Friday, May 22, 2009

A Romp Through Victoria's Secret

The following is a correspondence I had regarding something I found in the Victoria's Secret catalog. The item in question does not appear to be on their website, so you may need to track down the catalog to see it for yourself. The "Josh" in this exchange also writes a blog, called Egalicontrarian.

From: Jason
To: Josh
12 April 2009, 1:20 pm

I was flipping through the Victoria's Secret catalog, and they had a collection of shirts that re-appropriated counterculture slogans. For instance, one said "Make Pink, Not War," because, you see, Victoria's Secret has a monopoly on the color pink.

So that's pretty obnoxious, but the next one was even worse. It said "Boys, Not Bombs." Like "Food, Not Bombs." Get it? Let's undermine a worthwhile group, debase women, and teach girls destructive values, all at the same time. "My need for boys is like a homeless person's need for food! Because I starve myself to get attention from older boys because I am actually quite dissatisfied with my life. So I should participate in consumer culture and trade currency for a t-shirt (made by girls my age in a sweatshop) that reflects this reality. Surely, this will help my self-esteem." Way to go Victoria's Secret, you may have summarized all that is wrong with society in a single t-shirt.

From: Josh
To: Jason
12 April 2009, 2:05 pm

I have to disagree on this one.

1) Only a monster would suggest that pleasing boys with sexualized clothing is worse than destroying the countryside of Vietnam. I think boys, food, and other things like love, are all preferable to bombs and war. In fact, degrading women with clothing may be itself preferable to destroying women with napalm.

2) Although Victoria's Secret can be plausibly criticized for debasing women in a broad sense, these slogans themselves do not. If anything, "Boys, not bombs" is just recommending one evolutionary instinct (sex) over another (aggression).

3) These ads do not suggest that a need for boys is analogous to a homeless person's need for food. The only analogy is this: Victoria's Secret's ads are just about as stupid as the ads they are parodying, and probably about as consequential. Also, the two concepts are not mutually exclusive. Consider this: many activists acquire mates after meeting them at activist events. Maybe even while wearing clothing purchased at Victoria's Secret. The only thing more attractive than an activist chick is an over-sexualized activist chick.

4) Lastly, the Victoria's Secret ad leaves open the question of starving oneself. Many boys prefer more voluptuous women, women like noted most beautiful woman in the world, Monica Bellucci.[1] So, "Boys, not bombs," contains within it the possibility of seeking to please a boy who is more evolutionarily rational [2] in his appreciation of the female physique [3]. This may lead to the paradoxical situation whereby a Victoria's Secret ad both impresses upon a woman successfully and yet guides her away from Victoria's Secret. Then again, I am not knowledgeable enough to know the size variance in the clothing offered by this business. We should ask Ashwini, so I've CC'd her.

From: Jason
To: Josh
12 April 2009, 9:04 pm

The one thing I want to add is that while "Make Love, Not War" is merely a slogan that borders on meaninglessness, "Food, Not Bombs" is a sprawling anti-capitalist organization with over 1000 chapters on every inhabited continent, that takes food that would be otherwise thrown out, and feeds homeless people and activists, while distributing radical literature. I heard a talk by the founder at a conference last weekend and it is very awesome. Check it out:

While I would choose boys over bombs, I don't think that is actually the sentiment of the shirt, as Victoria's Secret does not appear to have any interest in dismantling the war infrastructure, and would certainly support a war to, say, keep the prices of their inputs low.

Further, I am reminded of an early talking Barbie doll that said things like "Math is hard" and "Let's go shopping." While, certainly, math is hard, I question the wisdom of giving a young girl a toy that reinforces that stereotype to her every day she plays with it.* Similarly, I have no problem with girls being interested in boys as partners, but these shirts seem to be reinforcing the stereotype that girls ought to be seeking boys, by any means necessary, and to the detriment of other things, like careers. (Sidebar: Martha Cook dormitory [an all-girls dorm at the University of Michigan] and the Law School used to have functions together, so freshman girls could meet soon-to-be lawyers. (Almost all of whom were male at the time.) This is because girls, even while at college, should be focused on finding a man to please. This is referred to as getting one's "MRS" degree. Get it? "Mrs."? Also, law students are often quite a bit older than girls in Martha Cook, making it kinda creepy.)

Lastly, the shirts reinforce heteronormative values, by not having shirts for non-straight girls, who will feel excluded from yet another venue. (Sidebar: Perhaps you think non-straight girls should be excluded from consumer culture because it is so destructive. I agree, but I think this is just another way they are marginalized. Just like how one can be against gay marriage for the same reasons as they are against straight marriage, yet think gays should have the option.) (Further sidebar: I was going to say reinforcing heteronormativity was a minor objection, but then I realized I think that because I'm straight and society accommodates my proclivities. Therefore, I say it is a non-trivial matter.)

*The full story is that only 1.5% of Teen Talk Barbies had that particular phrase, but the rest are scarcely better. "Wanna have a pizza party", "Will we ever have enough clothes", etc. Allegedly there was a group called the Barbie Liberation Organization that would buy the Barbies and swap out their speaking chip with that of the concurrently released talking G.I. Joe, then return it to the store. While I don't support G.I. Joe's foreign policy, I appreciate the culture jamming of swapping the chips.

From: Ashwini
To: Jason, Josh
16 April 2009, 1:39 pm

I appreciate being consulted. [Josh] are you saying I am one of those "over-sexualized activist chicks?" In which case I am somewhere between flattered and insulted.

Yes, in the grand scheme of things war, bombs and other things are way worse than things that negatively impact young women in the U.S.'s self-concept and body image. It is annoying though and Jason is right that it appropriates activist jargon. I also get annoyed when I see Jenna Bush wearing a kaffiyeh and when Che's face is plastered all over Abercrombie t-shirts. Is it worse than napalm? No. But is it worth criticizing? Absolutely. "Boys not Bombs" is problematic in the same sense that a t-shirt that says "Who needs math you have these" on it is problematic. It encourages girls to advertise themselves as objects and to send the message that their priorities lie in dating and romance alone. And of course, the perception changes if it's a 16-year old girl wearing it versus a 35-year-old woman.

And [Josh] I think your point number 4 is both hilarious and retarded so I'm not even going to get into it.

What can we conclude from these exchanges? I'm tempted to make an off-hand remark about having too much time on our hands. However, such analyses are, I think, valuable. This is because Victoria's Secret gets to spend millions of dollars on catalogs and advertisements (some featuring Bob Dylan) to reinforce the world view that maximizes their profits. As every business does this, other modes of thinking are made more and more difficult. I should think the occasional unpacking of this serves some purpose.

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