Elza Ibroscheva. Feminist Media Studies. Volume 13, Issue 3. 2013.
During the long-standing conflict between the West and the East, the propaganda effort to present each camp as ideologically superior and, in fact, excelling in every aspect of social and cultural life, was well documented and evidence of it abounded on both sides of the Atlantic. Western nations boasted about the quality of individual life and their frill for innovation and luxury, while the Eastern bloc paraded social consciousness and communal welfare. Disguised in this larger ideological conflict, however, were also subtle commentaries on how gender identities were constructed and presented to the world at large, both as the expression of cultural norms, but also as a political tool of defining and controlling power relations.
In this ideological contest, the socialist states saw an opportunity in proclaiming gender emancipation unparallel in the West. During the years of the Cold War, the one thing that the East was often seen excelling at and, quite frequently, envied for, was the status of women in the socialist world. Women from the former Soviet bloc enjoyed rights and privileges, which Western women could only dare to imagine. While American women struggled to introduce and implement the Equal Rights Amendment, for example, Soviet women experienced equal rights first-hand. Laws that provided three years of maternity leave, widely available state-sponsored childcare—these were just a few of the “protectionist” laws established by the socialist states in their attempt to resolve what they termed the “women’s question” in a truly Marxist fashion (Suzanne LaFont 1998). Naturally, to support these ideas the powerful propaganda machine of the communist state disseminated images of women in hard hats, women pilots, and women doctors in white lab coats, which widely supported the illusion that women in communist countries had indeed been liberated and has found the perfect balance between handling a career and raising a family. Thus, in sync with the communist party line, communist women “felt” free to reject individualism and self-serving motives, and instead, “chose” to devote their energy to the common good, exercising their remarkable ability to serve their families while also attending to their public duties.
To date, the debate over whether juggling the “double burden” of being both a public producer of goods and private care-giver to the family actually yielded positive results for women in Eastern Europe still rages on in the academic community. Many Western scholars writing on Eastern Europe have expressed concerns about what they see as a negative development in women’s rights and status in the aftermath of communism (Chris Corrin 1992; Barbara Einhorn 1993; Nanette Funk & Magda Mueller 1999; Susan Gal & Gail Kligman 2000a, 2000b ; Gail Kligman 1996). However, often these accounts of Eastern European women’s experiences have been criticized, particularly so by social scientists from the Central and East European region, for their tendency to produce a one-dimensional, overly simplified rendition of the victimized Eastern European woman. As Eva Fodor (2003, p. 12) has pointed out,
Western scholars seemed to layer false universalizations about women’s experiences—globally, by assuming a similar terrain (theoretically and practically) between East and West, regionally by treating the CEE [Central East European] nations as historically undifferentiated; and locally, by disregarding the salience of other social differences besides gender (e.g. class, ethnicity).
More recently though, several Western scholars seem to be heeding these calls for contextualizing Central and Eastern European women’s free-market encounters and the cultural and ideological specificities of the region (Gal & Kligman 2000a, 2000b; Lynne Haney 2002). In this unique social, economic, and cultural context, Eastern European women are faced with the challenge of re-negotiating their roles and identities in the context of the post-communist transition while also experiencing a growing “masculinization” of the democratic transition (Anna Rotkirch 1997). Two manifestations of this phenomenon—the prevalence of images of sexualized women in the media and the commercial eroticization of the female body—I argue are particularly glaring examples of this trend and are the focus of this essay.
One common place where the eroticization of the female body has had clear commercial ramifications is advertising. Advertising as a commercially driven industry, that also shapes cultural beliefs, emerged in Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism. Prior to that, advertising was seen as the unnecessary and unhealthy promotion of excessive consumerism and decadent social values. It was thought to be “a particularly capitalist phenomenon incompatible with socialism” (James W. Markham 1964, p. 31), and therefore was used scarcely, only in its propaganda function, promoting a very deliberate and engineered view of consumption which virtually had no bearing on the reality of daily life. Ironically, it was precisely because of the lack of freedom to consume, some critics have argued, and because of the “queues, Trabants, lacks of bananas and frumpy women,” that popular support for the socialist project began to wane (Susan Reid 2002, p. 212), ushering in the advent of the free market with all its commercial appendages, including advertising.
Today, the visual representations of Eastern European women hardly correspond to the imagined asexual heroine of the communist past, prompting abundant popular culture commentaries, particularly in the West, wondering, as Anne Applebaum (2008) put it, “where did all those gorgeous Russians come from?” Her ironic question referred to the sudden onslaught of post-communist fashion models, flooding the Western catwalks, and top athletes, gracing the covers of magazines, but her response was just as apt: “The same place as the unglamorous assembly-line workers.” Sharp-tongued commentary aside, it is clear that Eastern European women, almost overnight, have adopted a new, highly sexualized identity—one that allows them to occupy both the position of consumer, but more importantly, to occupy the position of the “consumed,” widely and readily offering their sexualized bodies as an expression of a newly found freedom to define their identities in sexual ways.
