It’s catalog season, don’tcha know. They’re arriving in droves in my mailbox—some from my favorite companies and some just hoping to ride the wave of the coming holiday consumerism. This week, I received a catalog from the Duluth Trading Company. The cover text caught my eye immediately, as I found it amusing: “Flannel Made Fetching.” In case we aren’t sure what this means, some subtext spells it out: “Free Swingin’ Flannel.” This, I like. Free Swingin’ Flannel.
I like it because there is subtext here indeed, though I hadn’t fully examined it when I first saw it. I thought perhaps the catalog was a little repressed. There was definitely a homosexual undertone here—something in my unconscious was thinking of that song “I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK”—but I wasn’t sure if the catalog knew that. And I wasn’t analyzing it, just being amused. So I opened it up and noticed another tagline: “The warmer way to C.Y.A.” I looked across the table at my husband and said, “This catalog is highly preoccupied with my ass.” I showed him the taglines, making jokes along the way. Another favorite: “Longtail T-shirts—Defend Your Back End.”
“Do you think they’re being playful?” My husband asked.
I had been assuming that the catalog is playing it straight—they’re selling shirts to women who don’t want to wear the tight-fitting, revealing clothing that is the norm in department stores. Women who like adventure, who want to move, to feel comfortable in clothing that is both practical and attractive. I tend to buy from catalogs with this general approach—Athleta, Title Nine, and most recently, Eddie Bauer. My split-second assumptions, unexamined, were that the catalog was selling to a straight audience only, and not aware of the undertones of the text.
Such is the nature of privilege—even when you know it exists and you benefit from it, even when you write about it and read about it, your gaze can remain rooted in it. Culturally, we are encouraged to have a heterosexual gaze, and to assume that everyone else does, too.
I replied to my husband’s question: “I bet they’re going for two audiences—straight and gay. And having fun with it.” I couldn’t believe I’d missed it, since I’d recently read about this advertising trend in Susan Bordo’s The Male Body. Calvin Klein was the first to see the profitability of targeting more than one audience at once, in his ads for both jeans and underwear that feature the gorgeous bodies of men. As Bordo explains, “Images of masculinity that will do double (or triple or quadruple) duty with a variety of consumers, straight and gay, male and female, are not difficult to create in a culture like ours, in which the muscular male body has a long and glorious aesthetic history.” Ditto for the female body—and our approach to clothing. This tactic is so common in advertising that it has a name: the “dual marketing” approach.
Once I had shifted my gaze, the catalog’s intention seemed clear. There are other catalogs that are playful in this way—Title Nine’s underwear catalog, Bounce, is full of hilarious taglines, which I now confess I have always read with a straight gaze. The time has come for me—for us all—to practice seeing the world from more than one sexual perspective.
In Manhood in America, Michael Kimmel discusses the phenomenon of the TV show “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” and how it has helped ease homophobia in our culture: “…a steady weekly parade of straight guys have invited the Fab Five into their homes and let them rifle through their closets while launching cutting remarks dripping with sexual innuendo. And by the end of the show, the straight guy…hugs them! He thanks them!” Kimmel notes that this show, which debuted in 2003, would have been unthinkable in 1993.
Of course, “queering” our vision doesn’t eliminate homophobia. But it does open a window that has long been closed, creating room for a change in perspective that goes beyond the visual. And when we open one window, it’s easier to open others—like the window on sexual identities that are neither gay nor straight (bisexual, transgender, transsexual, intersex, asexual, pansexual…). These identities are forced to operate on a covert status in our culture, required to “code” themselves in symbolic speak to those with eyes that can see them. For those with heterosexual privilege—even those who know this code exists—it is easy to forget, to slip into a one-size-fits all view of sexuality.
But one size doesn’t fit all—and when we pretend it does, we suppress a very big part of humanity, both within others and within ourselves. Learning to decode the sexual messages in the ads, movies, and shows around us is—as the Duluth Trading Company describes their clothing—a liberation movement indeed.