It’s that most wonderful time of the year, when consumerism is equated with love, with family, with home, with safety, with proof of connection. And, you know, also with... heteronormativity and, more often than not, with whiteness.
All to say, where are the holiday ads that offer queer and non-normative gender representation?
In spite of the stratospheric growth of support for LGBTQ+ rights—including the fact that fashion corporations have started jumping on the Pride bandwagon, sponsoring Pride events, and releasing Pride collections during the month of June—the lack of LGBTQ+ representation in advertising the rest of the year is notable. Particularly during the holidays, the most important advertising time of the year, it is interesting to see how safe these brands play it—including those with decades-long commitments to the LGBTQ+ community.
Even brands who launched significant Pride campaigns this year have failed to indicate substantive LGBTQ+ inclusivity in their holiday advertising. Of course, holiday advertising traditionally features heteronormative, mostly white nuclear families in the tradition of the Cleavers no matter what's being sold—clothing, shoes, cars, home goods. If it's something you want, you can guarantee a white family, with a mom and a dad who look like they belong on a TV sitcom in the '70s, is going to be the one convincing you to buy it.
The reasons for this are obvious: In the United States, heteronormativity is associated with safety, with family, with traditional values. Cis het people get to be the representative—and, in many ways, the guardians—of the holidays, a time of year which is itself a signifier of long-held cultural traditions. All of this is reflected by aspirational advertising. This is who you want to be, the ads say. Even if it's not who you are.
On the one hand, of course, it's important to point out that “you can’t tell by looking” that the people we see in ads are straight, cisgender, or even white. But that's certainly how the majority of them are being presented. And, within advertising, there are ways to signal LGBTQ+ inclusivity, and in the time of Trump, that signaling feels important on a fundamental level. Whether it’s featuring LGBTQ+ couples amongst other couples at a holiday gathering or models dressed more androgynously, there are clear ways to communicate queer-friendliness to a brand’s audience.
For this holiday season, I looked at the holiday campaigns and current websites of brands that ran major Pride campaigns in 2017, to see how LGBTQ+ friendly they were committed to being year-round.
Doc Martens wins the Holiday Pride competition by a landslide, by putting two women with very gay body language front and center on its website homepage. I look at this and see two women flirting at a party (and, let’s be honest, one of them is me).
Of course, this is the kind of image that is likely to go above straight people’s heads, since it’s just feet, but I can’t knock Doc Martens on that front—pretty much all of their imagery is foot-centric. They rarely do full body shots. Also, it’s not my fault that straight people don’t know that Doc Martens are basically a queer closet staple.
Like pretty much every mainstream fashion brand, American Eagle divides its clothing on the gender binary: men’s and women’s fashion. When it does feature couples on the website product images, they’re straight couples. This is particularly surprising since, in 2016, American Eagle ran a holiday TV ad that explicitly featured several LGBTQ+ couples dancing and kissing and being their gorgeous queer selves. It's definitely great that the brand doesn't resort to heteronormativity in its televised campaigns, we'd just love to see that extended everywhere else.
In spite of running a cool Pride campaign this year—which is great given how conservative the lingerie industry is—MeUndies pretty rigidly divides its advertising (and products) along the heteronormative gender binary. Also, all the couples currently featured on the brand's website and in its holiday advertising are straight. Casual reminder that Pride isn’t just for June!
Levi’s is interesting! The brand always does killer Pride campaigns and, more importantly, was supporting the LGBTQ+ community way back in the early-'80s, long before it was popular to do so. (The Levi Strauss Foundation has contributed more than $60 million to HIV/AIDS organizations in 40 countries. Levi’s also has a comprehensive, international HIV/AIDS employee support program.) So, I honestly would never knock Levi’s—it legitimately puts its money where its mouth is, in a way that virtually no other brand does. That said, I think it would be extremely rad if Levi’s featured LGBTQ+ people in its holiday advertising campaign, like in the really sweet, high-production value, “shoppable” video about a family reuniting for the holidays, featuring older parents and their kids’ partners. It would have been a really prime opportunity for one of the kids to be LGBTQ+. Next year, Levi’s! Next year.
To its credit, Gap generally eschews the nuclear-family-at-home style of holiday advertising altogether and instead focuses on capturing its TV audience with big group song and dance numbers. [Insert stereotype about gays loving that shit here.] However, this year, Janelle Monáe is the lead singer in its holiday commercial, “To Making Music and Magic.” There has been a lot of speculation that Monáe is somewhere on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, and while she has never confirmed (or denied) the rumors, she often expresses very clear and fervent support for the LGBTQ+ community. And she once said that she wanted both men and women to be attracted to her. I’m just gonna leave that there.
Urban Outfitters had one of the better Pride campaigns this year. In fact, it was inventive. The brand didn’t just slap a rainbow on a few products and call it a day, it put in a solid effort. Which is why, when Urban Outfitters does shit like put two women all over each other with the caption “Get Together” on its homepage, it feels like queer-baiting from a brand that knows exactly what it's doing. And that’s very frustrating, particularly since other pages of the website feature larger groups of friends captioned with “Get Together: Grab Your Friends and Go.” Nowhere does this copy apply to an explicit couple, underscoring that the front page is just, you know, queer-baiting. Not cool.
Target’s holiday commercials focus almost exclusively on legacy CGI-animated children’s toys, which is extremely smart and nostalgia-inducing. It’s also an interesting exercise in how Target’s marketing team understands gender roles. They try for bare-level Feminism 101, like when Ken says he’s thankful for Barbie, and Barbie says she’s thankful for her many careers. But the retailer also often goes traditional, like in the commercial where Barbie and a My Little Pony decorate their tree in millennial pink and rose gold ornaments, while Batman sits in the corner reading a paper maintaining, “I don’t get the vision.” Target’s imagery on its website and in its product ads, which do feature humans, don’t feature explicitly LGBTQ+ folks, which is a missed opportunity. All of the families in product shots feature a mom, a dad, and two happy children. All that’s missing is the white picket fence. Target, of course, has staunchly defended its trans-inclusive bathroom policies, as well as its insistence on collapsing gender norms in the toy aisle. As in all things, it’s important to consider the whole picture. But that picture always has room for improvement.