Back in the 1800s, white audiences loved watching white people dress up in blackface to portray black people in insulting stereotypical situations. Fortunately, in the 21st century, such forms of amusement are no longer seen as amusing.
Except, that is, if you’re trying to sell a product. Then, it’s apparently acceptable to portray gay men as comic stereotypes, used solely to attract attention.
Since 2007, clothing retailer Reitmans has been running TV commercials that spotlight two “fashion designers” named Albert and Armand. In the early years of the campaign, the two were used to contrast extravagant, impractical haute couture against Reitmans’ sensible styles for plus-size-to-petite women.
In one of the commercials, Albert and Armand do the commentary as a model in a fabulous bird-themed outfit festooned with feathers and boa is swarmed by a flock of pigeons. A women dressed in a dull-as-dishwater Reitmans cardigan is left alone by the pigeons, and one assumes, pretty much everyone else.
Of course, all this is good fun. And adding to the hilarity are the two outrageous poufs, Albert and Armand. Albert is Asian, slight, wears pretentious glasses and has a high, mincing voice with very limp wrists. Armand is French, husky, bald, wears pretentious glasses and ascots and is given to pursing his lips and gesturing dramatically. In short, Central Casting’s quintessential “gay men.”
First, we have to ask ourselves why a clothing store for matronly women would feature queers in its commercials. The answer seems obvious enough. They’re fashion designers, and all fashion designers are gay. But of course, for the two men to “read” as fashion designers, they have to be portrayed as “obviously” gay. Otherwise, the suburban female target audience might see them as attractive “real” men, and that would totally confuse the message.
So the question then becomes how gay should these guys be? And clearly, the answer was über-gay! Unforgettably gay! Punch-line gay!
According to the advertising agency that created the commercials, Albert and Armand are fashion lovers with good taste. They’re the kind of guys who’ll say to a female friend, “You look good, girl.”
Ah, so that’s the strategy. Use over-the-top gay men to attract aging fag hags. Who knew that target audience was big enough for Reitmans to bother with?
Actually, there’s another niche market these commercials could have targeted. Since gay men definitely notice these commercials — either responding with cries of anguished embarrassment or guffaws of internalized homophobia— Reitmans could have used the ads to attract drag queens. However, all that trashing of truly delicious catwalk fashion in favour of frumpy Reitmans frocks certainly doesn’t endear the store to crossdressers, except, perhaps, Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman.
In reality, the whole “fashion designer” thing is a red herring. Albert and Armand are in these commercials solely as comic devices. “Let’s get laughs by showing some major swishing, prancing, flaming and camping.” It doesn’t matter if such depictions objectify and dehumanize gay men, making us feel like inadequate, inconsequential buffoons. It doesn’t matter that such depictions set us back to a time when we were habitually represented by such characters as Mr Humphries on the British TV series Are You Being Served?
The fact that this campaign has been running for close to five years means that almost nobody has complained about it. If any other minority group were to be portrayed in such a stereotypical fashion, the campaign would have been pulled within weeks. But it’s not too late. If you find these ads insulting and hurtful, let Reitmans know by calling 1-866-REITMAN. All it takes is a few thoughtful critical comments and the curtain will finally fall on this long-running minstrel show.