Advertising’s ritualistic display of the female body to communicate powerlessness is also accomplished when women stand with what Goffman labels “the bashful knee-bend.” He calls these “canting” postures - meaning the body is tilted – positions that take the body away from being upright and perpendicular and places people off - center. In fact, as with the other submissive positions, “the bashful knee-bend” projects a sense of the woman as ungrounded, less than fully prepared to react quickly and firmly to her surroundings. As Goffman writes: “Once again, one finds a posture that seems to presuppose the goodwill of anyone in the surround who could offer harm.”
This posture is ubiquitous across our media landscape, so much so that it seems to define a core aspect of femininity. And once again, the posture has also been sexualized in the process, reinforcing yet again the notion that female sexuality is equated with submission and deference.
Variations of this canting posture include the crossed leg position, which has the same effect of putting women into a defenseless posture, again presupposing that there is no danger in the surroundings. Similarly, women are posed holding their feet, or the heel of a shoe, once more leaving them off-balance, teetering, ungrounded, and precarious – as they stand on one leg, vulnerable and defenseless. And then there is the head cant, the head repeatedly leaning to one side, as women – rather than holding their heads up high, upright, and firm – are posed again and again with their heads in tilted and awkward positions, bent and angled – once again, off-balance and de-centered.
An extension of this has the torso of the body itself being twisted and bent away from the vertical. Goffman argues that all of these head and body canting configurations leave women in a position where they seem utterly defenseless and, in this way, can be read as both an expression and acceptance of subordination, of ingratiation, submissiveness, and appeasement.
The coy over-the-shoulder look, where the head is twisted to the side or sometimes behind, is also an extension of this body and head canting posture. At the same time, the pose is sexually suggestive, positioning women as the willing recipients of the look coming from someone else.
While the most unnatural, and sometimes even grotesquely contorted, poses struck by female models may make us wonder what is going on in the minds of the creative directors and photographers who position them in these ways, it is perhaps more revealing that, for the most part, we go about our business and don’t even notice these images as being especially strange. It is only when we see them adopted by unusual people – men – that we notice how normal looking are the conventions that link being a woman with powerlessness and submission.
And in perhaps its most extreme expression, the head is lifted upwards, exposing the neck in a vulnerable manner, calling to mind the positions that animals, like dogs, take up when signaling their submission to other aggressive creatures. Outside of the animal kingdom, in the actual human world women inhabit, it clearly signifies that the woman has surrendered her agency within the social world – and accepted her helplessness.
And if there is any doubt that such images carry meaning, consider that the reverse is the very picture of masculine power – the face down and the eyes trained upward from below, suggesting an animal stalking its prey. Once again, the key here is that none of this is biologically determined or predestined. This is simply a story that the culture tells us about how femininity and, by extension, masculinity are to be performed."