Today we are going to talk about nature and culture and some really weird media messages.

At the beginning, I was merely sick and tired of passing by Icebreaker Merino every time I walk to Powell’s because I have to see this image of Mr. Tall-dark-and-handsome and his sheep bride. Later, I decided to visit Icebreaker’s website, only to discover that this campaign has a lot more crammed into it that merits commentary than first meets the eye. You see, Icebreaker has produced a thoroughly strange (and offensive) advertising campaign that really exemplifies some of the weird ways we think about the relationship between men and women. It also made the mistake of being in my path one too many times (not to mention the mistake of being visible from the window of Powell’s cafe) and so must suffer being run through my imaginary machine which painfully extracts all subtext. It’s a little like a juicer.

Icebreaker is a sportswear company from New Zealand that makes clothing from merino wool (hence, the sheep). In their fall/winter 08 collection, they have created an underwear line for men called “Beast,” and a line for women called “Nature.” I’m actually not sure if the two images in this post were created specifically for the Beast/Nature underwear line or just for the Fall/Winter 08 Collection as a whole, but they certainly are working along the same lines.

Here’s a little background. Conventional wisdom in the women’s movent in anthropology back in the 70’s suggested that across the board, every culture viewed women as being closer to nature and men as being the civilizing force of culture. This is why women had to be protected, hidden, and domesticated by men. Women had the mystery of pregnancy; men governed cities. However, at the same time, counterculture icons like Ken Kesey were writing the opposite analogy. Men, they claimed, want to be free; in an ideal male world, men live like wild animals, running around and having copious amounts of sex, but women, with their desire for consumer products and monogamy, force feminizing suburban culture on them. It’s a really weird contradiction, but culture has always been contradictory.

What’s really interesting about this campaign is that Icebreaker takes versions of the nature/culture analogies into account. Men are at once the Beast (image two), and the beacon of civilization. Women are at once innocent, passive nature (image one), and a civilizing, but feminizing force (image two).

If we look at the image at the top there, we see a family portrait of a man, a sheep woman, and a lamb who is in theory their offspring. The unnaturally pale woman, with wooly hair and sheep’s ears, clings to the strong, rugged, tall-dark-handsome man (My arbitrary decision for the English language today is that tall, dark, and handsome should contract to become one adjective.). Though they are both nude, they are not equally vulnerable. The man, as the tall, upright one in the center, becomes the protector. The woman looks domesticated, passive. She is part of nature, but a nature that is Edenic, innocent, and tameable: one that civilization can really make something with (or at least have little, bleating lambs with. Not even lamb-children. Lambs.).

Shearing? Castration? Domestication?

Shearing? Castration? Domestication?

Now let’s move on to the next image. They say turn about is fair play, but this image of a man-ram simply doesn’t act as the soothing ginger ale to the nausea this campaign stirs in my stomach. In stark contrast to the ethereal domestic bliss of the first ad, here our shepherdess is… shearing?… her ram. The wool-sand, of course, exists in the photo merely to cover up the model’s genitals, and the angle of the scissors suggests that she is about to either violently expose him or castrate him. The violent pose, suggesting a struggle, plays into the idea of women as unwelcome domesticators. She’s feminizing him. (Also, even just looking at it from an advertising perspective, I’m not quite sure how this image helps sell underwear.)

The racial subtext in this ad is equally troubling. In the second image, instead of playing up the tall-dark-handsome ideal, the man’s darker skin is designed to emphasize his wildness, playing off the disturbing trope left over from colonialism that the ethnic other is somehow more primitive and wild. When the woman is portrayed as an animal, her white skin gleams, emphasizing her whiteness. Her race here works to emphasize that she is a peaceful, docile sheep, as opposed to the wild, dark-skinned ram. This is why they have a mixed-race couple on this ad: they are relying on backwards racist currents in Western culture, perpetuating and profiting from them under the guise of running an “artsy” markerting campaign.

If the images don’t speak loudly enough for you, the text of the campaign is equally strange. Take this little gem from the “Beast” section of the website:

We weren’t designed to live in cities or love one person, but we do. The city brings the beast alive. Your creative energy thrives. The beast in you is caged by frail and fragile bars. This product reconnects you with nature, a harmonious force to balance the beast.

First, I just have to point out that content aside, the text reads like Engrish. Too bad that Icebreakers is a Kiwi company, and so in theory, English is their first language.

Now let’s dissect this a bit. The city, while unnatural, still has an untamed feel to it, and so it’s harmonious with the manly testosterone beast. It’s sort of wild, “manly” civilization. Of course, the text doesn’t do anything to reconcile the monogamy issue. Also, because “Nature” is the female half of their underwear line, they’ve made the woman/nature connection explicit here. Women are harmonious, they balance the beast within (or castrate it, depending on what image Icebreakers feels like using at the moment.).

What does the pseudo-poetic Engrish-like text on the “Nature” side of things have to say for itself? Well, absolutely nothing. Apparently, the ethereal nature-woman connection is so self-explanatory, or at least so easily elucidated by pictures of women doing naked yoga in the snow, that the advertisers felt no need for written comment (I’d also like to note again that all the women photographed for the “Nature” section are incredibly pale, and the man in the “Beast” section, while of indeterminate race, has been photographed under dark lighting to make his skin appear darker.).

How many times have we heard that men, when it comes to their libidos, are untamable beasts? How many times have we heard that women need to be protected or that female sexuality somehow needs to be covered and tamed? I’m sure Icebreaker thinks they’re being clever, artistic, and edgy, but really they’ve just taken the same nonsense we hear on tv every day, racialized it, and photographed it under fancy lighting. Time and time again, the media portrays men and women as being unable, by their very natures, to have a relationship where they’re both on equal footing. Here, women are either passively domesticated or forcefully domesticating. Men are either wildly aggressive, or the lone shepherd of their families (After all, I doubt that the sheep-woman is really useful for things like, I don’t know, deep conversations.). So much for companionship, friendship, or equality.

And now, I’m going to knit my socks made with merino blend so that I may have merino gear that does not turn me into a sparkly sheep woman.