Femininity and Fetish in the Work of Marilyn Minter

Dana Kopel

Marilyn Minter’s images—frozen moments of luxury and sensuality—fragment and abstract the female body, offering a critique of the objectifying (even commodifying) effects of the male gaze, which, with their lush, glittering surfaces, they simultaneously implicitly encourage. Three different, yet closely related, examples of her work—an advertisement for Tom Ford for Men (2007), an art photograph (Deep Throat, 2003), and a photo-based painting (Blow Job, 2008)—exhibit a fascination with, and a critical attention to, pleasure and desire (both sexual and capitalist). Moreover, they exaggerate that pleasure into excess and fetish, and towards a critique of a society whose achieving of pleasure is “situated in a future continually deferred”.[1]

Minter’s 2007 advertisement for Tom Ford for Men features a bottle of the advertised cologne displayed against a fragment of a woman’s body. The photograph has been cropped vertically so that only the region from her navel to mid-thighs is visible, and horizontally to cut off the edges of her narrow, model-esque hips and legs.  Her skin is tanned, completely hairless, and glows with sweat and oil. The entire image, with bright light reflected in the woman’s stomach and thighs, seems to glisten, as though coated in sweat. Her right hand, with long, bright-red nails and a large gold chain-link bracelet, reaches toward the center of the image, pressing a bottle of Tom Ford cologne into her upper thighs. The bottle, clear striated glass with a simple black and gold label, is set directly upon her pubic area, replacing it as the (assumed) primary source of heterosexual male pleasure. Across the bottom of the photograph, in large white letters, also cropped as though accidentally (only half of the D remains, and part of the text blends into the white background between the model’s legs) the name “TOM FORD” is printed and, in smaller letters just below it, “THE FIRST FRAGRANCE FOR MEN FROM TOM FORD”. The text, displaying the name of the male creator and the phrase “for men” essentially branded on the woman’s body, emphasizes both the centrality of the brand name and the advertisement’s focus on the traditional conception of (heterosexual) male desire, an idea already taken to an extreme in the nude, oiled female body, and in the photograph’s centering around the decontextualized female sex organ. Minter employs clichés of advertising (that gold signifies wealth; that “sex sells”; that this life of sex and luxury can be yours if you wear Tom Ford for Men) but exaggerates those clichés, drawing attention to their absurdity. The hypersexuality of the image thus becomes a parody of the way advertising markets desire, both capitalistic and sexual, and equates woman and the advertised object as static loci of male desire.

Marilyn Minter for Tom Ford for Men, 2007, magazine advertisement.

In Minter’s Tom Ford ad, the bottle of cologne covers the vagina at the center (both literal and figurative) of the image. In a sense, the cologne—the commodity—is equated with, or even replaces, the traditional object of heterosexual male desire.  Yet it begins simply as a commodity, an object produced to be sold or exchanged and “which through its qualities satisfies human needs … whether they arise, for example, from the stomach, or the imagination.”[2] The production of objects as commodities, however, endows them with a certain mystery, a sense of “magic and necromancy,” based not in their function (in this case, to make one smell a certain way) but in their associations (sex, wealth, glamour), which appear, falsely, as inherent to the commodity.[3] This “domination of society by things whose qualities are ‘at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses’” is commodity fetishism, and as a phenomenon it relies as much upon the nature of the object itself as upon its near-mystical associations, its illusions. Thus the consumer of commodities “becomes a consumer of illusion.”[4] Minter’s photograph plays with this duality, featuring the concrete advertised object but centering it in a space rendered almost abstract in its reduction of the real into fantasy. The advertisement offers an examination, albeit one coded in the language and environment (a page of a magazine) of the medium it seeks to critique, of what Berger calls “the equality of objects” under capitalism, in which what is seen or displayed—both a bottle of cologne and a woman’s body—is understood to be acquirable, and in which such acquisition presumes the satisfaction of (in fact unfulfillable) desire, both material and sexual.[5]

The language of advertising, which presents the commodity as an object to be desired, relies upon techniques of “superficial saturation and fascination.”[6] To convey the appeal of the commodity beyond its basic use, advertising relies on viewers’ “natural appetite for pleasure,” in particular, tactile pleasures.[7] The Tom Ford model’s skin shines with almost tangible beads of sweat, and the indents in her upper thighs from the bottom of the cologne bottle impart a strong sense of felt pressure: advertisements portray things as though they could be immediately felt, as though the consumer could almost, but never quite, reach out and touch the product he or she is being offered. Because the “visual desirability of what can be bought lies in its tangibility, in how it will reward the touch, the hand, of the owner,” publicity images—aided by color photography, which “reproduce[s] the color and texture and tangibility of objects as only oil paint had been able to do before”—emphasize the textures and surfaces of objects in order “to play upon the spectator’s sense of acquiring the real thing which the image shows.”[8] Baudrillard writes that, in contemporary society, the tangibility and textural fascination of advertising images has rendered advertising “its own commodity.  It is confused with itself (and the eroticism with which it ridiculously cloaks itself is nothing but the autoerotic index of a system that does nothing but designate itself).”[9] Minter’s work for Tom Ford engages with Baudrillard’s theory of absolute advertising in its pastiche of a hyper-inflated system of visual and economic excess. Perhaps because of its implicit critique, her advertisement hardly seems a commodity in itself, particularly in comparison with her non-commercial photographs and her paintings, which are unambiguously commodities themselves, bought and sold, emblems of a certain wealth and cultural prestige.

