for and about "gay suburban teens". The essay complains about the hypocrisy of national fashion and clothing advertisers, who target XY's readership, but refuse to advertise in the magazine because it is too 'edgy' or too 'porny'. It exposes the homoerotic imagery of many of these companies' ads, and notes that they advertise in other magazines that are sleazy or porny, but oriented to older gays or to straights.
The web version of this text is taken from a website recently started by XY magazine in conjunction with PlanetOut.com. It has the same main verbal text, but only partly reproduces the accompanying images and edits their captions accordingly.
"Scary Love: Advertisers Who Hate XY", by Peter Ian Cummings, XY
Magazine, issue 25, June 2000, pp.66-71.
"Advertisers Who Hate XY" http://www.xy.com/hl/scary/article.html
The section analyzed here is from page 68 of the printed version and deals specifically with Abercrombie & Fitch. It has two bold subheads: abercrombie's photo guy, and but abercrombie is gay youth, each followed by a few short paragraphs; this text is in two columns (of the three on the page), wrapped around two color photo images: above, a reproduction of an article in a newsmagazine titled "Fashion's Frat Boy", and below, a reproduction of an Abercrombie & Fitch advertisement which appeared in OUT magazine, showing a locker-room scene. The web version includes only the A&F ad image and has a different caption.
Method of Analysis:
A key method of linguistic analysis when considering issues of identity and conflicts of values between different communities or "social voices of heteroglossia" (Bakhtin) is to look for distinctive semantic patterns of evaluations. A useful scheme for identifying the principal dimensions of evaluative language in verbal text is described in Lemke (1998); it can be generalized to analysis of visual images (see Lemke on political cartoons), and there is particular interest in seeing how evaluations are made jointly by combining visual and verbal elements. It seems at least as obvious that there are 'lavender images' or visual modes of expression as that there are 'lavender languages', and in popular media these normally work closely together. The principal thesis of this approach is that a large part of what makes text, discourse, or images 'lavender', gay-oriented, or gay-indexical is the system of attitudes and values that is expressed. 'We're gay, we like it; you're straight, you hate it.' And similarly with the other dimensions of evaluative orientation.
The principal dimensions of evaluation for propositions, which are also useful generally for identifying evaluative patterns, are:
Desirability -- evaluations of the goodness, desirability, wickedness,
beauty, ugliness, etc. (many subtypes)
Normativity -- evaluations of how necessary, appropriate, incumbent, permissible, forbidden, inappropriate something is
Warrantability -- evaluations of the truth, certainty, probability, dubiousness, uncertainty, etc. of a state of affairs
Usuality -- evaluations of the frequency, typicality, expectedness, surprise value, or shock of a state of affairs
Importance -- evaluations of the significance, importance, triviality of something
Comprehensibility -- evaluations of how comprehensible or mysterious a state of affair is
Humorousness -- evaluations of how funny, ironic, serious, or humorous something is
All evaluations are potentially matters of degree; all have negatives or opposites; all can be expressed as attributes of propositions in the frame: 'It is very [attributive adjective] that [proposition: e.g. John is coming].' There is a somewhat larger class of evaluative attributes of persons and things, and there are some borderline cases, such as Ability and Temporariness. In general evaluations express the attitude of the speaker, or the projected attitude of some other social viewpoint, toward a state of affairs. Texts construct complex systems of relationships among the evaluative orientations of different social viewpoints (heteroglossia) and position various actors, agents, and social voices within the system. It is also common for lexis from one evaluative dimension to be metaphorically substituted for that of another dimension, and a single lexical item can conflate evaluations on two and sometimes even three dimensions, though this is less common. Dimensions can be identified and disambiguated by substituting synonyms and by constructing test phrases that match or contrast polarities, e.g. It is very important, but highly undesirable that [John is coming]. Both realis propositions [that John is coming] and irrealis propositions [that John come] can be evaluated. Evaluations also 'propagate' by logical entailment or inference from one phrase or clause to another, and from phrases and clauses to their functional semantic elements (agent, patient, process, circumstance). For more details see Lemke 1998.
Joseph Janus said I would be better off approaching chains with their own stores. After all, those people don't need to worry about conservative department store owners and so have no reason not to advertise. The most obvious places to look were Abercrombie and Fitch and the Gap. But surprise, they both said no.
Abercrombie's PR is largely run by gay people. They have Bruce Weber--known for his erotic gay photography--shoot all their catalogs and advertising. (Bruce Weber's office, ironically, calls XY sometimes to ask about using our models. But Abercrombie still boycotts XY.)
