Categories
Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

The Commodification of Female Body Image in Post-War American Advertising Culture

By Sophy Leys Johnston

John Berger, in his renowned text Ways of Seeing, writes of the manipulative power of advertising in its promotion of self-criticism. ‘The publicity image steals her love of herself as she is’, Berger argues, ‘and offers it back to her for the price of the product’.[1] Emphasis here is placed on the feminine subject, vulnerable to manipulation by a male dominated, capitalist industry and placed in opposition to the objectifying ideal of femininity that the advert presents. In the context of post-war America, following masculine fear over the transgressive duties (such as factory or land labour) carried out by women during the war, pressure was mounted in order to encourage women to return to the domestic sphere and fulfil traditional housewifely duties. Ultimately, a woman’s appearance and body image was in many ways their only means of gaining what little agency was available to her given their inferior social, economic and cultural status in every other respect. This suggests that the control and manipulation of female body image is linked inextricably to the oppression of women. The profitable nature of this advertised body ideal that proved tirelessly persuasive in its encouragement of women to diet, thus came hand-in-hand with an oppressive means of emotional and behavioural control, beneficial only to the elite masculine authorities at the top of the advertising chain.[2]

The source below (see fig. 1) proves a prime example of the adverts targeted towards middle-class women in post-war America. Published in 1950 within the Hollywood magazine Photoplay, the advert harnesses celebrity endorsement and the glamour associated with the image of a Hollywood actress to motivate the reader to purchase the ‘vitamin candy’, Ayds. Promoting a quick and, supposedly, effective method of weight-loss by means of appetite suppressant, the advert perpetuates an ideal feminine body image by equating beauty to thinness. It is worth observing too that this ideal of a slim body remains deliberately vague and unfixed so as to create a perpetually unattainable goal and thus enable the permanent necessity of the product advertised.

Figure 1: Advertisement for ‘AYDS’ from June issue of Photoplay, 1950, source: Ad-Flip Archive, http://www.adflip.com/addetails.php?adID=2882&showLargeJpg=yes [accessed 22 January 2020]

The sole image featured within the advert is of actress Ann Sheridan, presenting her as objectively representative of the glamour, luxury and success associated with Hollywood socialite culture. The advert in this way objectifies the actress, performing her role in society as an object of male desire and simultaneously links the success of her career to her bodily appearance. In positioning this aspirational image of female beauty, the advert presents a critique of the women reading it to encourage commercial investment, and so ‘steal[ing] her love of herself.’[3] Burger corroborates this by arguing that ‘ads instructed women to examine themselves critically…in an effort to save their highest-valued commodity- their looks’.[4] As such, the very process of advertising instils the commodification of the female body and societal standards of beauty.

The underlying implications of the advert’s message, however, reflect a wider cultural and social manipulation towards its female audience that remains prominent in contemporary advertising culture today. The projection of a conformative bodily ideal for profit, for instance, exemplified by the promotional phrase ‘you lose weight with the first box ($2.89)’, proves that it is far from simply a fashionable trend or a genuine reflection of beauty, but rather the construction of a capitalist, male dominated institution. Moreover, the masculine control of female bodies reveals a problematic form of behavioural and emotional oppression that was prevalent within post-war American society. Manipulative rhetoric permeating the advert’s text places great emphasis on ‘lovel[iness]’ as a behavioural standard of femininity, achieved by means of weight-loss. Once more, ‘behaviour that is essential for economic reasons is transformed into a social virtue.’[5] Vandermeade further posits that, corresponding with women’s return to the domestic sphere during the post-war years, ‘maintaining beauty became part and parcel of being a good wife’.[6] Thus, rather than benefiting their female audience, the “false needs” of advertising culture, such as Ayds’ promotion of weight-loss, serve male desires for a contained housewife, subordinate and subservious to their husbands. As Wolf concludes, the very “myth” of a homogenous beauty standard is, in reality, dictating and ‘prescribing behaviour and not appearance.’[7] Attempts to control female bodies through slimming products such as Ayds, is in fact ‘summoned out of political fear on the part of male-dominated institutions threatened by women’s freedom’ and the progressive, liminal roles they performed during the war that began to deconstruct binarised notions of gender and the socially constructed “myth” of gender roles.[8]           

The advert does, however, present a number of limitations as a historical source. Through the preservation of an image of the ideal American woman, the source does not offer a realistic reflection of female experience within the post-war period. Thus, the question remains: how can historians retrieve the voices that were considered un-ideal or non-conformative and therefore neglected by history? Burger offers a potential solution by proposing a shift away from ‘examining the ideal image’ of the 1950s housewife, towards ‘that of the actual lived experience’.[9] The source nevertheless remains valuable, for whilst it does not portray anything of the reality for women living in this era, it can be used to expose the overwhelming mass of pressure and manipulation faced by these women. It is perhaps worth applying similar analyses and rigorous questioning to the adverts of today’s culture in which the female body continues to be controlled and manipulated. Like the women of post-war America, the experiences of 21st Century women remains far more diverse than the highly stylised, projected ideals of glossy magazine advertisements would have us believe.