Minter’s non-commercial artwork nonetheless exhibits both the influence of and a critical approach to advertising. In Jameson’s postulation, this makes her work resolutely postmodern: he writes that “many of the newer postmodernisms have been fascinated precisely by that whole landscape of advertising … to the point where the line between high art and commercial forms seems increasingly difficult to draw.”[10] Deep Throat, a large-scale (35” x 50”) c-print from 2003, with its extravagantly beautiful textures and surfaces, embodies the “saturation and fascination” Baudrillard recognized in advertising images. Extremely zoomed in and cropped, the photograph features a woman’s open mouth, filled and surrounded by clear crystals or diamonds, and a bit of the skin around it. The colors in the image of her red tongue and brighter lipstick, the deep black inside her mouth, her glowing, oiled skin, are intensely vivid; the crystals reflect and refract the bright light and colors (as do her skin and her waxy top lip), blending her skin tone with the red of her lower lip. With the camera’s crisp focus on the crystals next to and inside the mouth, blurring somewhat the top lip and the teeth, abstracting the body within the luxury and glamour of the image. Despite its size, the glossy photograph recalls an advertisement for diamond or crystal jewelry, perhaps unsurprisingly, as “all current forms of activity tend toward advertising and exhaust themselves therein. Not necessarily in advertising itself, the kind that is produced as such—but the form of advertising, that of a simplified operational mode, vaguely seductive, vaguely consensual.”[11] Indeed, as the photograph’s contrasting hues and textures, the brightly lit right side and the darker left, and the lips’ shiny, waxy surface against the smooth brightness of the crystals, seduce the eye. Similarly, the image of the open mouth being filled (with objects), along with the titular allusion to oral sex, explicitly reference sexual seduction. Minter’s photograph proposes an almost tangible glimmer of a world of luxury and sexual fantasy.

Deep Throat, 2003, c-print, 36 x 50 inches.

Likewise, Blow Job (2008) employs vivid colors and tactile-seeming, hyper-realistic surfaces to build an image that both explicitly references and symbolically approaches sexual acts and fantasies. A painting (enamel on metal) based on a digitally manipulated photograph, Blow Job depicts parts of a young woman’s face and hands as she presses her mouth to a clear, round glass bowl. Through the bowl, the surface of which is covered in water droplets, we see her bright pink lips and red tongue, blurred and yet strikingly bright and large. Minter focuses here, too, on contrasting textures and tactile pleasure: the crisp detail of condensation on the glass and on the woman’s fingers in the foreground against the soft focus of her face behind it. The drastic contrasts in focus, along with the distorting effects of light, liquid, and glass abstract the image, particularly the background, into fields of bright color and light. As in Deep Throat, we see the woman’s body mediated through small, clear, light-refracting material. This fragmentation of the seen female body underscores, in the words of Frederic Jameson, the “way in which postmodernism replicates or reproduces—reinforces—the logic of consumer capitalism,” which sells sex, in the image of woman, as any other commodity.[12] Perhaps in its small undermining of contemporary standards of beauty (the woman’s chipped black nail polish); in its self-conscious replacement of the (fellated) male with an empty, transparent vessel; and in its medium, painting, which provides a layer of critical removal from the immediate gratification of photographic-commercial display, Minter’s hyper-sexualized image “resists that logic,” offering a critique on a society of commodified images which objectify the women they depict.[13]

Minter, in the aforementioned works, puts hypersexualized femininity unambiguously on display, as she does more clearly in her advertisement for Tom Ford for Men. In these works she implicitly comments on the ways in which “publicity increasingly uses sexuality to sell any product or service. But this sexuality is never free in itself; it is a symbol for something presumed to be larger than it: the good life in which you can buy whatever you want.”[14] The sexuality in these images is understood to be a part of that “good life,” a life of capitalist fantasy, and as such, they do not shock the viewer. In fact, “there is very little in either the form or the content of contemporary art that contemporary society finds intolerable and scandalous,” Jameson argues, “The most offensive forms of this art—punk rock, say, or what is called sexually explicit material—are all taken in stride by society, and they are commercially successful.”[15] Despite their titles, Deep Throat and Blow Job are not sexually explicit images. Rather, they function as commentary and critique—albeit imperfectly, because of their visual sumptuousness, and because they too are commodities—of the consumption of such images, which are drained of force as they are subsumed into normative sexual fantasies or capitalist aspirations. Like film in Mulvey’s formulation, then, Minter’s work “reflects, reveals, and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle.”[16]

