The traditional Western woman would not wear the mark of the warrior, the war paint, or other decorative markings. but, in the idealized world of the advertisement, a woman can as well be a warrior for a cause, as man a soldier for that in which he believes. As well, gender is used to contrast the softness and over-refinement of a highly technological and industrial world with the rigors of everyday life in the African environment. Here also, the message is that traditional gender roles must be abandoned if we are to become one; if we are to recognize our genuine and universal heritage. This heritage is symbolized by the naked purity of the African tope.
An Ideological Description:
Beyond its gendered and Eurocentric vs. Afrocentric text, the advertisement carries a very powerful subtext about the need for all of us to recognize our "Africanness." Gwyneth Paltrow is a Western woman who declares that she too is African. Furthermore, she is a celebrity, a figure of note, in contemporary Western popular culture. By willingly shedding her "normal" identity she demonstrates a need for change that should be shared by us all. And though famous, she stands alone in the frame. No other individual intrude, it is just Paltrow making her decision without interference and without the help of the ever present "other." Again, it is the voice of unity that speaks out above the arguments in favor of division. The choice to become African is one of conscience and individual choice. It is a deeply personal matter that does not require adherence to fashion or trends. Stripped of her clothing, jewelry, and other Western finery, the naked white woman is at heart a Black African of indeterminate gender. There is no difference between the races, no real barriers, between human beings of different ethnicities and genders.
The significance of artificially constructed barriers between individuals is one of the most important messages conveyed by the advertisement. Paltrow's nakedness underscores the need to put aside structures of power so that human beings can come together. A naked human being is a defenseless human being. Human beings possess none of the intrinsic "weapons" of the animal kingdom. They have no clues nor sharp teeth, nor other means of readily defending themselves. Shorn of the armor of civilization, they must unite against the common enemies they face, and work together as one to build a better world. Inborn human values are presented as natural and normative. The simple ornaments of an African man or woman are represented as more than sufficient even for a woman of high standing and wealth, such as Gwyneth Paltrow. Expensive clothes, costly jewelry and cosmetics, and all of the other artifices that go together to create the "civilized" human being" are attributes of an alien Western world. Here it is the Eurocentric cladding that is unnatural and alien. Were these attributes to intrude into the scene, they would mar the view. For these reasons, too, the actress is shown against a background that is devoid of any form or color. Our lives are what we make of them, and Western civilization shapes our lives in ways that are grossly at odds with what is natural and reasonably and ideally expected.
In contrast to most other advertisements, it is not a product that Gwyneth Paltrow pitches. She is not selling merchandise, but rather ideas. These ideas are the "new," old values that will save our planet and our people. Human beings exist and thrive only as long as they recognize their real place in the universe. We are not the inevitable center. We are not the mistresses or masters of a world that exists for us, and is created by our efforts. We, like the simple women and men of Africa, share our planet with a multitude of species and natural forces. Naked and alone, we are nothing against these powerful forces, but together, and with the unnecessary attributes of civilization removed, we are stronger and more genuine. We must change our ways... now.
Boehm, Christopher. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
From the Tour: Titian and the Late Renaissance in Venice." The Collection, National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2006. URL: http://www.nga.gov/collection/gallery/gg23/gg23-1226.0.html.