Kelly Chuning, Lace Back No-Show Thong 02, 2019, Gum bichromate print with cheek/lip stain, fiberglass insulation, and watercolor pigment, 8 x 10.75 in.
Madonnas, Whores, and Sexy Babies
by Etta Harshaw
The artist Kelly Chuning grew up in a very Christian household, she describes participation in a cult-like sect during her early childhood in Southern California. When, at a young age, Chuning's parents relocated with Kelly and her two sisters to Utah, she was homeschooled, complete with the biblical understanding of the origins of man and creation of the universe. Given this, it is unsurprising that pre-marital sex was considered completely out of the question for the Chuning girls. Despite this parental aversion to their daughters’ sexual freedom, Chuning’s mother would often gift her daughters panties from PINK, the youth oriented subdivision of the lingerie company Victoria’s Secret. Questions arose in Chuning’s young, critical mind: Why was it okay for their mother to give them lingerie, something entirely embedded in sexuality, but not okay for the girls to explore sex? The questions from this experience are what launched Chuning into the series “Pretty Little Things.” The series predates the recent exposès that surround the environment of sexual assault within Victoria’s Secret and it’s connection to Epstein. Rather than focusing on the harmful body standards or the problematic company culture, Chuning questions the practice of sexualized marketing towards young girls.
Chuning’s “Pretty Little Things” are a series of prints that are developed through the gum bichromate printing process. This process uses a mixture of gelatin or arabic gum, potassium dichromate, and pigment. This mixture coats the paper, which, after drying, is exposed to light through a photographic negative. This light exposure hardens the chemical mixture, then the print is washed and the chemicals are rinsed away leaving the positive image. In addition to the ordinary pigment that Chuning uses, watercolor, the artist adds crushed lip/cheek stain and ground fiberglass to enhance the pink color of the prints.
The panties gifted by Chuning’s mother from PINK, Victoria’s Secret branch marketed to tweens and teens, are used to create “Pretty Little Things.” In creating these works, Chuning ponders how a young girl’s self identity - sexuality and purpose - is affected by her positioning as the object of attraction. The ten prints each depict a different pair of underwear, individually titled for the description provided by the distributor; LACE BACK NO-SHOW THONG, LOGO STRAPPY CHEEKSTER, and SO SOFT LACE CHEEKSTER, for example.
In the context of her religious upbringing, perhaps the insinuation of these objects is that girls can be seen as sexually attractive beings, but have to do so passively. A young woman may attract, after all it is her duty to become a wife and bear children, she must portray herself as one desirable. But it is not okay for her to desire sexual experiences outside this expected ultimate heteronormative relationship. One is supposed to want marriage and children, but not to want sex. It is not the desire to have sex, but to be their eventual husband’s partner for the purpose of procreation. Sex is positioned as the pleasure and desire of a man and the purpose of a woman. An act to be committed once a woman has been accepted, at the discretion of a man. Under this point of view, women play a passive role in sex and desire — sex is never for the woman.
PINK in some ways stands in opposition to its giftor’s ideals in this situation. Clearly the brand encourages the pursuit of sexual activity, but it is not for the goal of sexual pleasure, but for larger social acceptance. The essence of PINK’s marketing strategy is “FOMO” — the fear of missing out. Its goal, as described by its owner Lex Wesner, is to make the young woman afraid that she will never be able to achieve attractiveness if she does not participate in the events, social media campaigns, and especially the consumption of products from PINK. She becomes afraid that she is at a disadvantage for achieving what feels like an ultimate goal for young women, the goal of being the object of attraction, if she does not succumb to this consumption of fetishized material. They are meant to feel like something is wrong or missing if they do not participate in this sexual culture. Among others, they invoke the fear of missing the margin for their sexual prime. Young women are meant to feel as though they should be sexy to fit in with their peers. This marketing tactic positions proper socialization as something intertwined with sexuality and attractiveness. Both the Christian mother and the lingerie magnate rely on the concept that girls ultimately have no control in their journey to fulfill their sexual purpose.
PINK attacks from both ends; not only does their advertising target young audiences to encourage the consumption of their sexual products, but they also work to embed aspects of childhood with sexual innuendo. Not only are girls pressured to act more sexually mature than their age would suggest is appropriate, but innocent acts from childhood are constantly drawn into a sexual perspective. Looks from the PINK section of the infamous Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show have included elaborate lingerie ensembles that implicate childish behavior as sexual. One look from 2005 included stuffed Sweetheart candies, that typically remind one of a kindergarten valentine, spilling out of the bra and panties, creating a cornucopia of infantilism and sexual desire. In 2009 one model recalls wearing a cape and top hat of balloons which she felt uncomfortably targeted children. 2012 marked a particularly problematic year with one look featuring handlebars with streamers and a basket, as if plucked from a tricycle, another look with pinwheel “wings,” and most explicit of all, one outfit with a cage-like skirt made of the children’s Makit wood construction toy. The model is imprisoned in a display case, a physical manifestation of an infantile framework to sex and the sexualized body. Tiptoeing towards pedophilia, PINK provokes the problematic idea of the “sexy baby”
While PINK is possibly the most obvious brand to use the sexy baby trope to their advantage, the brand is certainly not the first to recognize the phenomenon. The idea is visited in season 5 of 30 Rock when a visiting comedian invokes the judgment of main character Liz Lemon for her utilization of childlike behavior for sexual attention, as Lemon sees it. Most recently, Taylor Swift references the concept in the opening line of her song Anti-Hero, singing “sometimes I feel like everybody is a sexy baby, and I’m a monster on the hill.” Swift describes a complex engagement with the idea. At once she sees it as problematic and deviates from it, but also feels that in doing so, she puts herself at a disadvantage — she takes herself out of the possible realm of attractiveness, even demonizes herself in avoiding this pedophilic ideal. The sexy baby is a difficult term to define as it is contradictory and has only recently been coined in popular culture. One of the ways the sexy baby can be recognized as the occupation of both ends of the hot-cute spectrum; it is when one is both as young and as sexual as possible. Another explanation is that she is the love child of the titular characters of the Madonna-Whore Complex, both modestly innocent and overtly sexual. The integral aspect of the sexy baby is that she is so inept, so helpless, she has to rely on a big strong daddy to help her. This is an extreme fetishization of patriarchal views in which not only adult women but also tweens and teenagers are dependent upon men for protection and as a vehicle for males sexual gratification
To return to the artist’s dilemma, perhaps Chuning’s mother is gifting these products as some deeply closeted attempt to adhere to the sexy baby ideal, and a less-deeply closeted attempt to adhere to the patriarchal idea that women are dependent on men. Perhaps these gifts were well intended, a hope for her daughters to appeal, to garner this sexual power within themselves without having sex. The goal is to be wanted and in doing so society has allocated that sexiness must fit in this slim time margin (after all, studies show that the perceived attractiveness of women peaks at 18) without actually granting women the freedom to have sex.