Consequently, both works, as well as the Tom Ford advertisement, display women as objects of male sexual fantasy. Such depiction, entrenched in the visual language of both advertising and film—Deep Throat and Blow Job, especially, resemble cinematic freeze-frames—produces images which are self-consciously, even theatrically, structured by the male gaze:

In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.[17]

Blow Job, 2008, enamel on metal.

As women are conceived—by photography and the media, by a society which associates male with power and action and female with passive “to-be-looked-at-ness”—as objects to be displayed and viewed, they internalize that conception of womanhood, beautiful but powerless. As Berger states, “The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”[18] Minter is the photographer of Deep Throat, the painter of Blow Job, yet she is not the one who looks at the women she depicts; her images function as reactions to the ever-present, and internalized, male gaze, accentuating the displayed women’s position as sexualized objects and—with their dripping, almost grotesque exaggerations of sexuality—simultaneously undermining this position. Minter’s work reveals an understanding that the conditions of female display in mass culture simultaneously define and reinforce those in daily life; thus the operative, and critiqued, gaze in all three pieces is implicitly white, male, and heterosexual, which is to say the gaze of the one the one empowered by capitalism to determine desirability and its opposite. By emphasizing the performative aspect of femininity, moreover, Minter separates it from female identity: her work, with its glittering surfaces and vividly made-up models, reveals beauty itself as a performance, a play of decorated surfaces, rather than as the inherent essence of woman.

Yet “the woman as icon, displayed for the gaze and enjoyment of men, the active controllers of the look, always threatens to evoke the anxiety it originally signified”—that is, the castration complex. The male unconscious can avoid this anxiety through “complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of a fetish object or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous.”[19] The fetishistic male gaze lingers over a fragment of the displayed woman—her lips, for instance, or the jewels she wears—and by fragmenting her image, masters it. Freud writes that “the fetish is a substitute for the woman’s (mother’s) phallus which the little boy once believed in and does not wish to forego,” for if her phallus has been taken from her, his own—his power—is equally at risk.[20] For men, looking at women, despite its pleasures, retains this fearful subconscious possibility; the development of a fetish in relation to the looked-at woman, however, resolves it. Hence the disembodied, fetishized mouth of Deep Throat, filled with diamond-like crystals, yet another fetish object; hence the cologne bottle in the Tom Ford ad, which literally conceals the woman’s lack of phallus; and, more broadly, the “fetishistic scopophilia” of all three images, which emphasize “the physical beauty of the object, transforming it into something satisfying in itself.”[21] With their vivid, lavishly beautiful surfaces and their fragmentation of the sexualized female body, Minter’s own artworks do invite a sort of fetishized looking, an æsthetic-erotic mode of looking which, as Berger argues, is written into much of art history, and which Mulvey suggests reaches a sort of apotheosis in Hollywood cinema, the so-called “factory of women”; yet the works’ over-the-top visual effects nonetheless require a self-aware gaze, one that incorporates, in their display as art works, an awareness of the fetishistic nature of looking at, and through, a screen.[22] The freeze-frame appearance of Blow Job and Deep Throat, and the step, in both works, away from the instantaneity of the photographic screen and into painting, provide a crucial pause into which critical analysis enters.

Furthermore, Minter’s work is symptomatic of two major features of postmodernism: “the transformation of reality into images [and] the fragmentation of time into a series of perpetual presents.”[23] In narrative cinema, a woman’s visual presence “freeze[s] the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.” The three of Minter’s works examined here represent that frozen moment of eroticized looking.[24] From a psychoanalytic perspective, “the fact of fetishization, concealing as it does castration fear, freezes the look, fixates the spectator” and preserves the illusion of the cinematic or, in Minter’s case, photographic spectacle.[25] The sexual fetish itself, in fact, comes into being as a means of preserving illusion, sustaining a momentary image: “Interest is held up at a certain point—what is possibly the last impression received before the uncanny traumatic one is preserved as a fetish.”[26] Likewise, fetishistic scopophilia “can exist outside linear time as the erotic instinct is focused on the look alone.”[27] The look freezes visual experience into an image outside of time, much as the camera captures it in a photograph.

