Elle MacPherson Intimates' Rear Window campaign.

Elle MacPherson Intimates' Rear Window campaign. Photo: Elle MacPherson Intimates

Images from a 2003 Elle Macpherson Intimates advertising campaign have resurfaced on Twitter and blogs causing many to wonder who exactly they were trying to appeal to. Renee Mayne, who goes by the Twitter handle of Bra Queen, first tweeted about it on Friday. So why the controversy? The image is of a lingerie clad woman spied between two doors lying facedown on what appears to be a bathroom floor with her face completely obscured. Mayne tweeted, “WTF was Elle MacPherson Intimates thinking when they released this image[?] It goes against EVERYTHING lingerie is about”.

The story was soon picked up by Jezebel and BuzzFeed. On Jezebel Anna Breslaw discussed the disturbing imagery making the point, “When's the last time a voyeuristic shot of a woman lying crumpled in her underwear on the floor in a defeated position, as if she'd just been thrown there, facing away from the camera, made you go ‘Ooh, I should order that demi cup!’ Never? Yeah, me neither.” Breslaw makes the very valid point that advertising is supposed to sell us something, and that this image fails at its very core purpose as it’s not an aspirational vision being shown. At best it’s aiming to be edgy in the most hackneyed way possible, and at worst it could be triggering to victims of abuse.

The images were shot by UK photographer Rankin as part of an ad campaign but are still available to be viewed on the Elle Macpherson Intimates website. On that page the photographs are described under the title ‘Rear Window’ with the copy: “Rankin explores the very definition of intimacy in these images for the 2003 advertising campaign. The photographs remain as timeless as the garments themselves...” To be honest we wouldn’t be all that bothered if images of women lying prone and unidentified went right out of style actually.

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The images are obviously meant to be filmic, as shown by the Hitchcock referencing title of the shoot, but whatever the story behind them it doesn’t look to be a happy uplifting one. The image is somewhat uncharacteristic of Rankin’s work, as almost all of his lingerie photography portfolio show the model’s face, usually with eyes to camera (a stronger, less submissive pose than eyes downcast or not visible) and often with a smile on her face. And there are further voyeuristic, headless shots for the Elle Macpherson Intimates brand taken by Mario Sorrenti, who also helped create the ‘Knife Fight’ advertisement showing two naked women having a, you guessed it, knife fight. There were calls to ban that ad, but Macpherson is reported to have said of it, “The imagery is beautifully haunting and ambiguous”.

You could argue (and I’m sure some will) that the threat of sexual violence is being read into the Rankin image. But an advertising shot is not an accidental image. It is one that is the result of weeks or months of planning, a committee of people discussing the message they want the image to relay and then days of shooting to get the exact right shots to sell the brand. So what is an image of a defenceless faceless woman meant to tell us? That it’s sexy to be powerless? That seeing a woman lying on the ground after who knows what horrible thing has happened is supposed to make us want to open our purses and support a brand that is specifically aimed at women? We’re continually being sold a sick, distorted vision of ‘sexiness’ and it’s getting really old.

Advertising and fashion has a long history of shoots containing this sort of glamourised violence. It’s a disturbing proposition that women being shown as powerless or defenceless or as victims of violence is some sort of lazy shorthand fashion speak for ‘edgy’ and ‘seductive’. The Rankin peeping Tom framed series of shots is described as an exploration of intimacy – but voyeurism is nothing like intimacy. Real intimacy is a two-way street where both parties can trust and feel safe with the other, voyeurism is about taking away the power of one party to define how and when they want to be seen.

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Photo: Elle MacPherson Intimates

If there’s a silver padded lining to this story it is that these images are from way back in 2003. In this enlightened era, we would never objectify a woman as a faceless, unidentified body just to sell clothes, would we now?