Making the Brand: Pamela Anderson, Posh Spice, and Sarah Jessica Parker

May 11, 2008

Just a few weeks ago, a shocking photograph hit the blogosphere and tabloids: Pamela Anderson was spotted reading former Punk Planet editor Anne Elizabeth Moore‘s latest book, Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity (New Press, 2007). In a bikini, no less:

And really, who doesn’t enjoy a good read in the sun? While gossip blogs made a few painfully old dumb-blondes-can’t-read jokes, Jennifer Pozner chose instead to point out the cognitive dissonance of “one-woman brand-maker for Playboy, Stuff, G.Q., Baywatch, V.I.P., and numerous other my-boobs-move-media devices” reading AEM’s excellent tract against corporate creep.

A brand is a symbol, perhaps also a phrase, that connotes very particular meanings and qualities, and most essentially, that is standing in for a product. The most successful of brands don’t just suggest a specific idea, but actually come to mean them. In other words, if you looked up Busty Blonde in the dictionary, you might just find Pamela Anderson. The product could be any number of things, from Baywatch paraphernalia to men’s magazines. It’s a powerful thing to attach Anderson’s name and image to a product; people might purchase it because they’re attracted to her and want to find out more, but many will also pick up a product for the simple reason that it’s Pamela Anderson. You know that you have branding power when someone will buy something simply because your name is on it, even if that thing is totally unrelated to your work and identity. Celebrity perfumes, for example.

The tricky thing about a person actually becoming a brand is that you run the risk of your body actually becoming the product. Women, already commodities, are particularly vulnerable to this trading in flesh. Like Victoria Beckham in this provocative/misogynist Marc Jacobs ad, women can be tumbled into an enormous shopping bag and carried home, dangling a pair of twiggy legs that aren’t even recognizably human.

Except, in this case, where the varnished doll-like legs are recognizably Posh. Victoria Beckham, of course, is a perfect example of successful branding. From the beginning, the Spice Girls were built on the idea of five distinct women with easily defined and internally consistent personalities. This premise allowed femininity to include such meanings as sporty and…scary? (read: not white), thus propelling the concept of girl power to the global scene. By way of this, the Spice Girl industry also established the notion of girl power as an explicitly commercial tool, one that initiated pre-teen girls into the role of consumer.

Most brands rely on association, but Victoria Beckham’s selling quality is made perfectly explicit: she’s Posh. That quality sold her as a performer and cultural icon in a way that her voice never could. And then she married a hot footballer, thus completing the image: together, she and David Beckham embody wealth, style, and stardom. Sustained by a limitless wardrobe of little black dresses and heavy eyeliner. Posh is the definitive celebrity—a branding that draws on her work, family, and personal history, but that ultimately returns to a toned body in a tight dress.

Lots of people have branding power. The DVDs-For-Infants series Baby Einstein wouldn’t sell a single disc without the moniker of a certain woolly-haired genius. Masses of Americans will line up to see “the next Will Ferrell movie” or purchase the next John Grisham novel whether or not they know or care about the plot. My question is, can women only have this branding power if it’s centered on their bodies? After a brainstorm with duckingbeamers, it looked like the answer was going to be yes. Sure, Madonna’s been a powerhouse for years, but her success began with selling sex and has continued to be about a continual reincarnation of her body. To be clear, I do not intend to judge Madonna or Posh Spice or Pamela Anderson for building successful careers on their physical appearance. I assume they’re all smart and savvy, and I’m not interested in debating the right or wrong of it. I’m just curious: does the marketplace allow for a woman to wield this kind of commercial power if it’s not sexual power?

Then we thought of Oprah. Oprah can move mountains, books, voters, millions of men and women to hum “Happy Birthday” while washing their hands. Rather than displaying her body for consumption, Oprah’s the Queen of Talk. Of course, the public has continually scrutinized her weight over the years, and perhaps there is a connection between displaying your body as a sexual object or bait, and displaying your body to establish a common ground with viewers, the everywoman.