This essay aims to explore the portrayals of women in Bulgarian advertising, using the campaigns of Vodka Flirt as a case study in an attempt to analyze the marketing of gender identities which has taken place in the years of the post-communist transition in Eastern Europe. While I recognize that no two Eastern European countries are alike, I argue that the cultural reconfiguration of gender identities has fundamentally affected the social, economic, and political positioning of women in the region. Because advertising is one of the major “factories” of cultural signification and, as such, serves as the most ubiquitous vessel of global norms of gendered selves, studying the portrayals of women and how these portrayals are marketed in Bulgaria will present a revealing look at the mechanisms of how post-communist gender identities are being constructed. I arrive at this conceptual challenge from an experience similar to the one that Aniko Imre (2009) acknowledged during her own query into the cultural landscape of the West after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She wrote, “The shock over the unbearable lightness of being was overwhelming for someone unequipped with any kind of advertisement literacy—the most important skill that television teaches…” (p. 4). It is precisely this lack of advertisement literacy, which women and men in Eastern Europe experienced, I argue, that serves as a great departure point in my approach to this study—personally impacting my observations as a product of the post-communist transition and scholastically, as an academic observing and analyzing the vast media changes that are transforming the cultural landscape in Bulgaria and the region at large.
Following recent work initiated in transnational feminist media studies, this essay addresses a largely overlooked area in academic research and offers an important critical dissection of the processes of establishing and constructing gender identities in the unique set of social, economic, and cultural transformations witnessed by the people of Central and Eastern Europe. And while a feminist critique of these developments is much needed, more importantly, as Linda Steiner (2008, p. 17) contended, “feminist analysis of power, oppression, exploitation, and discrimination—how they can be ameliorated requires abandoning the fixation on gender as always and ever the single, fundamental variables. Feminists can, and must, address the interconnected issues of race, class and sexuality,” and I would argue, the economic forces at large, which have determined the dynamics of gender relations and their social manifestations in the post-communist transition.
Because they are compact forms of communication, advertisements and commercials are considered excellent resources to study cultural values and beliefs connected to gender. As Lisbet Van Zoonen (1994, p. 67) stated, “advertisements as a cultural form, display a preoccupation with gender that is hardly matched to any other genre.” In addition, advertisements need to convey meaning within limited space and time and will therefore exploit symbols that are relevant and salient to society as a whole (Van Zoonen 1994). As Janice Winship (1980) argued, it is precisely the commonality and the familiarity of advertising images that makes them so powerful, particularly in articulating ideas of femininity and gender relations.
We already have both a knowledge of images of women from other discourses and an acquaintance with “real” women in our everyday lives. The signification of an ad only has meaning in relations to this “outside” knowledge of the ideology of femininity. (Winship 1980, p. 218)
In the case of Bulgarian women, the outside knowledge of mediated sexuality frequently came from discourses anchored in Western ideals of femininity, communicated mainly through advertising images in shopping catalogs and fashion magazine spreads secretly circulated during communism, often hand to hand, woman to woman, with an almost cult-like devotion. This trend continued even after the collapse of communism, aided by the wide availability of ads and Western fashion magazines, stressing beauty and femininity as a most desired commodity.
The importance of advertising in defining new ways of thinking about gender is also directly connection to ideas of representation. As Sue Thornham (2007, p. 45) argued, “as historical beings, we cannot be outside representation; we are constructed by and in relation to its images and discourses.” Visual representations, and specifically so those in advertising, are defined by the social and cultural conventions of the historic period in which they are engendered. In the post-communist transition, this was a particularly powerful force, as the collapse of the ideologically controlled gender norms during communism quickly dissipated amidst the chaos of the social and political lures of the free market. Here, the role of advertising as a “dream factory” is particularly important, as advertising is the place where fantasies of lives out of our reach are transformed into material, consumer goods that become associated with the symbolic power of the dreams they represent. For example, Raymond Williams (1962) has argued that advertising is a “magic system,” and Michael Schudson (1984) has taken this a step further by contending that advertising is “capitalist realist art” and that, although it does not have monopoly over the symbolic marketplace, different social groups are differentially vulnerable, especially during transitional stages of their lives. This form of art idealized the consumer and portrays as normative special moments of satisfaction, including sexual satisfaction. It “reminds us of beautiful moments in our own lives or it pictures marginal moments we would like to experience” (Schudson 1984, p. 212).
The transition from a communist economic system into a capitalist free market also meant a complete transformation of the dominant ideology, both politically and culturally speaking. Judith Williamson (1978, p. 45) argued that ideology creates subjects and advertising works by creating us “not only as subjects, but as particular kind of subjects.” In Bulgaria, and perhaps across the entire Eastern European region, that subject for women was defined both by a desire to do away with the repressive imposition of ideologically controlled and politically contrived definitions of femininity and by the longing to be a part of the imagistic fantasy created by the visuals of Western advertising. Thus, studying the visual representations of women in advertising in the post-communist transition appears to offer an appropriate forum to explore not only the newly transformed ideals of femininity, but also the mechanisms through which these ideals become introduced in the conditions of a consumer-based economy.
