Progressive objectification: American Apparel’s Next Big Thing

American Apparel has never been progressive. It has never been pro-woman and it has never made much of an effort to hide it’s founder, Dov Charney‘s, pervy ways. Last year, Melanie Klein at Feminist Fatale outlined the myriad of ways in which the company has long been a terrible place for women. Charney has been accused of sexual harrassment a number of times and their consistently pornographic advertising speaks for itself.

The imagery is often defending as being ‘artsy’, as though objectification is ok when it is ‘provocative’ (like we’ve never seen women’s bodies represented in this way before, like if the photos are grainy they instantly become ‘artistic’). It’s interesting how badly we want this kind of imagery to be ‘ok’. How badly we want to justify ads that sexualize rape, that sexualize very young women, that do the exact same thing advertising and porn have done for decades, that is, use women’s bodies to sell sexism and products, all at once. We are willing to defend misogynist corporations till the end because we have been made afraid, as though true freedom of speech is coming from American Apparel’s marketing department.

But I digress. A couple of weeks ago, the company launched The Next Big Thing contest, looking for ‘curvaceous bods’ to sell their new ‘XL styles’. So now, I suppose, we are supposed to cheer them on in their progressive attempts to objectify ‘big[ger]‘ women. Wheeee! We can’t see your ribs and we will still treat you as fuckable! The future is here, feminists.

So perhaps the company has a history of completely ignoring the fact that women who are above a size 10 exist and now they are oh-so-generously trying to get into the pockets of those women too, but can this move really be viewed as anything near progress?

Apparently the answer is yes! People are indeed making this argument – that diversity is progress, meaning that if we are including ‘alternative’ bodies in sexist advertising this is a move towards a healthier body image for women. In a wee debate on the topic which took place on Hugo Schwyzer‘s Facebook page (where all great debates happen), he responded to my argument that ‘objectifying ‘big’ women is not progress.’, particularly within a context of a company that uses a ‘rape mekind of esthetic on a regular basis in their advertising, by saying: ”BUT there is something genuinely progressive (at least potentially) about expanding the diversity of images that we all see.”

While I think it is true that there is a very limited version of beauty in our culture, particularly when we look to mainstream media, and that this impacts the self-esteem of many women, young and old, I don’t think that the solution lies in sexualizing and objectifying ‘curvaceous bods’. I mean, it’s not as though bigger women aren’t objectified and sexualized anyway in our culture. It’s not as though bigger women aren’t raped or treated as sexual objects just as skinny women are. I don’t think there is any reason at all to cheer for this contest (even if a pretty awesome lady won the contest by subverting and mocking it), in fact, I think that we are missing the point entirely if we think that including the token ‘alternative’ body in places where generally the bodies are all very similar (thin, white, flawless) challenges anything substantial in terms of the ways in which our culture views women. Isn’t this the same argument made around burlesque? And ‘alternative’ porn? And by the Suicide Girls? ‘No, no, this kind of objectification is healthy! Look! These ladies have tattoos! This is art. Not porn.’ And, as Jill Filipovic wrote: “christ on a cracker, it’s American Apparel, and it’s for a contest where users rate applicants on a scale of 1 – 5, so I’m not sure their audience is thinking through the complexities of fat girls and food and sex any more deeply than “Look, titties.” Is it really subversive if no one cares? If people are still viewing you, a human being, as consumable?

What is so progressive about sticking a woman with a big butt into a porny advertisement? As far as I’m concerned, nothing.

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Feminists hate naked ladies and other tales from the backlash.

Man, the internet is a funny place for feminism.

Because burlesque is, apparently, the favorite topic of all those who wish to berate feminists without actually knowing anything about feminist theory,  feminist movements, or feminist discourse, I wasn’t terribly surprised to find this precious gem linked to my piece on burlesque, which I wrote back in February. My post being, according to the author, an example of second wave feminism.

The burlesque=empowerment argument, as discussed previously by The F Word, seems to be popular among those who either ARE burlesque dancers and wish to defend their craft, or among those who argue that ‘post-feminism’ has arrived and, therefore, anything goes because women are so liberated that objectification is impossible or, at very least, no longer gendered.

