More front than fantasy
New Calvin Klein underpants ad stirs controversy
The famous clothing brand has posted pictures on Instagram of a pregnant trans man in their iconic underpants.
The picture has created a backlash on Twitter, with users pointing out that only women can get pregnant, and that they won’t buy Calvin Klein products anymore.
What made the picture even more controversial was that it was released on the United States’ Mother’s Day.
“Today, in support of women and mothers all over the world, we’re spotlighting the realities of new families… Roberto is due to give birth to his and Erika’s son Noah any day now.” - Calvin Klein instagram
Brands and organisations seem to have a penchant for proving their ‘progressive’ values on these milestone days. This year, the world’s only Vagina Museum used International Women’s Day to talk about trans women in history.
These days it can also be hard to tell the difference between progressive and parody. At first I assumed this ad had to be a joke à la Babylon Bee, JP Sears or The Onion. I was wrong.
When I give school talks based on my Bare Reality series, we discuss the depiction of men and women in advertising. Women are often shown taking up as little space as possible, their slim bodies posing passively, while men project masculinity by occupying space. Never has a (trans)man taken up so much space. This ad has more front than fantasy.
And underwear ads are all about fantasy. Normally the fantasy is provided by the sexual allure of the model. “Wear this and you too will look irresistibly sexy!” Or, “Buy your man these underpants and he will be as hot as David Beckham/Justin Bieber/Mark Wahlburg!” etc. This time a very different fantasy is being peddled - that men can get pregnant.
Brazilian trans man Roberto Bete has been sharing his pregnancy journey through Instagram.
Underwear advertising has been evolving for some time in response to criticism about unrealistic body image. Thin, but curvy women and ultra-muscular, cut men - already visions of loveliness - are smoothed and transformed into literally impossible images of perfection by the ubiquitous airbrush. Some brands have responded to criticism by employing models with a variety of body types, or declaring themselves to be photoshop-free.
Does this ad go too far to challenge perceptions about bodies? While it will be welcomed by trans activists who want to see a greater representation of trans people in wider culture, it’s unlikely to appeal beyond this very small target market. A small survey among the teenage boys I know indicates this will not make them rush out to buy Calvin Klein pants.
The Twitter backlash hints at growing discontent with niche ideology being projected into wider culture, especially when it denies biological truths. The instagram ad proclaims, “We can produce biologically, or from the heart.” Sounds nice, but it’s not true, and not vey relatable on Mother’s Day, in particular.
People who want to look sexy, or want their partner to look sexy offer a huge market. Trans men are a very niche market. They say that if you go woke, you go broke. With this ad, it’s a case of go woke, no poke.