This examination of the visual representations of Bulgarian women in advertising is informed by Foucault’s work and, specifically, his notion of power. Foucault saw power not as a possession, but as a relation, a dynamic network of non-centralized forces that work through the institutions of society and in the daily practices of the individuals within it (Michel Foucault 1976). Moreover, power is to be understood not always as oppressive, as it does not rely on violence and suppression; on the contrary, it can be subtle and productive, as it is often exercised through cultural means. “Power produces reality, it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth” (Foucault 1976, p. 196). In studying the expression of power as articulated by Foucault, I also engage the concept of discourse. To Foucault, discourse is a specific system of language use; in a way, a form of knowledge that creates and articulates meanings, continuously reconstructed and deconstructed in social situations. In addition, because discourses transmit and produce power, they work as tools of power. In my use of a discursive analysis, I argue that today’s gendered discourses of power work heavily through media culture. More importantly, as Jean Baudrillard (1994, p. 90) pointed out, advertising is “no longer … a means of communications or information;” it “has become its own commodity,” making its discursive analysis an appropriate method for studying the changes in women’s identities, triggered by a collapse of a social and economic system of control such as communism and further fueled by a surge of unbridled consumerism. In addition, I also apply critical discourse analysis using Fairclough’s methodological framework, which conceptualizes language as a social and historical process. Fairclough’s idea of the three spheres of discourse, including the process of production, the process of interpretation, and the social conditions and circumstances, in which both production and interpretation take place, are well fitted for the purpose of this study.
This proposed division of discourse, however, is highly analytical as the processes are frequently difficult to delineate from each other. Therefore, when analyzing the use of language it is important to take into consideration the text, the context of the discourse interaction, and lastly, the socio-cultural context surrounding all the former ones (Norman Fairclough 1989). The study of advertising as text naturally privileges the verbal over the visual, but recent research has led to more attention being directed to the visual aspects of advertising. In the case of this analysis, I examine advertising campaign images, the possible way in which these images could be interpreted and appropriated, and finally, the social and cultural context of the Bulgarian post-communist transition, informing the creation and dissemination of these visual presentations of women in Bulgarian advertising.
In order to complete this task, I focus on one specific campaign for the Bulgarian Vodka Flirt. I selected alcoholic beverages based on their popularity as a consumer product but also because, according to a recent study,4 the average frequency of drunkenness rose by 40 percent among all Eastern European countries, with an increase in girls leading the way. Additionally, researchers have stipulated that the dramatic changes that have taken place in the Eastern European nations are related to the socioeconomic conditions, as well as the development of new advertising norms and exposure to the global marketing of alcoholic beverages (Emmanuel Kuntsche, Sandra Kuntsche, Ronald Knibbe, Bruce Simons-Morton, Tilda Farhat, Anne Hublet, Pernille Bendtsen, Emmanuelle Godeau & Zsolt Demetrovics 2011). I also chose Vodka Flirt because it serves as an exemplary case of how women’s imagery has been transformed in the advertising space of the post-communist transition. I selected this specific brand because, according to the only study to date that includes data from Eastern Europe, Vodka Flirt was the top most recognized brand of vodka in Bulgaria (vodka also ranked as the most popular type of alcohol) but, more importantly, because Vodka Flirt also ranked as the most frequently mentioned alcoholic beverage, the most appealing alcoholic beverage, and the beverage which has the most appealing marketing practices, including most popular TV ads, outdoor billboards, and print ads. In fact, it is perhaps safe to say that Flirt not only enjoys a fairly notable brand positioning in the Bulgarian alcohol advertising market, but it has also practically permeated popular culture with its popular ad campaigns, becoming a common topic of conversation and even a popular tag line in the urban vernacular of Bulgarian youth.
Communism and the Images of Women in Eastern Europe
The power of images was not lost on the ideologues of the communist regimes. In fact, the Soviet propaganda machine from an early stage used the potential of political ideas and their visual renditions to mobilize and organize the masses into collective action. As Nadezhda Azhgikhina (1995, p. 4) argued, the Soviet culture, generously subsidized by the state, became a sort of a “dream factory,” while the press, and the media in general, were a “bazaar of dreams,” “tirelessly drumming new myths and images in public consciousness,” creating another reality, which many Soviet people perceived as “more real than reality itself.”
These included ideological constructions of womanhood that were further solidified in the public consciousness by the constant barrage of images of mythical heroines next to real women—tractor-drivers, pilots, mechanics, and political functionaries—thus building a very strong, and fairly stereotypical, public perception of what a woman should look like. Similarly, Einhorn (1993, p. 1), writing about the expectations of Western feminist scholars for the future development of the women in Eastern Europe, put it succinctly, “the image of the female tractor driver is out, as is Superwoman wearing hard-hat on a building site,” Einhorn wrote, describing the defining stage in reconstructing and defining the female imagery in the mass media in the countries of Eastern Europe.