My first calls to Abercrombie's ad agency, Sam Shahid & Co, in 1996 and 1997 proved fruitless. Advertising director Peter Wert--the man behind all their sexy advertising campaigns--said the only kind of gay mag Abercrombie could advertise in is Out. "You have to realize Abercrombie is a conservative company," Wert said. "Going in Out was right on the edge, and I had to fight for a long time to get them to do that. XY would be too much for Abercrombie; they would never accept it."
Abercrombie's 'locker room wet dream' in Out
we wrote a nice story in Briefing, on how companies' ads were getting sexier, we
quoted Peter Wert saying something smart--which most companies would love. As a
result, however, Abercrombie management threw a fit that he was quoted without
permission. They told Wert never to speak to XY again, and when we called Sam
Shahid & Co last year to find out about something unrelated, a secretary
told us she'd been instructed not to put through any call from XY. Could this
happen if I were from Teen People, or anyone they thought was important?
Abercrombie is totally immoral in blacklisting us. Abercrombie's chief executive, CEO Michael Jeffries, told Newsweek recently that he has an "obsessive focus on 18- to 22-year customers." He hires a gay team to produce gay-erotic ads to sell clothes to young gay men, then boycotts the only magazine for young gay men. He wants your money but gives nothing back.
abercrombie is gay youth
Further, instead of advertising in XY, Abercrombie advertises in Out--a magazine with few male readers under 27 (less than 7 percent) and virtually no readers under 18 (none at all, according to their rate card) while the vast majority of XY readers are exactly the age and demographic that Abercrombie says it is trying to reach, and who are buying all of their clothes.
All you have to do is look at AOL to see how many gay Abercrombie boys there are. Abercrombie is a part of gay youth identity.
But we are just wearing the bullies' clothes.
Abercrombie's latest ad campaign is entirely about college wrestling --a fantasy of simulated gay youth sex. But Abercrombie chief Michael Jeffries says he doesn't care if his catalogs are too sexy: "It's within the context of friends... and caring for one another."
Yet he places ads of a locker-room wet-dream teenage rape fantasy in Out, and his company boycotts XY because we are, according to Peter Wert, "too on the edge"--which is the same as saying too sexual, too gay.
DESIRABILITY is the most frequent and lexically and semantically rich dimension of evaluation. From the viewpoint of the author the principle desirables (see the full essay, you often need the co-text or key intertexts to establish global evaluative orientations, as opposed to the ones that are locally explicit in a particular passage of text) are (1) freedom of gay teens to love each other, (2) right of XY to represent their lives truthfully, (3) survival of the magazine by getting advertising revenue. Some examples of local evaluations of desirability in the text:
I would be better off approaching ...; don't need to worry about ...; a nice story; saying something smart; something most companies would love; threw a fit that ...; Abercrombie is totally immoral in blacklisting ...; the bullies' clothes; friends... and caring for one another; too on the edge.
Note that lexis alone, interpreted in context, often carries the evaluative force: 'gay' is good for Cummings and us, maybe not so for the advertisers; 'boycott' is bad if its hurts you, and usually in its connotations; 'fruitless' is bad (and also related to the borderline semantic area of Ability); 'conservative' and 'gay' have positive or negative values depending on what you believe.
NORMATIVITY is closely related semantically to Desirability; what is Good is also usually thought to be something that Should Be and vice versa. We are looking here at attitudes about what must or should be, what mustn't or shouldn't be, what is allowed and what is forbidden.
Don't need to worry; no reason not to; the only kind ... could advertise in ...; would never accept it; without permission;
WARRANTABILITY is about what we believe to be true or probable, and closely related to Usuality, which is about what we believe to be normal and ordinary, or not. Warrantability is at stake whenever issues of evidence or devices to emphasize persuasiveness or to undermine credibility are introduced.
have no reason not to; most obvious places; could this happen if ...; is totally ...; told Newsweek [and other use of quotes, as well as the presence of the picture]; but Abercrombie is gay youth; all you have to do is look;
Note that many intensifiers in the text can also contribute to warrantability: vast majority; exactly the age; entirely about. And issues of the credibility of another can be put at stake by expressions such as: 'says he doesn't care ... yet he places ...'.
USUALITY can be about frequency or about typicality, expectability vs. surprise.
After all ...; most obvious ; but surprise ...; largely run; all their catalogs; calls XY sometimes; the only kind; right on the edge; fight for a long time; never accept; how companies ads were getting sexier; never to speak to XY again; virtually no readers; vast majority; buying all; how many gay Abercrombie boys there are.