[1] John Berger, Ways of Seeing, 2nd edn (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 2008)  p.128

[2] Myra Macdonald, Representing Women: Myths of Femininity in the Popular Media (London & New York: Edward Arnold, 1995), p.201

[3] Berger, p.128

[4] Tarin Burger, ‘As Advertised: Depicting the Postwar American Woman from Bride, to Wife, to Mother’, (Masters thesis: Florida State University, 2012), p.4

[5] Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women (London: Vintage, 2015), p.13

[6] Samantha Vandermeade, ‘Fort Lipstick and the Making of June Cleaver: Gender Roles in American Propaganda and Advertising, 1941-1961’, (Masters thesis: North Carolina State University, 2015), p.24

[7] Wolf, p.7

[8] Wolf, p.10

[9] Burger, p.34

Categories
Gendered Subjects, Gendered Objects

Queen Bee: Koko Taylor’s Challenge to Blues and Rock & Roll’s Gendered Lyrical Lineage

By Lisette Gallaher

Can a musical genre be gendered? According to the history of rock & roll, yes. Rock music has often been considered notoriously masculine, as an industry and an expression. However, the masculinity of rock was not produced in a vacuum, but rather developed over time as rock & roll grew from its blues, country and jazz roots. So many rock artists of the sixties and seventies were influenced by the blues music of the forties and fifties, and recognising these roots helps develop a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the genre of rock & roll music. As musical styles and lyrical messages were passed down from generation to generation of musicians, certain cultural norms and ideals began to reveal themselves, particularly in regard to gender roles. An example of this gendered lyrical lineage is present in the often-covered tune “I’m a King Bee.”

Album Cover for The Early Swamp-Blues Classics, Excello Records, 1994

The song “I’m a King Bee” was originally recorded by blues musician Slim Harpo in 1957.[1] Slim’s version has been covered by many artists since its release, including, but not limited to, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, the Doors, Pink Floyd, and Muddy Waters. With so many cover versions spanning decades after its original release, it is apparent that the song is significant to many blues and rock & roll artists. This recurring fascination may, in part, stem from the song’s blues roots, but it may also come from the performance of a certain type of masculinity espoused by its lyrics. In nearly every rendition of the song, the lyrics have remained the same as Slim’s:

Well, I'm a king bee, buzzin' around yo' hive 
Well, I'm a king bee, buzzin' around yo' hive 
Well, I can make honey, baby 
Let me come inside 
 
I'm young and able to buzz all night long 
I'm young and able to buzz all night long 
Well, when you hear me buzzin', baby 
Some stingin' is going on 
 
Well, buzz awhile 
'Sting-a-been' 
 
Well, I'm a king bee, want you to be my queen 
Well, I'm a king bee,want you to be my queen 
Together we can make honey 
The world ever, never, seen 
 
Well, I'm a king bee, can buzz all night long 
Well, I'm a king bee, can buzz all night long 
Well, I can buzz better, baby 
When yo' man is gone.2

These lyrics are rather explicitly sexual, describing a man’s desire to “come inside” a woman so he can “make honey.” Combined with the track’s slow and sensuous music, “I’m a King Bee” becomes a song where the narrator is attempting to entice a woman to have sex with him. In terms of gender, the lyrics represent a certain type of masculinity that emphasises a man’s sexual domination and prowess with no reference to the woman’s consent or pleasure. In this way, “I’m a King Bee” becomes a song that operates within a system known as “hegemonic masculinity.” As defined by R. W. Connell, hegemonic masculinity references the continuation of an idealised type of man that places men before women in society, creating a gendered dynamic of domination and suppression where men are the dominators.[3] More simply, hegemonic masculinity emphasises the dominant position of men by representing masculine characteristics through cultural references, such as actors, musicians, and athletes and the masculine ideals they portray in their work. In this way, the lyrics of “I’m a King Bee,” unchanged in any rendition by male artists, operates within hegemonic masculinity to preserve men’s in society by depicting the masculine characteristic of sexual desire, power, and domination.

What happens, then, when “I’m a King Bee” is sung by a woman?




