If youth culture doesn’t freak out adults, then the kids are doing something wrong: Sex, drugs, and partying have always been interesting to young people, and unless something truly apocalyptic happens, we can be confident that they always will be. Adults seem to forget that young people partake in those three things, leading to controversy, but every once in awhile, adult outrage stems from something deeper than just shock and awe. The recent horror over the #mycalvins campaign images is one of these instances — and if you find these ads offensive or exploitative, then you probably aren’t clued in to what’s going on these days.
Here’s the gist: On May 10, Calvin Klein released a new batch of images for its spring campaign as an extension of what’s become an iconic advertising series: “I ___ in #mycalvins.” Shot by new-gen photographers Harley Weir and Tyrone Lebon, the campaign was an extension of the first batch of images which included Justin Bieber, FKA Twigs, and Fetty Wap sharing what they do in their Calvins, which ranged from “glowing” to “excelling” to “making money.” This new series of photos, however, took on a much more sexualized theme — Kendall Jenner holds up a grapefruit and says that she “eats” in her Calvins, and Abbey Lee Kershaw is pictured with her hand in her briefs (the accompanying text reads, “I pulse in #mycalvins”). The most provocative picture of the bunch is one of actress Klara Kristin in a dress and shot from below: “I flash in #mycalvins.” The reactions on Instagram and various media outlets were swift and horrified. The ads were called “disgusting” and “misogynistic,” and many pointed to the fact that the photo of Kristin recalled exploitative pornagraphic upskirt photos that are taken without the permission of the subject.
There’s a long tradition of advertisements using scantily clad women to sell things, and it’s easy to see why someone could see the image of Kristin and think of her as a vulnerable woman who’s being sexualized against her will, for the pleasure of a male gaze. But what objectors don’t understand is that Calvin Klein created the ad with the assumption that its customer — the young, internet-raised generation — doesn’t see the world like that. CK brand honchos know that their customers will recognize the hash-tagged selfie speak; the intimate, raw portraiture style; the stars in the ads as digital peers (if not IRL peers), and understand that Kristin is a person who has complete control over the image she’s making. In fact, they likely see what she's doing as the same as their posting a selfie to Instagram.
There’s been a lot written about whether selfies are good or bad for society, and like most fads, they’re both. They may feed narcissism and promote vanity, but they also allow young people — women especially — to reclaim their faces and bodies. Instead of waiting for an external, often male, gaze to tell them that they’re attractive and sexual, they tell themselves that. For the selfie generation, sexuality is something to claim rather than something to be bestowed with by someone else. It's not up to Creepy Neighbor Man to tell you that you're attractive — you get to decide that for yourself.
If that sounds like a stretch, consider the language Calvin Klein uses in its ads. Instead of presenting Jenner, Kershaw, and Kristin as models, they give them the chance to speak for themselves. It’s not “She ___ in #hercalvins.” It’s “I ___ in #mycalvins.” When seeing these ads, it’s impossible not to think about how you’d fill in the blank yourself, and that is a powerful shift. It’s what are you going to do if you buy this product, not who are you going to attract.
And if you need evidence that it’s working — that Calvin Klein has successfully asked its potential customers to step into the ad and imagine what they’d do if they had the underwear — just click on the #mycalvins hashtag. You’ll find 380,000 images, most of them of young men and women who’ve literally purchased the product and then recreated the ads by themselves with selfies. This hashtag is one of the most successful instances of user-created content for a brand, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Calvin Klein is one of the few brands that treats young people like they treat each other — with awe, reverence, and understanding.
And if there was any question about the fact that 20-year-old Jenner, 28-year-old Kershaw, and 23-year-old Kristin were willing participants, just click over to their own social media accounts for proof. You’ll see similarly posed and styled selfies from every current Calvin Klein face — these are consenting adults whose personal aesthetics and perspectives happen to also align with this professional project. This stands in stark contrast to Calvin alums; 18-year-old Kate Moss felt so uncomfortable posing topless with Mark Wahlberg that she had a nervous breakdown on set, and 15-year-old Brooke Shields didn’t even realize that her now-famous line, “You wanna know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing,” insinuated that she wasn’t wearing underwear. That is exploiting young women and their bodies. These new ads are not.
The problem is not that sex sells and that it’s bad. The problem is that the typical story of sex we’ve been sold in the form of advertising is so cookie-cutter, so impersonal, and so anti-woman that we’ve come to think that it’s offensive, not to mention boring. These #mycalvin images are about sex, obviously. Young people are sexually aware, active, interested, and informed, and it’s naive to think that they aren’t. What’s so interesting about these ads is that they take that outdated idea of sex and reframe the conversation. Instead of sex as something that’s meant to be taken, it’s sexuality as something to be discovered, figured out, and claimed by the individual. When you see Kristin’s eyes looking down at the camera from over her skirt, you know that it’s not some perv, some pedophile, or some male gaze who’s staring back — it’s herself.