I disagree, obviously.

This post, in an attempt to be highly logical and, you know, set the record straight,  pointed out how ‘misguided’ any critics of burlesque, or ‘sex work’ ( in the words of Catherine, the author of the post) are. Ok fine. So let’s talk misguided.

If you are going to argue ‘misguided’, my personal recommendation would be to avoid being ‘misguided’ yourself. And so, in an effort to help Catherine in her efforts to, one would assume, build some kind of educated/intelligent/rational argument, I feel that some clarification is in order (although it must be pointed out that said ‘clarification’ could have easily been found by either reading the post Catherine linked to or by googling second wave feminism – but WHO HAS THE TIME when we are all so busy with important business and things!! Right this second I am calculating important bank-math with my brain and wearing a fancy suit! All the while handing out business cards that read MEGHANMURPHY:LAWYERORSOMETHING at a meeting in New York with men in suits. I have a briefcase.). SO. Feminism.

While on one hand, I do tend to agree with Catherine, in terms of her argument that strippers and burlesque dancers need not engage in class wars over who is legitimate or who deserves to be viewed as a ‘skank’ (sidenote: I would not ever call anyone a ‘skank’, these are the author’s words. I don’t criticize the objectification of women and the perpetuation of the male gaze and the representation of women’s bodies as sexy things which exist for male pleasure because I think women who strip or perform in burlesque shows are ‘skanks’, but rather because I don’t feel that either burlesque, nor stripping, empowers women or leads us any closer to equality.). I actually think that this kind of classism is highly problematic and, as Catherine argues, places women at odds with one another in a way that hinders women’s liberation. Burlesque dancers may well, as Catherine argues, feel more artful than strippers because they are working for free, but the imagery remains the same. The fact that some women need to take off their clothes for money, while others are privileged enough to do it ‘for free’, playing with the fun and sexy idea of objectification, does not make one version more empowering than the other. It’s not just about money (though in many cases it is, indeed, about financial need, negating the possibility of any real free choice) it is also about valuing women primarily for their sexualized bodies and ensuring that women are always, in the end, available for male consumption.

What I would like to address, though, is a couple of little tiny misconceptions which, while may be very straightforward to many of those engaged in feminism, are clearly the source of deep, dark, confusion among those who don’t know how the internet works.

Catherine, ‘a writer’, has formed an argument based on several untruths. Outlined here:

I know, I know. I laugh, I joke, I make fun. But in all seriousness, half of this really pisses me off (the other half is just kind of stupid). More often than not, feminists who are critical of sex work are accused of being judgmental, moralistic, fun-haters who think that women should hide out in dark basements with penisy voodoo dolls. Also, we hate naked ladies because naked ladies are fun and we are no fun. Sadface. Sadly for the scapegoaters (but happily for the penises), these accusations have little to do with feminism in real life.

Never never never has any feminist argued that ‘all female nudity is inherently degrading’. Not even does the article that Catherine links to argue that ‘all female nudity is inherently degrading’. In fact, it argues that burlesque is classist, that it is far from liberating or empowering, and asks why, in order for women to hold power, must they take their clothes off? As Laurie Penny argues: “There’s more to subversion than stripping and sequins.” I believe that what many feminists who are ‘critics of sex work’ desire is that women could, in fact, walk around in public, or be on stage, or be in film, or, like, live our lives without being objects of the male gaze. Without feeling like there were few to no other options than to get naked in order to gain ‘power’ or money or, simply, because often that’s what women need to do in order for anyone to pay any attention to them.

Barbara Hammer likes naked ladies.

I certainly can’t speak for all feminists, but I am very familiar with this argument and can say for certain that feminists are not, as a mass unit of never-nudes,  ‘against female nudity’. Ever heard of Barbara Hammer? Check her out (Menses is the best, but it doesn’t seem to be available online).

Or Carolee Schneeman?

There is even Catherine Breillat, who manages to include female nudity ON FILM that is subversive and doesn’t necessary force the female to be the sole subject of the disempowering gaze.

Catherine Breillat's 'Romance': Feminist erotica?