Promotional photo of Koko Taylor by Steve Kagan for Alligator Records

Known as the “Queen of Blues,” Koko Taylor produced her own version of the song in 1985, titled “Queen Bee.” For the first time in the song’s history, the lyrics were altered in Taylor’s rendition to be sung from a female perspective. Taylor’s switching “king” to “queen” indicates an understanding of the original song’s gendered lyrics and a deliberate attempt to alter that gendered narrative:

Well, I'm a queen bee, buzzin' 'round your hive
Well, I'm a queen bee, buzzin' 'round your hive
When you hear me buzzin'
Please, let me come inside

I'm young and able to buzz all night long
I'm young and able to buzz all night long
When you hear me buzzin'
Some stinging's going on

Well, I'm a queen bee, won't you be my friend?
Well, I'm a queen bee, won't you be my friend?
Together we can make honey
Like the world never seen

Well, I'm a queen bee, buzz all night long
Well, I'm a queen bee, buzz all night long
Well, I could buzz at you, baby, when your gal is gone [4]

The reasoning behind her alteration of the lyrics, however, remains unclear. By performing the masculine lyrics from a female point of view, was Taylor attempting to challenge the masculine notes of sexual conquest? Or was she just simply creating her own version of a famous, often covered tune to secure her place as a woman in the male-dominated music industry?[5] Unfortunately, there seems to be no available account of Taylor’s intentions with “Queen Bee” from the artist herself. Similarly, biographies on Taylor lack any reference to her version of the song. What is often noted, however, is how Taylor’s successful career in the blues industry challenged the male dominance of the genre.[6] Further, Taylor’s success is often attributed to her raw, deep and raspy voice.[7] Her voice is far from what might be considered a “feminine” singing voice, characterised by higher-pitches and smoother vocals.

Though Koko Taylor is considered a trailblazer for women in the blues industry, her success in her field largely comes from her “masculine” vocals. In other words, it could be said that her male-sounding voice gave her the opportunity to rise in the male-dominated industry. In looking only at Taylor’s version of “I’m a King Bee” (as the case may be different in her original songs), it can be argued that, even though she alters the lyrics to be sung from a female perspective, she is still perpetuating the masculine characteristics of the song through her gritty voice and dominating words. This is not to say, however, that her rendition of the song serves the same purpose in hegemonic masculinity as other versions by male artists. Because she deliberately alters the lyrics to be sung from a female perspective while maintaining all other “masculine” qualities of the original tune, Taylor’s version still challenges gender roles by suggesting that women, too, can be sexually dominating.

If Taylor’s “Queen Bee” is regarded on its own, it can be heard as a more “masculine” song because the lyrics are describing sexual domination, the singer’s voice is gritty, and the music is seductive. However, when the Taylor’s version of the song is contextualised and placed alongside the other renditions done by male artists, as is done here, it becomes apparent that her version of the song stands as a challenge to hegemonic masculinity because it reverses the song’s gender roles that were accepted and replicated by the covering artists before her. In doing so, Taylor disrupts the lineage of gendered lyrics passed down through generations of blues and rock artists and provides a different perspective on the gendered nature of sexual domination in songs. Therefore, Taylor’s “Queen Bee” is an important and significant song in the history of blues and rock & roll music for its contribution to the understanding of gender roles in both genres and the appreciation for how such gender roles are passed down through generations of artists.


[1] For further reading on the history of Slim’s song, check out Rick Moore’s article in American Songwriter:

https://americansongwriter.com/slim-harpo-im-a-king-bee/rick-moore/

[2] Slim Harpo, “I’m a King Bee,” Got Love if you Want It, Excello Records (1957).

[3] R. W. Connell, Masculinities (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005), pp. 77.

[4] Koko Taylor, “Queen Bee,” Queen of the Blues, Alligator Records (1985).

[5] A question that is beyond the scope of this blog post that also deserves consideration is how Taylor’s position as a black woman might have affected her approach to this song, since it was originally written by a black man but was most frequently covered by white male artists. In other words, how might have her placement as a black singer also impacted her performance of this song?

[6] Steve Huey, “Koko Taylor: Artist Biography,” All Music, https://www.allmusic.com/artist/koko-taylor-mn0000376739/biography [accessed 11 Feb 2020]; “Koko Taylor,” Alligator Records, https://www.alligator.com/artists/Koko-Taylor/index.cfm [accessed 11 Feb 2020].

[7] George Fish, “Koko Taylor, ‘Queen of Blues,’ Dies at 80,” Solidarity, 7 June 2009, https://solidarity-us.org/p2225/ [accessed 11 Feb 2020].

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