This past week’s cover of New York brought to mind another woman with a small empire to her name, one known affectionately as “SJP, Inc.” Sarah Jessica Parker was not only the star but the executive producer of Sex and the City, and, with the recent release of her clothing line, Bitten, and the May 30th opening of the SATC movie, she’s proving to be as smart a businesswoman as ever. Emily Nussbaum’s article (like all celebrity profiles) is a bit fawning, but she does make some effort to take on this question of branding: “There’s a case to be made that if she has marketed her own personality—funny, effusive, motherly, girlish—as a brand…this is a smart move…Like a single woman in an earlier age or a blocked artist in Victorian London, an actress growing older can easily find that her world is shrinking. That will never happen to Parker, who has made certain to seize control of her own larger-than-life image.” Interestingly, SJP, Inc. may be the answer to our earlier question; her brand isn’t about her body or sex appeal (the assholes at Maxim will testify to that); her look is stylish but not overtly sexual. Her brand is about some fabulous unattainable New York City existence. SJP is a fashion icon, and those kinds of things don’t just happen. They’re planned.

Because Parker is and cultivates an image as a person with brains and integrity, it’s important to her to express a great deal of ambivalence towards the commercial aspects of her work. This ambivalence is a bit difficult to swallow. It seems that each one of her projects has to be reconfigured “so I don’t feel it’s vulgar. So I don’t feel it’s just arbitrary or mercenary.” She both professes to a great deal of involvement in these projects (she designs the perfume herself, really!), and laboriously distances herself from them. Her clothing line is actually an intervention in the fashion industry: it “runs up to size 22” and has rock-bottom prices. This isn’t just spin: Bitten offers really nice clothes at the astounding price of $8.95, and that’s pretty cool. It doesn’t, of course, make Parker a saint or render her business venture any less of a business venture! We’re meant to give her points for feeling conflicted about her Garnier and Gap commercials, but ultimately, guilt or no guilt, she did the commercials, attached her name to a couple products, and took home the checks. As Jezebel points out, this is fine and harmless, and it was probably a good idea to keep SJP on television screens in the hiatus between TV show and movie. But wouldn’t we respect her more if she owned up to her choices instead of denying them?

Nussbaum and Parker spend much of the article wandering through the West Village bemoaning the cupcakes and expensive stores and flocks of cutesy girls. Of course, even they have to admit to the SJP influence on the neighborhood and the gentrification both heralded and perpetuated by Sex and the City. Parker’s in love with an old vision of New York, and laments the fact that “there’s just so much money now, and the city is so affluent, and all the colors, all the shops, the look of a street from block to block is just terribly absent of distinguishing coffee shops, bodegas. All of that stuff that made it possible to live in New York is gone.” She has also always described SATC as an homage to New York City–but if for a second she imagines that some creative, democratic, and gritty version of the city appears in the show, she’s got to be kidding herself. More than it was ever about sex, SATC was about money. It created a fabulous New York lifestyle, based on club openings and brunches, and tied to a carefully orchestrated series of product placements. Nussbaum ludicrously suggests that “you would have had to concentrate hard to notice [the products] at all,” but seeing as the TBS tagline for SATC reruns is “More martinis, Manolos, and men on the way,” I’m pretty sure that the message got through.

So far from being subtle, in fact, the writers constructed entire plot points around specific products: Samantha gets her boyfriend a gig as the “Absolut Hunk”; “Sad Mac” is what happens when Carrie’s computer dies; Miranda becomes obsessed with her Tivo; Charlotte becomes obsessed with her Rabbit; Samantha vies with Lucy Liu over an Hermes bag; and Berger freaks out when Carrie buys him a Prada shirt. Believe me, I didn’t have to search at all to come up with these brand names. But the product placements in SATC don’t feel irritating or intrusive, as they might elsewhere–precisely because each one of these products is so integral to what the show is about: style, class, and consumption.

