Cigarette ads are the fetish films of hype. In order to overcome the instinct for self-preservation, they must conjure up the most primal fantasies of vitality, and they do it by cracking the codes of sexual allure. Take the latest Camel campaign. Tapping into the retro mode—so resonant for people who’ve never had to live through the era being revived—these ads feature frails (as women were called by the ‘greatest generation’) drifting through a Vargas dream of dressing to regress. But the pulpy core of this campaign is the Camel ad starring a sailor just home from the Big One and savoring his victory with a smile as big as the empire he’s ready to claim. Among his holdings is a woman who worshipfully offers him a light. She stands at least a foot below him, and from this perspective it’s possible to imagine a time when men were giants and sizzling women lit their fire.
Tiny gals and towering guys read as retro because they evoke a reality that no longer exists—an age when men ruled and the culture paid them homage. Peruse old movie posters and you’ll see that the men are usually much taller than the women, even though some of the dreamiest heartthrobs were actually shorter than the godesses they romanced. At 5’6″, Alan Ladd reportedly had to stand on a box to do his love scenes. At 5’8″, Humphrey Bogart was only two inches taller than Ingrid Bergman, yet in ads for Casablanca it’s more like half a head.
This sleight of height was easy to accomplish in an era when movie ads were nearly always drawn. But little has changed in the digital age. Now it’s easy to give short men a Photoshop makeover by stretching the forehead or fluffing up the hair; easier still to make willowy women seem petite by repositioning their bodies in relation to a man. So what if this makes Woody Allen look like a Conehead or Kim Basinger seem like Shirley Temple on steroids: No one looks closely at a movie ad.
Check out the popcorn promos in today’s paper. In nearly every romantic drama or comedy, the guy will be taller than the girl. Differences in height that would turn heads on the street go unnoticed in these ads. In Whatever It Takes, for example, two men loom over midgetized women, a perspective that would only be possible if they stood 20 yards apart. Even in movies where the sexes seem equally matched, there are subtle reminders that they really aren’t. Measure the guns that nearly always grace ads for action films and you’ll see that the biggest or highest-held rod belongs to the alpha male, and that his height trumps men and women alike.
But don’t these differences correspond to real life? Yes and no. The average American woman is three to five inches shorter than the average man, but that doesn’t mean all women are short or that couples in which the woman is taller are rare. Yet the rules of size apply even when they bear no relationship to reality. When a leading man is shorter than his female costar, the best defense is to have him stand alone, hedging the question of height. This is why 5’6″ Al Pacino is usually shown as a loner. It’s either that or render actors as disembodied heads. Their placement on the page ostensibly reflects their billing, but it also replicates the social order with uncanny precision—as in the ad for Sphere in which Dustin Hoffman (5’5″) looms above Sharon Stone (5’7″) and an even smaller Samuel Jackson (6’3″).
Taking the measure of short actors and tall actresses is not an easy task—their height is virtually classified. But an online investigation found glaring examples of stature fraud in movie ads. At six feet, Geena Davis is two inches taller than Michael Keaton, but in an ad for Speechless she only comes up to his hairline, and when they kiss, her lips are below his. Even when ads reflect the true height of performers, the difference is nearly always maximized to favor the male. In the poster for Shakespeare in Love, six-foot Joseph Fiennes kisses the upturned forehead of Gwyneth Paltrow, who actually stands only two inches shorter.
The only time a woman is taller than her male costar is when she’s white and he’s black. In ads for The Long Kiss Goodnight, Geena Davis stands above Samuel L. Jackson, who is actually three inches taller. In Courage Under Fire, 5’8″ Meg Ryan trumps 6’2″ Denzel Washington—even though he has top billing. The most extreme discrepancies occur between men of different races. In an ad for Lethal Weapon 3, 5’9″ Mel Gibson appears just a trace shorter than Danny Glover, who is actually seven inches taller.
This leads to an obvious conclusion: Movie ads do not reflect the laws of nature. Like cigarette ads, they’re meant to stoke the libido, which is why size counts so much in both.
At a time when women are gaining power, why do we still need to see them as shorter than men? You might as well ponder why the bodies of superheroes—not to mention athletes—have become preternaturally bulky as women emerge in sports. The image of the conquering male is all the more powerful in fantasy since it seems so tenuous in life.
It’s easy to argue that this archaic reverie is rooted in the human psyche. Sex is, after all, a matter of emotional expectations tied to physical facts. But if we’re hardwired to see men as taller than women, why do we also need to see whites as taller than blacks? The answer suggests that fantasies of stature have less to do with the essentials of sexuality than with making social status seem sexy.
Of course, the ad with the conquering sailor and his adoring broad doesn’t deal with race. In the world of retro, women exist to complement men—and black men don’t exist at all. That’s the ultimate whiteboy fantasy.
Research: Josh Lefkowitz