- A World Made Sexy: Freud to Madonna
Paul Rutherford's A World Made Sexy begins with the observation that in the second half of the twentieth century, "a portion of the economy was eroticized, a portion of the libido was commodified" (6). Rutherford calls it the "Eros project," the process by which the world—or, rather, Western popular culture—has been made sexy. It was achieved, he argues, largely through the effects of the marketing and entertainment industries, which have become adept at deploying sexuality in such a manner as to associate commercial products and entertainments with the forbidden thrill of taboo sexual practices while obscuring the illicit nature of this thrill. And while the Eros project may offer the promise of liberation, it also works to promote the interests of corporate power.
By virtue of the wide array of topics covered—wider even than the subtitle, Freud to Madonna, would suggest—the book offers valuable insights into how commercial media contributed to the rapid sexualization of Western culture in the latter half of the twentieth century. One of the book's strengths lies in its productive juxtaposition of familiar phenomena, demonstrating unexpected interrelationships between objects and ideas. Chapter 3, "The Erotic Sell," for example, demonstrates surprising similarities between Playboy magazine, a long-running ad campaign for Maidenform bras, and Mattel's Barbie doll. In the years prior to the sexual revolution, each of these products contributed to the emergence of what Rutherford terms the "erotic sell," the practice whereby products were associated with sexual taboos yet avoided the taint of pornography. Rutherford traces this technique to the artist Salvador Dalí, who used his status as a renowned artist to legitimize the use of sexual imagery in his painting and subsequently translated his notoriety into a lucrative advertising career, designing advertisements for products ranging from De Beers's diamonds to Wrigley's gum. In these ads, Rutherford writes, "Dalí pioneered the technique of selling the thrill of sexual transgression to American business and to the American public" (89). Rutherford then demonstrates how this technique was more broadly applied. An ad campaign for Maidenform bras that began in 1949 featured [End Page 426] images of women in public places, topless but for their bras, with such taglines as "I dreamed I went shopping in my Maidenform bra" or "I dreamed I was a fireman in my Maidenform bra." Here, fashion and fantasy were used to temper the sexual meanings of the ads, and a traditionally male form of erotica—the pin-up—was transformed into a means of marketing underwear to women. Playboy likewise used eroticism to sell products to men while also drawing on elegance, sophistication, and humor to legitimize its centerfolds. Mattel managed to obscure the erotic appeal of Barbie enough to make the doll acceptable to parents (if only marginally so) while still producing a doll that exerted an erotic fascination to children. The chapter concludes with a consideration of pop art imagery from the 1950s and 1960s, much of which provided a commentary on the new marketing landscape while also embodying the practices of the Eros project.
Chapter 2, "Liberation Theory," traces the intellectual basis for the Eros project to a trio of Freudian thinkers: Wilhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse, and Ernst Dichter. Reich and Marcuse both wed Freud's ideas to Marxian theory, posing sexual liberation as a key to the transformation of society. Dichter, by contrast, employed Freud's ideas in the service of capitalism, introducing midcentury marketers to the now commonplace idea that sex could be used to sell products. The founder of motivational research, Dichter led American advertisers to embrace the belief that consumers—men, women, and children alike—would respond to marketing that eroticized commodities. According to Rutherford, Dichter "fashioned what amounted to a Freudian brand of capitalism in which liberation was bound up in the erotic nature of products and of the marketplace" (48). Thus, while Reich and Marcuse may have had a vision of society very different from Dichter's, the three presented...