Nussbaum hints at the importance of money to the male/female dynamics on the show, but “as for Carrie, Parker rejects entirely my theory that she had any attraction, conscious or unconscious, to Big (or Aleks or Aidan, for that matter) because of his money. Carrie wasn’t like that! she says. Charlotte was, but Carrie wasn’t. Hey, she dated Berger, didn’t she? ‘I really don’t think that money was a criteria. It never would have occurred to her to take money from a man.'” I guess it was just a coincidence that all of Carrie’s boyfriends had money, that Aleks kept her for weeks in a Paris hotel, that Aidan offered to buy her apartment and the one next door, and that Big kept showing up in a long black town car driven by the faithful if unseen “Raul.” Sure, she dated Berger, but she also insisted on buying him a Prada shirt; it was very important to her to live as a wealthy woman, even if she wasn’t one. The fabulous New York lifestyle depended on Carrie dressing in very expensive clothing and being taken out to expensive dinners by rich men.

If Parker thinks money is indecent, she definitely thinks sex is too. Of course, Sex and the City is of special interest to this blog, as it was one of the first presentations of the sexually liberated woman, the first to ask if women could have sex like men. How unsettling, then, to see Parker now, promoting the Sex and the City movie while also refusing any implication in the sexual liberation movement. (Nussbaum condescendingly offers that “Kim Cattrall seems to be the last person waving the flag of third-wave sexual rebellion that the series championed early on.” Sexual freedom is just so distastefully late-nineties, isn’t it?)

With a disturbing “anxiety about purity” and a penchant for calling things “vulgar,” Parker is busily explaining that Carrie never appeared nude or used profanity. I have to admit, this truly disappoints me. For one thing, as executive producer, Parker had to have some investment in what else was going on the show; even if she didn’t bare much skin (except her midriff), the other characters certainly did, and that was part of what made the show provocative as well as great physical comedy (thanks to Kim Cattrall).

More than that, Carrie valued good sex, and her best and worst decisions were often motivated by sexual attraction. Even if she ended up with Big (and how could they not give the viewers what they’ve been trained to want?), Carrie seriously questioned these ideas of true love and marriage and family. Sex and the City was radical because it took sex seriously, but it looks like that history’s now being rewritten in the interest of brand management.

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2 Responses to “Making the Brand: Pamela Anderson, Posh Spice, and Sarah Jessica Parker”

  1. navcity Says:

    Branding is used quite effectively in politics too wouldnt you say?

  2. rmzeldin Says:

    excellent post.
    How on earth can sjp deny the influence (mostly negative) that her show had on the self-image of New York? Talk to any twentysomething girl living in Manhattan and I guarantee you she will have Sex and the City fantasies. When I lived there, the phrase “Sex and the City night” was common parlance for a night on the town with expensive drink and (the potential) for meeting rich men. Girls would go shopping in SoHo, eat cupcakes on Mulberry, brunch and drink and eat, etc, based on what they saw on the show. And they aspired to be these women. Not Samantha: no, no, she was far too dirty and old school. As much as we all “hated” Carrie (those voice overs, so obnoxious), most girls I knew wanted to be her. To have sex with men who were infatuated with her. To have all the latest styles. To have girlfriends who were making all the wrong decisions in life such that you could feel morally superior. You know, the whole thing.
    Which is why it pains me so much to hear SJP imply that Carrie was not sexually adventurous or liberated. It is not so much that I care what she thinks: but, given the influence that the show obviously has on defining how young women view themselves, its heartbreaking to hear another example of how we are supposed to only sleep with men that love us (it doesn’t matter so much if we love them). How letting go and just having fun with sex is somehow wrong, or bad for us. Because frankly, we don’t need another voice out there telling us that not getting a call back the next day is our fault, and that we should feel ashamed and hurt and guilty for somehow transgressing. Sex is sex, and it should be up to the individual to regulate how they interact with their sexuality, not Hollywood.

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