Feminists don’t think female nudity is inherently degrading, but rather, that women’s bodies have been made the objects of a sexualized and gendered gaze and that, within the context of patriarchy, women’s naked bodies, placed on display, as they so often are in burlesque, feed into the idea that we exist to be looked at, and to be enjoyed (and accessed) by men.

Catherine argues that ‘people who actually know what they are talking about’ don’t ‘moraliz[e] about sexuality’ and, hey what do you know! She’s right. They also don’t use feminists as a scapegoat  to prop up a weak argument.

Ex-burlesque dancer, Laurie Penny, who, one would presume, does know what she is talking about, points out that there is nothing new about this ‘neo-burlesque’, that: “Since the dawn of time, women have been told that their most important social bargaining chip is the power to suggest sex and then withhold it, denying our own desires and manipulating the desires of men.” And that, I believe is the argument ‘critics’ are making. Not, that nudity is immoral or that women must keep their clothes on at all times. I mean, wouldn’t it be great if women could stand around in the nude without being sized up by the whole damn world? Sigh.

Please stop perpetuating these myths. It is awfully frustrating. It doesn’t strengthen your argument, and it wastes my time. Having to constantly do damage control on a bunch of anti-feminists who can’t be bothered to learn anything at all about feminist arguments but reeeeally love talking trash about them is not, I don’t feel, the best use of my, or any other feminist’s time (see note re: bank math and briefcases).

In conclusion, the second wave ended (arguably) at the end of the 70s. I was born in 1979. I am not a second wave feminist (though I do love and appreciate my sisters of yester-wave). My arguments are very much a part of the third wave. Partly because of my birthday, yes, but also because we have, those of us enmeshed in third wave feminism, a very big job to do.  One that is particular to the third wave. We are up against an even bigger backlash than the one Susan Faludi wrote about in 1991 (when I was 12!). This backlash is disguised as ‘post-feminism’, this backlash, we are told, is not a backlash at all but, rather, it is THE NEW FEMINISM. Actually, it is the old sexism, wrapped up in feminist discourse, chewed up and spat out by folks who have drank the kool-aid, bought the ‘silly media coverage’, and don’t want to tire out their I-live-in-a-post-everything-bubble brains for one. more. second. in order to figure out what the hell they are talking about.

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Burlesque: They tell me it’s just for fun…Except I’m not having any.

Two weeks ago we ran our 2-part series on burlesque. Considering the many varied perspectives among women and feminists, we felt it wouldn’t be quite sufficient nor would it present an entirely accurate representation of those varied views if we explored only one side of the argument. The first show featured local burlesque superstar, Crystal Precious and PhD Candidate, Mary Shearman, who we brought on in order to present a look at burlesque that included feminism and female empowerment, rather than a straightforward rejection of it. The conversation could have easily gone on for another hour. Our guests provided us with some super interesting ways of looking at this ‘neo-burlesque movement’, as it’s been coined. We were presented with some ways in which burlesque could, potentially, be subversive. Both from our guests and from listeners. Like thisthis,  and this.

Alas, this was not what we were seeing from mainstream presentations of burlesque.

Nor was it, no matter where we went, what we were seeing at local burlesque shows.

And while we didn’t agree with everything our guests argued, we realized that there are many out there who do. And that there are many women who enjoy burlesque; whether from an audience’s perspective or as a performer. I mean, what’s wrong with having fun right? What’s wrong with feeling sexy, right?

…right….?

Weeeellllllllll….we weren’t entirely convinced.

The idea that we should just ‘work with’ that ever-present male gaze just didn’t sit well. For me, personally, it brought up a lot of that-which-I-am-ever-irritated-by in what is often presented as being the ’3rd wave’. That which the older generation of feminists, those who came from the revolutionary 2nd wave often seem to feel disappointed by – this concept that feminism is about individual empowerment. Not my feminism. This isn’t a ‘hey whatever makes you feel good’ kinda movement. Not that you can’t feel good and be feminist. But let’s get this straight – this is a movement. Not a self-help book. Feminism and neoliberalism are not bff’s. Feminism is, in large part, about changing those dominant systems that hold up neoliberal ideology. We aren’t all out for ourselves here. And individualism just doesn’t work for the marginalized. It sure doesn’t work to destroy that objectifying male gaze.