Throughout communism, images of women were extremely didactic and had a most important ideological function to perform. In fact, a quick look into the popular female images and stereotypes in the press throughout the history of the communist regimes allows us to outline the specific features and paradoxes of that era and to understand the essence of the socialist ideologies of gender. Part of the ideological motivation of the press to maintain the image of the communist woman as an epitome of successful emancipation represented the idea that women have mastered control over the “parasite” needs of leisure and aesthetics, the decadent trend of self-indulgence through fashion and beauty and instead, have focused narrowly (and appropriately so) on functional, productive-driven activities (Tatyana Kotzeva 1999). As Kotzeva explained (1999, p. 85), “the visual space of the socialist society was inhabited by the new Amazons—they were labeled ‘doers’, ‘fighters’, ‘functionaries’, ‘labourer’, ‘activists’, and so on.” More importantly, the socialist gender ideology, while proclaiming the triumph of woman in taming the revolutionary energy, showed that “women’s appropriation of a progressive masculine discourse was not to their benefit but rather functioned to curb a ‘transgressive femininity’” (Kotzeva 1999, p. 85), leading, in turn, to a engendering of a manufactured and controlled idea of femininity that had nothing to do with women’s self-expression and everything to do with the party line on gender equality.
Thus, the typical communist woman was devoid of any playfulness or coquetry, let alone sexuality. As Azhgikhina (1995, p. 5) explained, “of all feminine manifestations, only motherly love in moderate quantities was tolerated; women actively mastered men’s skills, acquired education and took part in public life,” all the while dressed in conservative suits, lacking any fashion sense and appearing utterly asexual. Doina Pasca-Harsanyi (1993, p. 44) described,
They [women] could not dress fashionably, wear makeup, or look attractive in any way. Anyone who looks at pictures of the most prominent female nomenklatura, forced to imitate the generic asexual communist “comrade” will understand the lack of appeal to young women.
This stifling ideological control over the public image of the socialist woman soon proved to be difficult to maintain as public discontent with the repressive communist system grew and eventually brought about its demise. In the years immediately following the collapse of communism, a dramatic shift took place, transforming not only the entire political process for women, but also their visual representations (Mamanova, 1994). The image of the fashion model and the beauty queen came to reign supreme in the mass media, immediately and successfully replacing the communist woman. This change came almost naturally as a backlash against the socialist aesthetics and the artificial stereotypes of womanhood maintained by the communist ideology. Consciousness fostered by the totalitarian regime and expressed in the mythical heroine of the past was rejected and replaced with a full display of beauty, sexuality, and hyper-femininity. This trend was readily embraced by the mushrooming of independent media outlets, heralded by the commercial appeal of advertising, which flagrantly used female images of liberated, rebellious, and bursting-with-sexual-energy young women, often celebrated as a visual symbol of the rejection of the communist past and its stifling mores.
Beauty, Body and Sexuality in the Post-Communist Transition
It is interesting to trace the growing importance of beauty and style as markers of success for Eastern European women and the complex way in which these markers became connected to the market economy and its commercial engine, advertising. Kirsten Ghodsee (2005), for example, sheds light on how Bulgarian women employed in the tourism industry became winners in the transition to market economy because they used accrued cultural capital through their strategic contacts with foreign tourists and industry resources. As she explained, cultural capital includes world experiences, education, and other skills related to one’s social advancement, but it also means “the acquisition of good taste … This kind of cultural capital is also referred to as symbolic capital, because an individual’s public ‘performance’ of these discerning tastes symbolizes personal ‘success’ to others in her social milieu” (p. 13).
The concept of good taste and how it relates to one’s standing in the social environment appears to be of critical importance to Bulgarian women as it not only determines the way in which others deem one’s social status but because it also determines the way in which women themselves establish their own self-worth. And even more so, the matter of taste and sense of worldliness also translates into an appreciation for and personal involvement with beauty and strife for constant improvement of one’s physical appearance. Here, the work of Mette Nordahl Svendsen (1996) examining the relationship of beauty and aerobics in post-communist Romania is particularly illuminating. In her ethnographic study of how Romanian women construct their identity through the investment in body care and the consumption of Western practices such as that of aerobics exercise, Svendsen explored the presentational status of the body in the post-communist transition. In doing so, the author argues that for Romanian women, and by extension, for other Eastern European women, “beauty operates as a moral imperative, as a defining feature of femininity, as a dream and a necessity. Taken together, these functions make beautify (or body care) an essential field of activity for women” (p. 10). Moreover, as she discovered in interviewing her subjects, for Romanian women, being in shape and being recognized as beautiful not just by means of one’s genetic predisposition for beauty, but also, by one’s deliberate and purposive cultivation of a beautiful body, is a sign of independence and control that situates female agency in an empowered position, transforming the body into what Svendsen calls “body capital” (p. 14).
It is interesting to explore where women in the post-communist transition first got introduced to sources of “body capital.” In the case of Romanian women, as Svendsen pointed out, the practice of aerobics, which had clearly American roots, also led women to consider the American woman as the paradigm of beauty and social standing that women in Eastern Europe should aspire to achieve. This was also true of Bulgarian women who worked in the tourism industry during communism, according to Ghodsee (2005). However, for those women who had little or no opportunity to be in contact with Westerners, I also would argue, Western advertising as well as local advertising which directly borrowed and frequently mimicked images and marketing strategies from Western commercial campaigns, served the same purpose, where images of women stood for tokens of progress, beauty, and liberations, experiences which women in Bulgaria, and women across Eastern Europe, recognized as vastly missing from their socialist realities.
