The new Calvin Klein underwear advert isn’t OK

It’s an upskirt shot

Imagery is important. What we see shapes what we think about the world. By extension, therefore, advertising has an obligation to create responsible visual imagery.

In reality, we know that advertising does not take this responsibility particularly seriously. It cannot – otherwise it wouldn’t use images that suggest restrictive ideas of beauty. It wouldn’t Photoshop or whitewash. It wouldn’t use wraiths and waifs to advertise clothes to women and it wouldn’t fetishise youth. It wouldn’t do its hardest to create a collective pathology about the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ types of body.

And at other times, it feels a bit predatory. This week was one of those times: a Calvin Klein advertising campaign has been roundly attacked for shooting up the skirt of its 22-year old female subject. The advert stars Danish actress Klara Kristen. That’s not really important, though, because the focus is on her polka dot underwear, thighs with the requisite gap, and a glimpse of arse. It’s captioned “I flash in #mycalvins”.

Copyright: Calvin Klein

It was posted on Instagram this week. Many users were furious. Most agreed it was, at the least, disrespectful.  Some, objected to the misogynistic direction of the shot (I mean, it is taken up her skirt). Others suggested that the advert had paedophilic undertones (Kristen looks quite young). There’s certainly something discomfitingly teenage about her polka-dot underwear. It feels creepy.

While all underwear advertisements – all advertisements – objectify to some extent, there is a difference between shooting a model face-on. Face-on gives her some agency. Upskirt does not. If I see a girl advertising underwear, in her underwear – ideally looking healthy, though that’s often too much to ask – and she looks like she’s in control, I don’t really mind. But this made me feel uncomfortable.

Ultimately, you can argue, unscientifically, about aesthetics forever. You can argue that the shot was taken by a female photographer – though I’d counter that it was used by a brand, so it’s not like these are riot grrrls reclaiming the representation of the female form.

For what’s important – crucially so, is that the framing of the shot totally depersonalises her. It makes her no more than the sum of her titillating parts (you know which ones). There is a difference between the thrill of the irreverent and the cheapness of the titillating. It is hard to define, but you know that difference when you see it. Thousands of Instagram users certainly did.