This freezing is accompanied, in all three works, by a fragmentation and abstraction of the female body: all three are cropped close around a particular, sexualized body part (the pubic region, the mouth), and in Deep Throat and Blow Job, Minter also plays with the abstracting effects of light and focus. Paralleling these techniques, fetish, as a means of avoiding castration anxiety, breaks the seen woman into parts: “That desire clings not to the whole body, but to portions of the body, is the essence of fetishistic desire.”[28] Only when “stylized and fragmented by close-ups” can the female body body achieve perfection before the male gaze.[29] Fragmentation flattens; it disembodies; it offers pieces or things to be mastered in place of a coherent, dynamic whole to be understood. (Similar fragmentation is also at work in what Debord calls the “spectacle” of contemporary capitalist society: “The real consumer can only get his hands on a succession of fragments of this commodity heaven—fragments each of which naturally lacks any of the quality ascribed to the whole.”[30]) For Minter, abstraction serves both æsthetic and critical ends. While the more straightforward advertisement explicitly parodies itself to reveal the absurdities of its genre’s representational conventions, the ideological position beneath her own work is less clear, simultaneously drawn to æsthetic pleasure and overwhelmed, even repulsed, by art’s less recognizable traditions of commodity fetishism and objectifying women.

The process of freezing and fragmenting the image, at work in these three pieces by Marilyn Minter, correspond to the freezing or collapse of time in sexual fetishism and advertising, and to the objectification of women through their fetishized images. Just as advertising advocates “pleasure in this life,” yet never wholly rewards the desire for pleasure that it instigates, the pleasures of Minter’s photographs and painting—their textural surfaces and bright colors, their glimpses of a closed fantasy world of luxury and sex—remain just out of reach for the viewer.[31] Faced with the object, the hollow image of pleasure, the viewing- and desiring-subject “finds himself torn between, on the one hand, the ‘ever more,’ a demand for jouissance and, on the other, something insatiable, in the sense that, no matter what he does, this jouissance will never be good,” or good enough.[32] For sexual lust and capitalism both function according to the logic of desire: the satisfaction of desire, its resolution, must be perpetually deferred in order to maintain desire itself, as well as the systems it reinforces. By extension, then, the relationship of sexual fetishism to desire, as a substitution of the part or fragment for the whole, corresponds to the fetishization of the object, the commodity, in a capitalist economy, to the extent that “one is justified in wondering whether the idea of clinical fetishism still has sense in a world submerged by objects… The fetishistic perversion has become the norm, a fetishism which no longer aims strictly toward a part of the body, but is extended to manufactured goods.”[33] As media, the advertisement, the photograph and the Hollywood film form the basis of the “manufactured goods” of the culture industry; as reference points deconstructed in Minter’s work, they reflect the ways in which mass culture reinforces capitalism’s inequities—economic, social, sexual and otherwise—and, in the works’ visual exaggerations of the norms of these media, reveal the excesses of that system. Blow Job, which in its medium is somewhat distanced from mechanically reproducible mass culture, nonetheless reaffirms capitalist exchange in its status as a painted, and thus re-mystified (from the de-mystified photographic original, in a Benjaminian formulation) and easily commodified art object. In all three pieces, Minter establishes a sort of critical complicity which simultaneously admits the allure of capitalist luxury and fetishistic display and reveals the problematic inequalities inherent in both.

[1] John Berger, Ways of Seeing (New York: Penguin Books, 1977), 153.

[2] Karl Marx, Capital Volume I, Trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin Books, 1990), 125.

[3] Ibid., 169.

[4] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (New York: Zone Books, 1995), 26, 32.

[5] Berger, 87.

[6] Jean Baudrillard, “Absolute Advertising, Ground-Zero Advertising,” Simulacra and Simulation, Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 91.

[7] Berger, 132.

[8] Ibid., 140-1.

[9] Baudrillard, 90.

[10] Frederic Jameson, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society,” The Cultural Turn (New York: Verso, 1998), 2.

[11] Baudrillard, 87.

[12] Jameson, 20.

[13] Ibid., 20.

[14] Berger, 144.

[15] Jameson, 19.

[16] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16.3 (Autumn 1975): 1, accessed 4 January 2011.

[17] Ibid., 5.

[18] Berger, 47.

[19] Mulvey, 7.

[20] Sigmund Freud, “Fetishism (1927),” Trans. Joan Riviere, Sexuality and the Psychology of Love (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963) 205.

[21] Mulvey, 7.

[22] Gérard Wajcman, “Tarantino’s Girls: Hypermodern fetishism,” Trans. Marcus Andersson with Antonio Cuccu, Lacanian Ink 37 (Spring/Summer 2011): 92.

[23] Jameson, 20.

[24] Mulvey, 5.

[25] Ibid., 11.

[26] Freud, 207.

[27] Mulvey, 7.

[28] Wajcman, 81.

[29] Mulvey, 8.

[30] Debord, 43.

[31] Ibid., 38.

[32] Wajcman, 91.

[33] Ibid., 87.


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