Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Dove Ad Rewrites Blake

For an early Americanist like myself, the new Dove Ad featuring a black, latina, and white woman immediately calls to mind the image to the left. William Blake represented his idea of racial equality in this colored engraving, "Europe Supported by Africa and America" (1796). In Blake's image, three figures are inextricably linked. The green sash and the blue-bead necklace encircle the women, while the figures' arms together create the sign of infinity. Featured as the central figure, the white woman who blushes and does not make eye contact with the viewer is held up, if not prevented from falling, by a black woman and American Indian, who are each bound with golden bracelets. The bracelets (or shackles) are distinct from the other encircling features of the image in that they bind these two "other" women in isolation. That is, what the women share (the golden shackles), they share separately.

Dove's ad, consciously or not, responds to Blake's image twofold. It adds a binary and temporal dimension indicated by the canvases in the background, above which are the words, from left to right, "Before" and "After."

The order of the figures are also rearranged. Black, brown, and white where Blake places the white woman in the center. That's where the image directs our gaze; our eye is drawn to the white woman first, and then we shift to see the complete image. As we take in the black and Indian figures, our view of the white woman as a object of desire shifts. Where we are first encouraged to look at her (she does not look at us), we are later positioned to identify with her. As we note that the black and Indian women look directly at us, we may be moved to feel the image staring back at us, evaluating us, judging our racist biases, forcing us to confront what we might otherwise disregard: that white privilege depends upon the labor of the other. We may blush, too, for our shame.

But where Blake's image draws viewers to the central figure, Dove's Ad reads from left to right. The words "before" and "after" are visual cues that instruct us to read the image as a sentence. We thus read black to white alongside "before" to "after" and the ad's text "Visibly more beautiful skin."

The Dove Ad suggests that, under the "care" of Dove soap, cracked skin (represented by the canvas on the left) will become smooth (the canvas on the right), but also that black skin will become white. It's message is similar to an older, explicitly racist ad for Pears Soap brought to my attention by Permaorangefingers at Here's the image:

No comments: