A perfume advertisement is the last place you would expect to encounter a woman who dismisses her conventional role in an effort to free herself from the mundane normalised behaviour of the “beautiful girl” in “high society.” However, the daring team behind the (2017) Kenzo World perfume managed to achieve this performance; starring modern shero Margaret Qualley who literally levitates into an intricately composed floral eye, destroying the foliage and triumphantly emerging with petals wading around her. This is a critical review of the advertisement’s brilliance and a counter attack on the criticism and poorly evaluated reviews the production has received. This article will also expose the hypocrisy of western mainstream media in light of current grandeur attempts by society to bring about gender equality.
Director Spike Jonze opens the production at a corporate event. The camera zooms in on Margaret Qualley seated at an elegantly decorated table covered in pink flowers surrounded by other guests smiling and laughing at the distant sound of a man speaking. Qualley’s facial expressions fight her efforts to stay engaged towards the speaker but she loses the battle to her real emotions of complete boredom, frustration and isolation. We have all been in this position, be it at work, a party or among a crowd we don’t particularly want to keep company with. Qualley makes an excuse to escape and as she walks away from the event she is seen perhaps contemplating her next move. She exhales as she places her hands on her waist, her beautiful green dress designed by Carol Lim and Humberto Leon (artistic directors of the Kenzo brand) and lets her hands fall down her dress. She wipes a tear from her cheek and takes a moment and searches with her eyes until she finally looks at us and realises she has a plan.
She begins by dancing with her eyes, excitable and frantic winks, grins and smirks. She has taken on the identity of a playful mischievous character. The “eye” symbolising many facets of society like the male gaze, and ideology is the central focus of the piece. Qualley’s character is determined to wake herself up mentally and release herself from her social confinements which she does physically by frantically shaking her body as the vocals led by dancehall artist Assassin begin. The choice of using dancehall music is also an important aspect of the video, for dancehall was founded on rebellious and provocative sounds and the dance styles that emerged from this movement encouraged women to dance with a sense of liberation. Choreographer, Ryan Heffington deliberately fuses contemporary African derived dance styles to clash with Western classical choreography in an attempt to demonstrate the juxtaposition between dancing as a means of freedom and dancing to maintain control over the body. Qualley is a classically trained dancer, which makes it all the more scandalous that she chooses to use the venue and her body as her very own playground to create different shapes and characters.
Prowling through the corridors, using every opportunity to stretch and twist every limb including playful moments with a screen of mirrors Qualley encounters a statue of an old wrinkled male head. She mocks the imposing symbol of patriarchy and institutionalism by frantically shaking her hands, pulling faces and placing her hands all over the statue ridding it of its importance, breaking the sacred space that is the distance between the artist and the art. And in one hilarious act of defiance she rejects its symbolism by licking its head.
Revelling in her freedom, Qualley thunders up the staircase, her body roaring in synchronicity with Assassin's chants. Halfway up the stairs she continues to play with the mirrors, symbolising her ability to seize every moment to her advantage and a little further up the staircase she waves the beautiful dress at her knees doing a straightened but quicker version of popular Jamaican dance “the butterfly”. Her rhythm is sound and her smile has become more present. Demonstrating her new found sense of empowerment Qualley becomes more regimented in her movements. She become a fighter and every few steps before she notices a man in the middle of a phone call who has also escaped the event. In a stylized and comical encounter, Qualley wins and soldiers on as a renegade bringing her gun fingers to life destroying artefacts as she stomps down another corridor. In Jamaican dancehall culture “gun fingers” are part of communal dance style which acts as a salute or as a symbol of power and respect. Though Qualley is disrespecting her space (the venue) she takes power over it and finds a mutual respect in the man who she play fights with during his phone call, flexing her muscles after to show her strength.
The comedy doesn’t end. She can’t control herself. Her laughter bursts through her spirit as if her freedom is escaping from the dress itself, which catches the air in every bold movement she makes. She makes comical gestures leading towards the stage and as the spotlight follows her she arches back and shakes her torso as she did when she first started her performance at the very beginning. By drawing on this movement again and on the stage she is embracing her freedom and flaunting her confidence. Her bow off the stage is nothing less than phenomenal, she pirouettes and elevates her beautiful limbs dancing in a ballet/ contemporary style before fearlessly leaning back and dropping off the stage. Resurrected, the classical movements continue, she leaps and bounds out of the door and towards the eye. As she does show she hunches her shoulders in a way which would horrify ballet teachers, and even builds up the momentum to execute a no handed free cartwheel. Her face vulgar, her hair falling out of its bun. She pounds her chest like a wild animal, she expels every painful memory from her body and finally in slow mo takes off into the eye, floating through the confettied iris. Her landing is gentle, she composes herself and in all her glory pounds her chest in triumph and ends with a smile.
Unfortunately, Kenzo World’s new world was not too popular with the general public. It was clear from social media reviews that the general audience were flooded with confusion and distaste for the advert. While some found it amusing a great many viewers were distressed at the “strange” behaviour displayed by Qualley (released in the UK in April 2017). This is a surprise considering that the UK has substantially increased its efforts to demonstrate a greater sense of gender equality and the breaking up of gender stereotypes through public demonstrations and including numerous pride parades, and efforts to clamp down on sexist references on television. Considering there had been such backlash against advertisements that use photoshopping techniques and a clear standardisation of beauty and gender roles it seemed as though viewers would have preferred a production featuring a sexually ostentatious indulgent body of pretentious montages from the male gaze. In short, the scrutiny Kenzo World received was hypocritical.
Reviews which seemingly championed the ad unfortunately fell short of highlighting the important nuances that captured the integrity of the piece. For example, The Huffington Post referenced “the male lead of sorts” (Wallwork, E. 2016) to make him a central part of the production, however this implies that the person in the playfight was an equally important character even though he was merely used for a moment of interaction as were the audience members at the introducing sequence sitting around Qualley. The same article also makes the mistake of comparing the advert to another which also featured playful eyebrow movements. Not only does this reduce the importance of the focus of the eye but such reviews have failed to recognise the importance of the advert, especially when using words to describe Qualley like “polite” and “graceful”.
The UK Advertising Standards Authority recently declared a nationwide crackdown on gender stereotyping in advertising. The Guardian revealed they had named various culprits in the commercial world (mainly including perfume adverts) which frequently feature a specific sexualised femininity using a specific type of women. The illusion of perfection in gender is supposedly under threat, but the general reaction to adverts which push the boundaries are clear signs that the reviewers may not be ready for change. Kenzo has truly leapt into a brave new world leaving many behind.