Thursday, October 23, 2008

Selling Reform, Sex, or Both?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

It’s finally getting cold outside. And having heard from my hipper friends about the wonders of American Apparel, I went to their website with the intention of snagging myself a pair of tights, or maybe a couple of pairs of tube socks, at an exorbitant but guilt-free price.

After all, American Apparel is not just fashionable. The company is famous for its struggle for immigrant rights. Its employees are paid $12 an hour, have access to English-language classes, and receive adequate health care - something virtually unheard of for people who may or may not be legal citizens, and make their living sewing t-shirts. Combined with the irresistible possibility of buying the same t-shirt in 35 colors, and still feeling fashionable, American Apparel is the dream of America’s semi-apathetic youth. We want to feel good about our purchases, but we don’t want to be inconvenienced. American Apparel delivers up a laudable message in the form of a comfy lamé leotard - we can be eccentric, but still conform, and virtuous, but not obnoxiously (read: visibly) so. What could be better?

Needless to say, I was excited for my purchase. But I am still in desperate need of leggings, because when I signed on, credit card in hand, I didn’t make it off American Apparel’s homepage. I was mesmerized by the parade of photos which slid past my eyes.

This is what I saw:
Close-ups of a purple shirt, pulled up to reveal the edges of the model’s breasts. Models leaning against the wall in leggings, legs spread, their arms crossed over their bare chests. Women contorted into strange positions, topless, wearing sheer stockings that did everything in their power to suggest nakedness. Women with their skirts pulled up to reveal elaborate garters. Models in a bathroom, draped over a towel rack and shot from below, wearing nothing but a pair of red panties.

And interspersed among these photos, as if they were completely normal, are pictures of American Apparel employees as babies, photos of signs from Los Angeles immigrant rights rallies, alarming border patrol trucks, cheerful American Apparel factory workers and, most puzzling of all, straight-on shots of the company’s founder and CEO, Dov Charney, looking beardy and unwashed. The few male models were also rather grimy looking, but fully clothed and surrounded by women in various states of undress. The women, I might add, were very clean.

This much was clear: American Apparel wasn’t selling clothes, it was selling sex. And it was using only women’s bodies to do so. But it was also trying to hide this blatant objectification within a cloying rhetoric of “immigrant rights” and “fair pay”.

The website likes to use words like “honesty” and “reform”, and sports pictures of similarly reform-minded L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s visit to the factory, smiling at the primarily Hispanic workers. The cause of immigration reform is, surely, just. But why must it be cloaked in the sexualization of women? To sell these admittedly expensive clothes, why do we need to revive the pin-up girl, and turn her borderline-pornographic? Why do women’s bodies have to be sacrificed to immigration reform?

A recent profile of Dov Charney on sheds a little light on the practices of this very eccentric CEO, and his hipster-beloved company. Charney has been the subject of repeated sexual harassment lawsuits (three so far), and is unabashed about his company’s platform of sexualization.

His most shocking quote:
“That’s what a beautiful, intelligent woman wants, to go to dinner in a pair of pants that makes her look good. She’s on top of the fucking world. That’s what it’s all about. The pants! The pants! That’s all a beautiful woman wants! A pair of pants that takes her into a restaurant. She looks beautiful. She looks intelligent! She’s got a pair of pants! She’s on top of the world—and it’s the pants, the pants!”

Charney claims that fashion is about sexuality. And he claims that the “sweatshop-free” environment which he provides his workers is more important than the way the models are portrayed. But should we really need to be tricked into buying clothes that were made under decent conditions, by workers who were paid enough? American Apparel is lauded for its “generous” salaries, but in Los Angeles, that’s only a living wage. Charney’s supposed virtue is really just basic decency, and reveals his essential superficiality and misogyny. All a beautiful woman wants is pants (they do make me feel smarter!)? And all a beautiful man wants is grime and kooky glasses? Because that's what American Apparel seems to be offering men.

The culture of American Apparel is to create what are really kind of boring clothes (they’re cotton, so what if the colors are a little unusual?) and convince the buyers that they are purchasing an edge, that they are purchasing sex. And as for the righteous feeling that American Apparel wants you to have when you buy their clothes - just remember that the workers are just getting the treatment that they deserve. And it’s women who are losing.


At October 23, 2008 at 8:36 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that you are being a little bit reactionary in you opinion of this company. Selling sexy is not the same thing as selling sex. Their men's collection takes a thumbprint off of the Jerusalem Gay Parade lineup, but maybe they are appealing to in-home, in-the-closet lesbians in their female line of clothing. Looking at the butt of a female that looks like she walked out of a refrigerator is not even sexy. It gives me goosebumps.

At October 24, 2008 at 3:14 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I don't think they're selling sex. However, I do agree that that's unacceptable objectification of women.

At October 25, 2008 at 9:46 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

So just who is being oppressed here, the models, who are handsomely paid for their services? I grant that there are groups who are so disadvantaged that they cannot stick up for themselves, and so more privileged individuals must provide "a voice for the voiceless" -- slaves who depended to an extent on the agitation of white abolitionists, for example. But note several crucial features of such a relationship:

1) The crusading group is in an objectively more advantageous or desirable situation, while the to-be-protected group is not.

2) The crusading group enjoys some kind of power or influence that the to-be-protected group does not.

3) Because of 1) and 2), the crusading group feels some degree of pity, compassion, and/or solidarity with the to-be-protected group, such that they feel compelled to help them out.

4) The to-be-protected group will benefit from the crusade, while the crusading group does not expect to benefit in the same sense. Indeed, that is the definition of altruism: incurring costs to oneself in order to bestow benefits upon others.

In the present case, clearly the author is not protesting against the objectification of herself. So the assumption is that they're sticking up for her oppressed sisters who work in modeling. But let's have a look at whether the crucial features of altruistic crusading are met. As for 1), the real situation is the reverse of what's expected: it's the hot model who enjoy numerous advantages that the plain or ugly feminist lack. More, hot girls command the attention of not just the average male but also plain females (who then incessantly gossip about and slander them), so their messages are easily noticed -- think of the topless PETA activists (NSFW) -- whereas plain or ugly feminazis are, for some odd reason, more likely to be ignored, again the opposite of what feature 2) predicts. Therefore, rather than feeling compassion or solidarity with hot girls, the author is envious and resentful, against feature 3). "Well, if that's what men go for, rather than cold, bitter, semi-smart women like me, then that proves that men are scum." Turning finally to feature 4), it's obvious that de-emphasizing feminine beauty would only serve to cripple hot girls relative to their plain and ugly competitors, a la Tonya Harding's attack by proxy on Nancy Kerrigan.

So I can only conclude that these prudish attacks against "sexualization" are merely self-interest cloaked in the high-sounding language of protection of rights, when in fact the targets of the complaints are among the last women feminists need to protect.


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