TV Ad: Woman Conducts an Orchestra in Her Underwear

Above: Conductor Marin Alsop’s speech at the final night of the 2013 BBC Proms. Alsop was the first woman ever to conduct the prestigious Last Night of the Proms.

I was intrigued upon viewing this recent TV ad for women’s underwear.

Okay, it’s a preposterous notion: a woman conducting an orchestra while standing the podium in her underwear. I know, I know – never say never, but I’m pretty comfortable projecting that most of us will likely never see anything like this in an actual live orchestral performance (God willing). So the ad’s just having a bit of fun, and we need not take it too seriously, right?

Here’s a different reading. At one point in time the very notion of a woman conducting an orchestra at all – even fully clothed – was so outlandish to some that it took a long time to take hold, and with some people, it apparently still hasn’t. During the last year or so, three prominent male conductors incited international outcry with sexist remarks against women conductors in the abstract. Here’s a digest of those remarks:

  • Yuri Temirkanov, artistic director and chief conductor of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, told the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta that women were inappropriate candidates for conductors because “the essence of the conducting profession is strength. The essence of a woman is weak.” (His remarks are quoted and translated here by New Yorker music critic Alex Ross.)
  • On the eve of beginning his first season as chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra,Vasily Petrenko told Norway’s Aftenposten that “a sweet girl on the podium can make one’s thoughts drift towards something else.”
  • In an interview on France Musique, Bruno Mantovani, director of the Paris Conservatoire, spoke of what he called the “maternity problem,” and went on to say that “a conductor’s job is physically demanding. Sometimes women are disheartened by the physical aspect – conducting, flying, conducting again is quite demanding.” (Mantovani’s remarks are translated into English on Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog here.)

To put things is a bit of perspective, I will add here that these remarks took place in the year leading up to the final night of the 2013 BBC Proms, at which Marin Alsop became the first woman to conduct the prestigious final concert of the Proms.

At least two of the three male conductors who issued these remarks tempered them in later statements, and the original remarks themselves have been decried so vociferously in the international media that we need not dwell on them here. But I do wish to light briefly on the image of a woman conductor which, as more and more women step onto the podium, is still in a fragile stage of formation in the cultural mindset.

A conductor is in a position of power over others and must show masterful control of every detail of her musical preparation and presentation. Reveal a less-than-thorough knowledge of the score, and you’ve lost the respect of your fellow musicians. Show a moment of indecision, and you’ve shattered the authoritarian image the world expects a conductor to embody. Dress or move provocatively on the podium, and suddenly you’re a locker room joke.

The subjects of power and presentation, of course, bring me back to the underwear ad. The implication is that a woman conductor’s sex appeal so overpowers the musicians in the orchestra that they simply can’t resist following her lead. But by showing an attractive woman standing on the podium and in her underwear conducting an orchestra, the ad also suggests that women conductors can earn their place on the podium – and by implication, in positions of authority in the professional world writ large – by way of their sexual power, rather than by way of their musical and leadership expertise.

In reality, of course, precisely the opposite is true (note the conductors’ remarks above). If, as one of those conductors said, a fully clothed woman conductor would make orchestra musicians’ minds “drift towards other things,” then surely a woman conducting in high heels and bikini briefs would be out of the question, wouldn’t she?

Of course, I know nothing of the advertisers’ intentions – beyond selling underwear – in conceiving and creating this ad, and I certainly attribute to them no sinister motivations. And one could conceivably argue that the underwear ad above shows a confident-looking woman in a position of power normally ascribed only to men, and that for this reason the ad gives women conductors a platform on which to be seen by a world that is mainly used to seeing women excluded from the conductor’s role.

Well, really what the ad is promoting is not a woman in a position of power normally reserved for men, but instead an attractive woman in her underwear. The ad is, after all, trying to sell underwear, not women’s various professional competencies. A different story might be an ad that features a woman conductor – fully clothed – and that promotes, say, a respected financial institution or a top-notch university. I also strongly question imagery that mars the dignity of any human beings by boiling them down to their physical bodies, especially the parts south of the waistband.

These are some of my thoughts. What are some of yours?

Read more:

  • Missing from Podiums: Women (NYT)
  • What Is Classical Music’s Women Problem? (NPR)
  • Women, Gays and Classical Music (The New Yorker)
  • BDL2

    It would seem to me that if, as Maestro Petrenko says, “a sweet girl on the podium can make one’s thoughts drift towards something else,” the problem is not with the “sweet girl on the podium,” but with the musician himself.