In terms of burlesque, I just couldn’t get past this idea that it takes a certain amount of privilege in order to even argue that this kind of stripping is ‘just for fun’. For so many women, stripping isn’t ‘just for fun’. It’s a living. Like, they need the money. So what kind of implications does it have when some women decide to start stripping ‘just for fun’? Does that mean stripping is supposed to be ‘fun’? Are we supposed to be doing it for free? Am I supposed to enjoy it? Should it be fun for me? The unexamined privilege within this discourse is pretty glaring. Regardless of whether or not burlesque dancers align themselves with strippers, they are not viewed or treated by society as strippers are. They are not judged or disrespected or subject to violence in the same ways that many strippers are. Particularly those who aren’t doing it ‘for fun’. But rather as a living. Out of need.

Women and girls everywhere are being told that pole dancing is ‘fun’. That flashing your breasts for Girls Gone Wild is ‘fun’. And that burlesque is ‘fun’. And you know what happens when we think something is ‘fun’? It means that we choose it. That we consent to it. And therefore it equals empowerment. Being coerced isn’t ‘fun’. Having no other alternative but to sell our bodies isn’t ‘fun’. In order for something to be ‘fun’, we must feel like we get to choose. What, then, are the repercussions for those who don’t choose to strip or flash or take pole-dancing classes – are we, then, not ‘fun’? What does it mean when I go to see a burlesque show and don’t have any fun. When, instead of liberation, I see women shaking their asses for an audience. Posing in martini glasses or on coffee tables. Like pretty objects. What happens when I feel angry, instead? When I feel uncomfortable, instead; seeing a male MC introducing his legion of ‘girls’ and encouraging the audience to tuck money into the ‘go-go girl’s’ g-string? Am I no fun?

Individualism and neoliberalism have stolen choice from the feminist movement. As Nicole Deagan so aptly pointed out on show number 2, ‘choice’ is about abortion rights. ‘Choice’ was a powerful aspect of the feminist fight for control over reproductive rights and women’s access to medical procedures. For us to be told that ‘choice’ is about our ‘freedom’ to pasties is misleading, distracting, and dangerous. Capitalism isn’t our friend. You can’t sell choice. And, let me add, having a ‘choice’ does not mean that we all have to shut our eyes and lay down. Being a feminist means we question these narratives. We question those things which reinforce the idea that women are meant to be seen and not heard, that women are ‘to-be-looked-at’, that women exist to fulfill male fantasies. And we do this because it’s easier to commit violence against objects than it is to whole human beings.

As Nicole also mentioned, and I want to include this because I think this is central to this conversation, as well as, in large part, what is missing from mainstream narratives around 3rd wave feminism: “The fact that white women have decided to ‘play’ with the role of ‘empowering’ an objectified woman performing for an audience is really telling about how disconnected they are from the actual lives of women who live in true poverty and how traumatizing it is to be living in a racist, sexist, classist world where women are sexually used by men who have access to privileges and entitlements that many women can’t even dream of.”

I have seen several burlesque shows in Vancouver. And Ariana and I went again, for research purposes; to check out what’s happening on the scene these days. Hoping we would find all sorts of subversion, you know, challenges to gender norms, maybe some comedy, something even remotely feministish. What we found was a stage and some women awkwardly taking off their clothes, with smiles pasted across their faces so we knew they were enjoying themselves. A man in a business suit ‘hosted’ the evening, and introduced all the ‘girls’. He remained clothed throughout the evening. A male MC was also allowed the privilege of keeping his clothes on. One after another, ‘girl’ after ‘girl’ got up on stage, unzipped her dress and, by the end of the ‘show’ was in pasties and a g-string, posing for a cheering crowd. Let’s play find the subversion! There is nothing new here. It’s just the same old thing. And I wasn’t having any fun.

***Authors note: Thanks to Nicole Deagan and Ariana Barer for inspiring and contributing to much of this content and to my larger understanding of what the hell it was that was bothering me so much about this burgeoning movement.

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