Why the fuss over Calvin Klein ads?

Story highlights

  • Recent Calvin Klein advertising campaign featuring shot of Klara Kristin has caused controversy
  • Peggy Drexler: What if the photos are just photos, neither empowering nor degrading?

Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Calvin Klein has been taking a lot of heat for its latest ad campaign, a "racy" series of images shot by female photographer Harley Weir and posted to the brand's Instagram account, with a message asking consumers to reveal what they do in their Calvins.

There's actress Klara Kristin, standing over the camera in a skirt and underwear, "flashing" in her Calvins. There's Kendall Jenner, holding a grapefruit many have likened to a vagina, the accompanying text reading, "I eat in my Calvins." There are hands down pants, exposed butt cracks, crotch shots. There's Justin Bieber, Bieber-ing in his Calvins.
    Some have argued the photos are "sexual and empowering," a body-positive feminist manifesto. Others have claimed that they're creepy and disgusting -- "risky and offensive," according to the New York Daily News. ABC News went so far as to title its segment on the controversy "Fashion Porn?" And the accusation that Calvin Klein is peddling pedophilia has also come up. Some suggest the photos are exploiting the models, as if anyone got into modeling not expecting to be looked at. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation has, meanwhile, circulated a petition asking Calvin Klein to "Stop Normalizing and Glamorizing Sexual Harassment."
      Peggy Drexler
      To the question of whether we're making a big deal of nothing, I'd counter-ask: When don't we? Because what if the truth were simpler, and less contentious; the photos are just photos, neither empowering nor degrading, but simply women's (and Bieber's) bodies, nothing any of us hasn't seen before? What if Kendall Jenner's just holding a grapefruit?
      And even if she were holding a grapefruit that resembles a vagina -- what of it? Why is that so shocking, so deplorable? A vagina, after all, isn't dirty. It's not crass. It's a body part, one that all women have. Instead, the protesters of these images seem to be suggesting that there is shame in acknowledging this body part -- not even a real vagina, mind you, but a fruity likeness of one. This, of course, only serves to perpetuate the notion many women already feel: that their bodies are something to feel embarrassed about.
      These days, the private is the public. A vagina is just a vagina. And, well, let's not forget this is an ad for underwear, which everyone wears (at least in theory). Why shouldn't an advertisement meant to encourage consumers to buy said underwear show someone wearing the underwear? That's just good business.
      Beyond that, though, and perhaps most important, is the fact that although it's tempting to stare only at the poor, exploited, hyper-sexualized models in these images -- and describing them as such says as much about us as it does about Calvin Klein -- don't disregard the campaign's words. The language, one might argue, is very clearly designed to put the power in the model's, and the wearer's, hands. "I [kick it] in my Calvins," "I [react] in my Calvins." "I [Bieber] in my Calvins."
      They alone decide what to do in their Calvins, and it's a relevant and powerful declaration in an age of affirmative consent, when we're challenged to teach women to take control of their own bodies and to teach men to understand just who's in charge (hint: It's not them). In that way, these images are empowering and instructive and real.
        So why not look past the crotch shot and try to see the positive in these images largely of, and by, women -- and, just maybe, a little bit of beauty, too?