In the post-communist transition, the sense of femininity became defined by Western media imports, packed with deliberate images of idealized women, often in a sexually suggestive manner. Two social and cultural by-products of the transition—the proliferation of the “pop-folk” music genre and the deliberate images of womanhood it promoted as well as the rise of the new class of violent elites, known as the mafia—have direct connection to the changing standards of femininity in Bulgaria. In fact, as Kirsten Ghodsee (2007) argued, the two are intrinsically connected as the women who rose to fame as performers of pop-folk music were often financially supported and romantically involved with powerful members of the mafia. While both of these phenomena are clearly rife with problematic social consequences, from defining artificial standards of beauty and questionable behavior set forth as models for the young women who watch the sexually provocative music videos, to the hyper-commercialism promoted by the conspicuous display of wealth, the more disturbing outcome of this music genre’s popularity is the association of women’s good looks with the potential to find a rich lover, who in return would guarantee a virtually endless influx of money.
In a similar vein, Vesa Kurkela (2007) and Timothy Rice (2002) note the importance of the pop-folk music genre as both widely celebrated by the Bulgarian masses and simultaneously loathed by the Bulgarian elites. As Kurkela (2007) observed in his study of the chalga genre and its political and nationalistic overtones, in the cultural climate of the transition that has created an atmosphere favorable to the hyper-reality of chalga and pop-folk, politically correct eroticism was frequently and purposefully replaced by sexist soft porn. Kurkela also contended that this trend was particularly noticeable on the covers of music cassettes of various chalga groups—in fact, by the chalga music producers’ own admission, when the chalga group’s visual appearance was not provocative enough, it would deliberately be switched with a photo of a seductively dressed or totally nude female. In tracing this phenomena back to the cultural history of the region and its complex relationship with the West, Kurkela (2007, p. 172) concluded that “after the sultans and fairytale figures with ‘Eastern’ treasures have been transformed into mafia businessmen and Western luxury goods, the target of irony is no longer the East but the Western life and the dreams connected to it.”
A similar phenomenon also was recognized by Jasmina Lukic (2000) in her examination of the images of women in Serbian popular media. Lukic argued that in the post-communist media, there were two dominating images of women—those of women connected to powerful politicians and those of women in the entertainment business. The second one was particularly popular as it promoted a very deliberate image of femininity.
Typically, a young girl in very sexy, revealing clothes would sing about her wish of love for “him” and for “his mother”, to serve him or wait for him, to forgive him (what required forgiving was not often specified). Thus, somewhat ironically, open sexuality was harnessed to national values and patriarchal traditions that were otherwise quite repressive of sexuality. (p. 399)
The trend towards the revitalization of the ideal of traditional female beauty, the sexualization of the female body, and the relegation of women to the sphere of domesticity appeared to be a most natural occurrence during the post-communist transition. In her study of the role of style and fashion in post-communist Bulgaria, Elitza Ranova (2006) noted that instead of embracing feminist thought, many Eastern European women returned to traditional ideas of femininity by stressing innate differences between the sexes and the cultivation of attractive personal appearance. “In this context, care for the self and a ‘re-sexualization’ of the socialist asexual female body is combined with aspiration to the standards of conventional gender roles” (p. 28). Ranova also confirmed that Bulgarian women’s tendency to associate their prospects for success and social recognition with their physical appearance, money, and wealth has been intrinsically link to the emphasis on good looks and sexualized bodies in the Bulgarian popular culture.
In her analysis of the changes in gender discourses in the Bulgarian post-communist transition, Krassimira Daskalova (2000) noted a similar trend, closely related to the rapid proliferation of women-oriented magazines. While she acknowledged that most of these publications focused narrowly on style and fashion tips and preoccupied the attention of their female readers with advertisements for products that improve one’s body image, including medical procedures such as plastic surgery, she also pointed out that “one message conveyed is that beauty is a woman’s most valuable asset, and every woman should try to make herself sexually attractive to men” (p. 349). However, it must be noted that this widely circulating representation of “permitted” sexuality is only there because it is motivated by a deep-seated, heteronormative paradigm which governs globally such representations. Simultaneously, Daskalova herself recognized that the complexity of the cultural climate of the transition cannot be reduced to a simple count of the number of beauty magazines in wide circulation and the messages they convey, but she also noted that since consumerism (as an ideology rather than an actual practice) is only now openly advertised in Bulgarian society, it is hard to ignore the curious convergence of growing consumer awareness, a heightened interest in beauty as a paramount goal, and the advertising that engenders these ideas.