Note that the use of the habitual present tense also implies usuality.
IMPORTANCE is a very common evaluative dimension in editorials (Lemke 1998). This is where we reveal our priorities, what matters to us and what doesn't, what is salient and stands out for us, grabs our attention. It differs from un-Usuality in that something may be surprising, but still unimportant to us. 'It is important that John come' realizes Normativity. 'It is important that John came' expresses Importance in the technical semantic sense used here.
anyone they thought was important; [note that 'important' occurs 19 times in the essay as a whole, which has 17 topical subsections identified by headers]
COMPREHENSIBILITY is one of the rarer dimensions in editorials; it turns up when people are talking about what they don't understand rather than trying to convince us that they do. In the essay as a whole Cummings often tells us Why, but never asks himself Why?.
HUMOROUSNESS is also one of the rarer dimensions in editorials and serious expository writing, except for the use of Irony:
ironically, calls XY sometimes
Note that this dimension is not about being funny or being serious, but about taking something else as being humorous, ironic, or serious, or depicting it in such a light.
What is the function of the visual image in this excerpt?
The upper image (not included in the web version) simply illustrates the point about A&F's sexy ads by showing the villain, A&F's relatively young CEO dressed very casually (in sandals!) in Newsweek magazine, which calls him 'Fashion's Frat Boy', and in which he justifies the sexual appeal of his advertising. It functions in relation to the text as Warrant, as evidence that Cummings is not making this up. Less directly, it undermines the claim of the A&F advertising director that A&F is a very conservative company, whose CEO would not appear in Newsweek in sandals and shorts. The image of the CEO foregrounds un-Usuality.
I want to focus more on the lower image, which was kept in the web version. The original caption for the two images together was: "Fashion's Frat Boy -- Abercrombie chief Michael Jeffries, and the 'locker room wet dream' in Out." In the web version, it is just: "Abercrombie's 'locker room wet dream' in Out".
The corresponding text in the essay is: "he places ads of a locker-room wet-dream teenage rape fantasy in Out" and this refers to another editorial essay, in XY issue #23, which analyzed A&F advertising's covert homoerotic appeal (their photographer is Bruce Weber, famous for his gay male erotic images) and developed a theory that this particular locker-room image represented a fantasy for many gay boys of getting raped by straight athletes in a locker room.
In terms of Warrantability, the image is functioning much like its counterpart, as evidence that A&F really does produce advertising with an appeal to gay men, and especially young gay men, and that it advertises in a rival gay magazine, OUT. Juxtaposed with the image of the A&F CEO, it also serves again to undermine his claim in Newsweek that what looks homoerotic to us is merely friendship and caring for one another. Yeah, sure.
It is in terms of Desirability that things get more interesting. Depending on your sexual tastes, at least the three or four athletic boys in the photograph who are wearing only their briefs are likely to be seen as highly desirable. The prettier boy is also vulnerable, on crutches, and is the focus of attention from the coach and the other boys. It is the nature of that attention which is in dispute, and for whom it is Desirable. The caption proposes the interpretation 'locker-room wet dream' and the main text elaborates 'teenage rape fantasy'. A wet dream is usually about something Desirable; a 'rape fantasy' is more ambiguous. Rape is normally taken to be highly un-Desirable, but fantasies are usually about things that are Desirable. Certainly some gay boys do have fantasies of getting raped and enjoying it; many may have fears of getting bashed and/or raped and definitely not enjoying it. The ambiguity of the image may be sexually titillating from both points of view. The boys themselves, as depicted would probably be sexually desirable to the target XY audience of 'suburban teenage gay boys', as well as to a wider readership. There are several other handsome boys in the photograph as well, and even the coach might appeal to some boy readers (though XY is mainly oriented to boy-boy love only; it's not that edgy).
In terms of Usuality, what is usual in the scene and what is unusual? as a locker-room scene it is usual in most respects, though the undress of some boys is clearly foregrounded by having other figures fully dressed and one even wearing a heavy letterman jacket. What is unusual is the boy on crutches and the uniform focus of attention on him, particularly saliently from the most fully displayed boy (most unobstructed view, least clothed, turn full to the camera, and exceptionally handsome and well-built) and from the coach.
