There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

For decades, the way women appeared in advertisements was dictated by men. But now female photographers and creatives are changing the rules - as the new exhibition shows. Alice Jones meets the Mad Women
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The Independent Culture

Remember the Pregnant Man? The black and white advertisement for the Family Planning Association featured a man cradling his swollen belly and the caption "Would you be more careful if it was you that got pregnant?" Striking, memorable, a little shocking, it made the name of a fledgling Saatchi & Saatchi in 1970. To this day, the private pub at the advertising agency's London headquarters is called the Pregnant Man.

This week the pub's exterior will get a feminist makeover for the 21st century, in the form of a giant billboard which spells out "There's a Good Girl" in hundreds and thousands. The piece is by Alison Carmichael, a typographer whose work has appeared in campaigns for everything from McDonald's to Special K. Meanwhile, the lobby of the offices at 80 Charlotte Street will be converted into a gallery, exhibiting, among other things, Alison Jackson's apparently candid dressing-room snapshot of Kanye West helping to squeeze Kim Kardashian into a pair of Spanx, a short film by Mary Nighy about an ageing Debbie Harry-type on tour and a flying Hoover made by Soozy Lipsey.

They are some of the 20 works in a new exhibition, There's a Good Girl, which has its private view at Saatchi & Saatchi tonight before opening to the public at the Assembly Rooms gallery in Soho on Monday. Jo Wallace, 37, a creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi, curated the show with the help of other female members of staff including art director Suzie Quill, Shelley Dobson, Global Head of Beauty, and Lee Sharrock, Director of Global Creative PR. "Female creative directors are thinner on the ground. It is changing but it's an ongoing conversation", says Wallace. "It's certainly not Mad Men anymore."

Working with the career network VivaWomen, Wallace set out to celebrate female creative talent whose work crosses the art/ advertising divide. Among those featured are the creative director and pâtissiere, Miss Cakehead, artists Natasha Law and Pam Glew, Vice photographer Arvida Byström, film director Kathryn Ferguson and Rhea Thierstein, a set designer known for her work with the fashion photographer, Tim Walker.

"We commission artists, directors, photographers, illustrators and typographers all the time. I thought it would be really interesting to get them to do something that wasn't to a commercial brief for once," says Wallace. "Let them do whatever they wanted." The only guidance they were given was the show's title. There's a Good Girl comes from the 1988 international bestseller by Marianne Grabrucker in which she records the first three years of her daughter's life and her attempts to raise her in a non-gendered way.

The loose brief has inspired a broad spread of ideas and images of the female experience in the 21st century. Many of the works subvert the imagery traditionally associated with women and advertising – domestic appliances and baking, fashion and body parts, like big red lips. Glew, whose anti-war screenprint of an Afghan girl on the American flag appeared on the front of Le Monde, has printed the face of Vogue editor Anna Wintour onto the Stars and Stripes, while Miss Cakehead has baked a terrifying creation, iced with fake blood and cherry skulls. Titled "When I'm good, I'm very good, but when I'm bad, I'm better", it sums up her punkish attitude to clients. "If people don't like it, then I am doing exactly the right thing", she says. "Those turned off by [it] are depriving themselves of an incredible piece of cake."

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‘Hovering Between the Two’ (2014) by Soozy Lipsey (Courtesy of Saatchi & Saatchi/Soozy Lipsey)

Each artist has also picked out their favourite piece of commercial work in an accompanying catalogue. The photographer Veronique Rolland is most proud of working on Dove's "Real Women" campaign, while Law picks out a set of illustrations she did for Mulberry and Jackson a campaign for notonthehighstreet.com featuring the Queen and family doing a Royal selfie. Nancy Fouts has drawn a physical link between the commercial work she did in the past and her artwork now. In the 1970s, she worked as a model-maker and concept designer, most memorably creating the look of the Silk Cut campaigns. For the exhibition, she has adapted an iron she made for a 1988 advert which had spikes protruding from its base, ready to tear through the famous purple silk. Now, instead of spikes it has fairy lights bordering an image of the Virgin Mary that has been burned into the base – an ironic take on the domestic goddess.

These days, says Fouts, Photoshop does most of the work she used to do. "There was no chance of a retouch back then," she says. "That's the big difference." Retouching is a controversial practice though. "We're not going to retouch something to the point of it looking too fiddled with," says Wallace. "Campaigns like Dove's went a long way to changing that. We're accused of putting out images that are unobtainable but it's difficult because you want it to be aspirational – that's what advertising is."

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'Babe, No' (2014) by Hattie Stewart (Courtesy of Saatchi & Saatchi/Hattie Stewart)

As Kathryn Ferguson's short film spells out – on the jiggling bottoms of cheerleaders – sex sells. "Rear Guard" is a response to the hypersexualised women she saw in pop videos like "Blurred Lines" and fashion advertising. As a graduate in 2009, she worked on a fashion video with Lady Gaga. "There was a positive message in it somewhere, but I haven't worked with anyone like that for a long time… There's been a huge shift in how I've been working as a female image-maker in the last five or six years."

As a curator for the "Fashion Loves Film" strand at the Birds Eye View film festival, Ferguson came across other female directors and talked to them about their experiences. "There are huge issues. As a director you get asked to do quite absurd things whether it's stretching your models or, god forbid, whitening them." She is now making her first documentary about the Northern Irish abortion laws, and is film-maker in residence for Selfridges. The way women appear in advertising is changing, she says. "We've had a collective light bulb moment. We were so conditioned as to what a fashion image was because it was shot through the male gaze for so many decades. Now there are more female practitioners shooting the female form for the female consumer it makes sense for it to be done in a very different way."

There's a Good Girl, 1 to 19 December, Assembly Rooms, London W1F (www.theassemblyrooms.tv/gallery/)

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