And although it is tempting to think of the eroticization of the post-communist female body as a direct consequence of the resurgence of patriarchy and the masculinization of the democratic transition, it must be noted that the process of sexualizing the female body in the post-communist transition is not entirely a forced-upon act of masculine domination. To support this claim, Denise Roman (2001) described the complex and often contradictory myriad of influences which women in Eastern Europe became exposed to—a rise in traditional Orthodoxy, the return to pre-communist village values, and more importantly, “a provocative feminine mystique of Western origins stressing beauty as a paramount goal” (Roman 2001, p. 56) (author’s emphasis). These conflicting factors of influence, Roman argues, have led Eastern European women to a rather unexpected turn—the women of post-communism have adopted a new understanding of being feminine that includes rejecting modernization and all the turmoil that it brings, and with it, rejecting the ideas of Western feminism. “If, for feminists following the Western model, emancipation means autonomy and taking a public job, for the average woman emancipation means dependency and the right to be a housewife, thus return to the private sphere” (Roman 2001, p. 56). In a similar “backlash” reaction, Eastern European women sought an outlet for a collective “rebellion” against the restrictive range of expressions of femininity sanctioned during communism and the poor aesthetic of their appearance in reverting to a much more provocative dress and sexualized appearance compared to that of communism.
Selling the Hyper-sexualized Bulgarian Woman: The Vodka Flirt Campaigns
With the advent of the market economy and the consumer consciousness which it inevitably promotes, the rise of advertising expenditure and the exposure to advertising messages have become commonplace in the post-communist countries. During the transition, advertising debuted in its purely commercial, revenue-driven form on the Bulgarian market, introduced mainly by international companies looking for profit opportunities in newly emerging markets. This, in turn, led to fundamental changes in the local advertising landscape. Today in Bulgaria, advertising expenditures have risen from $4.3 million in 1996 to $325 million in 2007, and this trend of growth is expected to continue (World Trends in Advertising 2007). In fact, as David Berry (2004, p. 137) noted, the rise of the lifestyle magazine, and perhaps all advertising-supported media, is creating a new form of consumption and identity, with “images portraying the ‘new woman’ and depicting new social freedoms associated with rising patterns of consumption.” As a result, the visual space of Bulgarian media, and specifically so, Bulgarian advertising, quickly became overpopulated with sexualized depictions of womanhood. Women’s bodies became commodified and transformed into valuable currency, used to sell virtually any product. This trend has been particularly magnified and exploited in the advertising campaigns for alcohol, which have raised a number of ethical and legal issues to the front of the public debate.
Among those campaigns, Vodka Flirt has claimed a top position as an alcohol brand known for its sexually provocative ads. The first campaign for the brand started in 2004 when Vodka Flirt launched its pioneering sexually suggestive print campaign, carrying the tagline “It’s open season.” The campaign consisted of a series of photographs of the bare back torsos of female and male models, displaying prominent tattoos of wild animals engaged in a hunting pursuit. The models’ bodies, only partially revealed, are photographed locked in a sexually suggestive embrace, with deliberate camera angles (mostly close-ups) and compositional elements of the shots (featuring partial nudity while obscuring the face or the entire body of the female and male models). Clearly, while the portrayals of nudity and gender in these ads appeared in a subtler, less blatant way, they nonetheless featured prominently the metaphor of sexual pursuit—one tattooed animal hunting the other—reinforcing fairly stereotypical, male-dominated ideas of gender relations. An illustrative example of this trend is one of the campaign ads in which we see the tattoo of the male model represented by a tiger, engaging in an aggressive pursuit of the vulnerable gazelle tattooed on the female model’s arm. This image clearly mimics the power-driven visualization of the hunting pursuit—just like the tiger conquers and subdues the gazelle into submission, so does the male in his pursuit of sexual pleasure.
Once Vodka Flirt broke into the market, it started to engage in a series of much more aggressive campaigns in an attempt to build a distinct brand, simultaneously competing with a ballooning number of vodka brands as well as other alcohol varieties, many of which already used hyper-sexualized portrayals and sexually risqué behavior to advertise their product. In 2005, Vodka Flirt introduced the “Angels” campaign under the slogan “Are you ready for tonight?” which focused on the idea of what might be construed as male and female “sexual” angels, inspiring the young men and women featured in the ads to take on new sexual adventures. The campaign had both print and TV components and was considered a success in positioning the brand even further on the alcoholic beverage market in Bulgaria. The common theme in both the print and the video ads centered on the idea that the main task of the “sex” angel is to help men and women connect, leading to a sexual escapade, whether in the back seat of a car, or in a bathroom stall, all the while keeping count of how many successful “hookups” the angels have been able to instigate. A particularly glaring example of the hyper-sexualized portrayal of women is found in one particular TV spot, in which a young woman is seen dancing by herself, being watched closely by a young man at the bar. As the young man decides to make his move, suddenly the “sex” angel, who is also male, appears, leading the young woman into the man’s arms, where the angel physically prompts her to intensify her sexual moves by lifting her skirt up her legs, pulling the strap of her revealing top, virtually leading her into the sexual foreplay. Throughout the scene, the young woman appears in somewhat of a stupor, as though she is not herself, almost as if she does not know what she is doing. The sexual game continues as the angel rushes both the young woman and the man into a cab, where they engage in an even more intense stage of their sexual adventure. Eventually, we see them arrive at their final destination, ready for the final stage of the sexual conquest. At this point, we see the angel being thrown out of the apartment, clearly hinting that while this might be a wild night, it certainly does not involve the presence of the third party during the sexual culmination.
Flirt’s follow-up campaigns in 2006 under the slogan “Games for the advanced,” and “Savor the memories” featured a series of sexually provocative scenarios in which a few young men, and predominantly women, pursue a variety of sexual escapades while searching for new exciting ways to attract potential partners of the opposite sex.