In terms of Normativity, what about this scene is appropriate or inappropriate, permitted or forbidden? If the star athlete is looking at the boy on crutches with sexual desire, or if any of the other boys are thinking of raping him, that foregrounds the forbidden, whether desirable or not. Showing boys in their underwear in a fashion ad would probably have been considered inappropriate not too long ago, especially since A&F (I believe) do not sell underwear, nor most of the clothing seen in the ad. The ad displays attractive young bodies for the viewer's pleasure, and has not much else in the way of overt commercial function. Like much of Bruce Weber's work, it is a sort of borderline soft-porn, however artistic and appealing in its way. Earlier in the essay, Cummings notes that Calvin Klein does show even younger models in seductive poses of undress, and while he does not mention it, one such CK ad campaign was withdrawn after substantial public protest that it was pornographic and exploitative of the young models.
Importance in visual images is generally signalled by visual salience. Larger figures, more brightly colored ones, central figures, foreground figures, and figures to which the eyes is led by the visual "vectors" (Arnheim) of composition. All vectors lead to the boy on crutches, mainly the pointing arm of the coach and lines of gaze of the other boys. The brightly lit briefs of the two central figures, contrasting with their dark tans, also draws the eyes, as would their attractive bodies for many male gay viewers. Three heads rise into the white space above the lockers: coach, star, and target. They seem caught in a little drama to which the others are more in the role of spectators. If there is a sexual fantasy being foregrounded here, it would most likely take the two central boys as its principal characters. What else is signaled as Important in the image? One would normally say their briefs, if this were a CK underwear ad, so here it has to be their state of undress, even if that is not un-Usual in a locker-room. And what is unusual is also often visually salient in a scene, as with the crutches here. What do they symbolize? vulnerability? failure? persistence? This is after all a kind of art image, not an expository one, so all reasonable interpretations add up to the ambivalence of the ad's appeal, and the deniability of its pornographic effects.
Is there a Mystery here, something un-Comprehensible? probably so, as we've just found from analyzing the other evaluations. Is there also a projection of something as humorous, ironic, or serious? I think we'd have to say that the image shows the scene as something serious, or potentially serious, and that may add to its sense of danger in the rape-fantasy interpretation. Is the coach berating the boy? accusing him? saying something that might rouse the other boys against him? or just pointing out his errors or folly? or telling him that he has no place on the team, that he's not a real athlete, doesn't have what it takes? and so indicting him as a wimpy fag pretending to be butch? There are many fantasy interpretations with such an ambiguous image.
And what is the importance of the image as a whole in the except? To show that A&F produces and markets images that are just as 'porny' as the ones XY is accused of purveying as the reason why companies like A&F won't advertise in the magazine. To confirm their hypocrisy. They want to use boy sex-appeal to market their brand, but they don't want to do so in a magazine where it would be totally obvious and undeniable that that is what they are doing. They want to trade on homoerotic imagery, but they don't want to be accused of "promoting" sex between "underage" boys. The image, the excerpt, and the essay occur within the context of XY's special section celebrating its 4th anniversary, 25th issue, and their central editorial theme that teenage boys have a right to love each other. This is the 'scary love' of the essay title, and the titillating, possibly repressed sexuality of the locker-room photo contrasts sharply with the openly "loving" photos of the special section, showing image after image of teenage boys (models) unashamedly hugging and kissing.
A later part of the same essay contrasts four XY covers showing boy models (XY rarely refers to boys under 15 and most models look closer to 17 and may be 18 or older) with love and/or sex on their minds with four covers of three straight magazines that exploit young girl models in soft-porn poses and one from OUT which shows an exceptionally lascivious image of a very hot male model. (All are magazines in which the companies that 'hate XY' do advertise.) The OUT image is from a photo-spread that is sleazier than A&F advertising but otherwise very similar in poses and shots. By comparison, the XY covers, even one showing a rather sweet, barechested, boy-to-boy kiss, and most XY photo shoots, are pretty innocent looking. The only clearly differentiating factor is age. Other mainstream gay magazines do not usually show models who look as young as those in XY, and even A&F's models generally look college-age, rather than high-school age. The locker-room here image is an exception. When Calvin Klein used models who looked too young, he too ran into trouble.
It is the combination of gay and "underage", and perhaps most saliently the use of visual images that show and appeal to teenage gay boys who desire each other, that provokes fear or antipathy from advertisers, and even from some in the more conservative segments of the gay community. The essay being analyzed here opens opposite an image of the cover art from the first issue of XY, showing two 16-17 year old looking boys, fully clothed (in rugby jerseys), heads together, arm in arm, over the issue theme title "Underage".