Shaving, with its focus on maintaining secondary sex characteristics and the implicit sexualization of aesthetic-based grooming, has always been an inherently gendered act with inherently gendered advertising. Since women’s razors first hit the market in the mid 1910s, the difference in the products themselves has been clear. Women apparently need dainty and beautiful razors that can’t harm their sensitive skin, while men’s razors are built for strength and durability. Women need to make themselves hairless and beautiful, across an ever increasing area of their bodies; men need to look modern and respectable. Even within ad campaigns directed only at men, though, the sexualization of women is often used as a selling point.
Ads of the 20s and 30s may have taken it as a given that razors were a daily necessity for men, highlighting the easy close shave that specific products could provide, but by the mid 30s it had become clear to advertisers that sex sells, and more and more razors were being marketed with the promise that the smooth face they could provide would earn a man endless affections from his sweetheart. A 1933 Colgate shaving cream ad opens with a cheerful “I like your cheek!” over an image of a woman caressing a well-shaved man’s face with her own.
Six years later, an electric razor add insists you “Be Fair to your Face and hers,” and “End ‘razor-blade-skin’ with this bladeless Schick Shaver.” Keep your face stubble free, these adds promise, and you’ll be kissable again. Use their product, stay in line with the strict gender norms of the day, and you’re on your way to the stereotypical heterosexual romance of your dreams.
In 2013, when the brand Schick released this ad campaign in New Zealand, sexualization was still a powerful tool for selling razors. Each of the three print ads display beautiful women, dressed and styled for fancy dates, amid dramatic lighting, adorned with beards that have been photoshopped onto their faces. The tagline, “Would you kiss you?” sits in elegant cursive to the side, highlighting both the sexually charged intimacy of the ad and the forced undesirability of the women involved. The intention is clearly to highlight the undesirability of beards and sell razors to hairy men, implicitly promising them intimacy and sexual desirability if they keep a clean shave, but, in doing so, Schick reinforces gender definitions and roles in an especially binary sense.
Though this is clearly a “sex sells” sort of campaign, it’s complicated by the explicit subversion of gender norms through these images. The models, traditionally beautiful and styled to be especially feminine, are made out as grotesque through the addition of masculine characteristics. Makeup and lighting work together to highlight the feminine slopes of cheekbones and noses, dainty and refined, but the beards juxtaposed overtop work to destroy the carefully constructed femininity, and it’s unclear how much the image has been altered in the process. In the second image in the series, the blond woman staring into the camera has obviously had her lips reintroduced on top of the photoshopped beard and mustache, making her whole lower face seem especially jarring, and the bottom of her chin (just possible to locate by the overlapping shadows in her beard) is placed slightly lower than the rest of her features would suggest, creating a more masculine jawline even beneath the beard. In the third image, where the model sits at the foot of a plush bed, her face is angled such that the shaping of the beard along her jawline can make it appear especially square, and it appears that her brow bone and forehead was also tweaked to give her subtly more masculine bone structure and a more intensely judgmental gaze. Masculine and feminine attributes are seamlessly merged, within a series of explicitly sexualized settings, creating ambiguity about the genders and sexualities of those portrayed.
The problem, though, is that this is explicitly done with the goal of eliciting disgust. The goal is to sell razors, to promote an idea that facial hair is inherently undesirable. These are beautiful women and well maintained beards, but in combining the two, they’re supposed to create something grotesque and undesirable. It’s a “sex sells” campaign, promising intimacy and beautiful women to those who buy and use the product, but the very women depicted are also a threat- if you don’t buy the product, you’re as undesirable as they are. The underlying assumption is that it’s so unbelievable for a women to have facial hair, to even be capable of growing facial hair, that its addition is strange and repulsive. It assumes a purely heterosexual male audience, but it also assumes an entirely cisgender audience, one for whom the idea of a women with traditionally masculine features is already unthinkable. This ad recreates gender norms, but in portraying the result as something unkissable and undesirable, they also strongly reinforce traditional cisgender gender norms and roles. The message is twofold. If you’re a man, you must shave in order to get sex. If you’re a woman, you must purge yourself of anything vaguely masculine, or else be so undesirable that your very existence is used as a threat. The campaign counts on a pre existing array of gender norms, and by only breaking them as a form of satire and for purpose of rendering the resulting noncomformality undesirable, further enforces those norms.
The “genderless” model of this 2014 ad campaign from the Dollar Shave Club is explicit in its implications (or non-implications). Men’s and women’s razors are typically separate from one another in terms of production. Men’s razors are often darkly toned (blue or black) and take on a slicker model defined by lines instead of curves, while women’s razors are often colored pink and shaped by its curves. These standard razors models work to imply their demographic by completely basing a product’s model on the consumers expected gender role. The Dollar Shave Club, on the other hand, shows a disregard for gender roles and expectations, and has instead decided to sell the same model to its customers, despite what their gender orientation may be. By disregarding gender norms, the Dollar Shave Club has implied an inclusive company model: they’re selling razors, not pushing gender expectations.
Not only does this ad campaign inherently create space for narratives outside of the stereotypical male and female gender experiences, it also works to desexualize those narratives. To not include any bodily representations in this ad must have been a conscious decision. From a marketing perspective, this ad campaign is not explicitly stating its market, nor it is making any further implications as to why someone should buy the product, other than its being a hair removal tool. Both of these decisions constitute a risk, seeing that there is no specifically guaranteed market, but these risks are taken, ingeniously, to state just that: the razor is a tool. The sexuality, gender identity, or presentation of the user does not actually matter—what matters is if the tool can serve as a means to its designated end. By employing such simplistic ad campaign, the Dollar Shave Club has decided to market a tool rather than sell an identity; they have stripped any possible implications from their product, relative to the user, other than the razor’s sole purpose of remove hair.
That all being said, I find it necessary to mention that the campaign itself does still imply a gender binary, although it simultaneously addresses that problem. Claiming that the same product can be used by both men and women, while avoiding a representation of the ideal consumer to the product, implies that there is no real difference between men and women. Whether this was the original intent or not makes no difference; at the end of the day, this ad campaign is only an ad campaign, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t representational of a sort paradigm shift. This ad strays from the conventional ideology surrounding gender, and proudly professes its nuance. Alone, the fact that there is only a year in between this Dollar Shave Club campaign (2014) and the Schick campaign (2013) shows a crucial shift in ideology, especially when considering the similarities between the Schick ads and those of the early nineteenth century. With still much more work to do, this ideological change represents a general change in understanding that appears to be working towards an evermore inclusive society…