Almost all of the “creative” scenarios of the Flirt ads focused on women, and while men are not entirely absent in the theme of sexual adventures, women—directly or indirectly—are the focus of hyper-sexualized portrayals. For example, in one of the TV ads for the “Are you ready for tonight?” campaign, two young women clad in nothing but sexy lingerie are taking turns riding an electric bull, practicing their tantalizing moves under the tagline, “Are you ready for tonight?” At the end of the commercial, one of the girls is shown passing the other, looking disheveled from the physical effort, yet showing visible sign of contempt towards her “competition.” Set to the rhythm of extremely seductive dance music, the girls are shown in a series of fragmented extreme close-ups, engaging in a most provocative foreplay, riding the bull while moving their bodies in a most seductive fashion to the rhythm of the music. It is difficult to overlook the striking similarity between this ad and, for example, an erotic video clip, such as seen on the Playboy TV channel. In fact it is not a surprise that Vodka Flirt also hosts regular parties in partnership with Playboy (the magazine has its own very popular Bulgarian edition as well as a nude beauty pageant that airs on Bulgarian television)—for which hundreds of young girls audition for a chance to partake in the festivities, frequently mimicking, if not entirely copying, the scenes of the Vodka Flirt ads. Sexually charged, ready for the night, and willing to go the distance, the Bulgarian women from the Flirt campaigns have no difficulty incorporating these very same behaviors into real life.
Yet another ad from the same campaign focused on a young woman who seductively engages in a striptease. Throughout the TV commercial, we see her practicing every calculated move perfectly cued in to yet another sexually seductive tune, from dropping her purse on the floor, to unlacing and kicking off her high heels, to sexily unbuttoning her bra, until the accompanying music comes to a screeching halt. So does her routine, as she messes up her steps and has to start rehearsing from the very beginning, getting ready for the night in knowing every step of the sexual ritual. Going through the tedious process of getting dressed all over again, she is eager to resume her practice, the ultimate goal of which is perfection in the game of sexual tantalization.
Another series of TV ads featured under the campaign slogan “Games for the advanced,” took the theme of sexual adventure a step further. In a series of thirty-second TV spots, produced and entirely conceptualized by a Bulgarian advertising team, young men and women are featured in different party settings. In one of the ads, a beautiful young woman ordering a drink is seen attracting the interest of two men, also sitting at the bar. While she is trying to figure out what to do or perhaps, which one of the two to pick as her potential partner, her eyes suddenly lead the viewer behind the bar counter, where an attractive young man, the bartender, is washing a glass. Yet this is no ordinary wash—with his long cleaning brush, covered heavily in foam, the bartender starts to glide the brush in suggestive gestures. Cued to the rhythm of the equally sexually provocative tune, featuring the pleasure moans and heavy breathing of a female vocal, the sexual “game” heats up, as the young woman becomes not only interested, but physically engaged in expressing her growing sense of ecstasy. This visually tantalizing sexual game culminates in the closing scene, during which the bartender removes his shirt to reveal his chiseled body and, of course, also, to dry the glass.
Perhaps the culmination of Flirt’s sexual theme was the vodka’s 2007 campaign which featured an actual porn star, Hungarian-born Brigitta Bulgari. In the TV spot, we see the same tested scenario, featuring a nightclub scene and the adventures one can encounter if consuming the right brand of alcohol. In the beginning of the ad, we see Bulgari and what appears to be her roommate, parting for the night, with the roommate sneaking out and secretly wearing Bulgari’s belt, adorned with a heart-shaped buckle, the logo of the vodka brand. From this moment on, the ad unveils in two separate stories—one features the intense sexual foreplay with the experienced porn star who seduces and dominates her man, while the other shows her rather inexperienced, clumsy but somehow sexually inspired roommate, who sees herself venturing in sexual adventures, prompted by nothing less than the “magical” belt she is wearing. The entire video features a tantalizing series of fragments of intense sexual scenes in which both women are seen leading the sexual game, hinting yet again that in sex there lies power, regardless of how exploitive or manipulate it may be.
Discussing the use of sexual imagery in popular media is definitely not a new line of critical inquiry and has indeed occupied the interests of cultural critics, who also see the role of media, and, in this case, advertising, as an important domain for the negotiation of gender and feminism (Janice Winship 2000). What is fascinating in the case of Bulgaria and the rest of the post-communist nations in Eastern Europe is just how fast, how smooth, and how natural the transition into “porno-chic” has been. It is important to note that the paradox of this heightened sexuality on display stems not only from the collapse of the controlled cultural and moral norms that characterized the communist regime, but also from the fact that Bulgarian women, and perhaps, most women in Eastern Europe, found in this very unbridled expression of sexuality a new form of rebellion against the established, artificial aesthetic norms and stagnant gender roles prescribed by the communist ideology. As Margaret Gallagher (1994, p. 117) argued, “in the Eastern countries the conventional female feminine image represent a genuine aspiration for a woman tired of the tractor driver image of woman as a worker.” And while this rebellious spirit of what some called “the new sexual revolution” might have been a refreshing way to face the challenges of the disintegration of the communist ideology, the new sexual mores of the post-communist transition were quickly commercialized and the sexual liberation of women was “high-jacked” in the interest of selling bodies and pushing brands.
The post-communist transition has affected not only the way in which Eastern European men and women live, but also the way in which Eastern European men and women think about each other. In the atmosphere of confusion and political disarray which characterized the collapse of the communist system, gender identities became caught in a limbo; and while this limbo has led towards a number of noticeable social and cultural changes in terms of conceptualizing gendered selves, some of the more fundamental reasons for this shift are economic as well (Barker, 1999). With the growing influx of capital in the media and with multinational corporate investment in advertising, women become the prime target as both models and consumers of goods advertised in a hyper-sexual fashion: “The body is a profitable commodity which satisfies all manner of fantasies in all manner of ways” (Kligman 1996, p. 77).
The fundamental move to foster a consumer mentality in the post-socialist citizen, which was intrinsically tied to the penetration of capitalism in the transition and visually manifested in advertising, brought about very deliberate images of gender, class, and social status, which were seen by the majority of men and women as a sign of Westernization and breaking away from the past. As a result, images of the female body accompanied by gender-stereotypical comments and combined with a market ideology, represented the woman and her sexuality as yet another available commodity (Ivana Kronja 2006). Partially-clad women and nude models on the inside pages of the daily papers have now become a regular diet for the Bulgarian reader and accepted as routine. More importantly, this trend became a commonly recognized symbol of the post-communist transition across the region, as Eliot Borenstein (2008, p. 88) contended, mostly because “the discourse of sex became inextricably linked with the discourse of economics.” The result is a commodification of women’s bodies and female sexualities unseen in this scope and scale during the communist regime.
In this sense, advertising became not only a vehicle for commercial success, but also a forum for cultural pedagogy, where new ideas of what it means to be a “modern” woman, what it means to be a successful business entrepreneur, and many other new cultural symbols and their significations could be learned. This pedagogical aspect of advertising has become particularly gendered and alluring with images of beauty, luxury, and socials norms often in direct clash with established patriarchal traditions of the past. It is this cultural shift in identity formation, triggered by advertising images and messages and combined with the economic hardships and social pressures of the transition, that has resulted in what Donna M. Hughes (2005) argued are profound psychological changes in the self-esteem and self-worth of women across the former Soviet Union and the countries of the Eastern bloc. Even more, the idea of the sexual pseudo-liberation so blatantly displayed by the post-communist indulgence in female sexuality was nothing more than an attempt to co-opt the transformation of gender ideologies into political ones. As Borenstein (2008, p. 59) argued, “the only thing more naked than the women plastered on so many publications and advertisements was the ideology that put them there: a naïve, largely masculine ‘liberation sexology’ that identified sexual expression with democracy.”
The hyper-sexualization of women could indeed be seen as a reaction, albeit a fairly drastic one, to the stifling sexual politics of the communist ideology. However, it is also important to note that the market economy that stimulates the growth of advertising and the perpetuation of these hyper-sexual images of women emerged at the time when female images turned out to provide a most profitable commodity in the conditions of unbridled capitalism. Advertising media conglomerates were among the first to test the ground, and while the production value of print and outdoor advertisements at the onset of the transition was questionable, ads did not shy away from featuring sexualized females, hoping to grab the attention of the eager consumers, selling anything and everything—from air-conditioners to vitamins—with a sexy twist. The very idea of promoting goods for the sake of consuming out of pleasure and choice, rather than out of necessity and force, posed a novel challenge to Bulgarian advertising companies, which had a lot to learn from their Western counterparts. In this vein, it is important to note that at the initial stages of introducing advertising to the Bulgarian market, there was a general void of creative approaches to promote consumer goods to which the sexy female model, of whom there were many eager young women who wanted to see their faces on giant billboards, was the simplest, cheapest, and most immediate solution.
Whether it was the lack of professional norms among advertising executives or the lack of original creative approaches that led the Bulgarian advertising industry to an overreliance on the classic saying “sex sells” in the early days of advertising still remains open for debate. However, it appears that for the Bulgarian woman, the transformation into an over-sexed, hyper-feminine body produces a feeling of empowerment, a feeling of having set out on the road of a different kind of life, a life devoid of the hardships and struggles of the likes our mothers and grandmothers endured. That, in turn, also promotes and mainstreams the sexualization of the female body as the “norm,” as both the expected, and in fact, desired mode of identifying a woman’s worth. As Daskalova (2000, p. 349) aptly pointed out,
while pornography is a universal modern phenomenon, it seems to me that its warm reception in present-day Bulgarian society is due in part to the fact that it reinforces fundamental notions of women’s inferiority that were present before, during, and after the communist period.
Whether these persisting notions of women’s diminished worth continue to occupy a prominent place in Bulgarian culture is difficult to predict. And while they might not be a direct consequence of the sexualization of advertising, it must be acknowledged that the allure of consumption and the commodification of the female body it engenders will remain a staple of what we celebrate as the liberation from communist control and embrace as a sign of a new social order.