Knickers in a twist

by jennine on February 1, 2008

Ok, I’m going to go out on a limb here.

Yesterday my friend forwarded a Jezebel article about the latest American Apparel cry for attention on YouTube. It made me ask myself… why is American Apparel’s advertising so troublesome? Honestly, I like their advertising… it’s a bit Terry Richardson with less skill, and the typography is nice too. Ok, it’s a bit pervy, and so is the Victoria’s Secret catalog, which is basically America’s poor man’s porn. Part of me wants to be offended. I can wear glasses hang out with the smart looking girls and discuss Gloria Steinem, use words like ‘male gaze’ with some sort of knowledge of what that actually means. I’d really like to.

But I can’t. What is that? I’m not offended. I don’t know why. Objectifying women is horrible. I’ve been objectified, I have objectified. Perhaps my lack of offense is the mark of a much bigger problem with the whole system. It’s complicated. It’s shameful.

But… it’s real.

Perhaps that’s why AA’s advertising works. It’s real drama. There’s the drama that surrounds Dov Charney, the sexual harassment suits, masturbating in front of female reporters (although she fully consented), his hypersexuality and the charge that surrounds each of his photos of young women of a questionable age, all of it is most certainly shameful.

He brings our most guarded secrets and desires and puts it on a billboard. Right or wrong, the tension between sexual weakness-empowerment gets more attention than any other subject, it hits us at the most biological aspect of our being. Maybe it’s the gritty, flawed reality that people find comforting or offensive.

Holy moly, I have to hand it to him, making a t-shirt sexy is not easy. And why is it wrong to use sex to sell? I mean, I know it’s wrong on my gut level, but I don’t actually have a reason… so I typed “why is it wrong to use sex to advertise?” in Google, and this is what I found:

Sex in advertising treats the human body as just another commodity and thus reinforces the dictum that the material world is ‘all there is’. People, in this view, are merely objects, participators in the marketing scheme. They are valued not for their kindness, integrity, competence or character but for how they look through a camera lens alone. This is demeaning in the extreme and a profanation of the dignity of the human person and of all universally held spiritual values.

Maybe that’s another thing wrong with the system… almost all advertisements commodify some aspect of the human experience, whether we are valued for sex or money, for social status. That the world we live in values things. The fact that American Apparel is so blatant about using sex to sell tube socks makes them an easy target for criticism. But why is it more offensive than photoshopped, made-up photos in Cosmo or Guess? or Victoria’s Secret?

Then last but not least, comes the whole issue about what the company is actually about. They make great clothes. American Apparel is the largest garment factory in the United States. They fairly compensate their workers, they even have on site medical clinics and massage therapists for the factory workers. They also have intense production goals and fierce competition. They are not unionized, but then only 1% of LA’s garment workers are unionized, and the unions themselves aren’t exactly perfect either.

Jezebel failed to mention American Apparel’s latest campaign to reform immigration, that with all the accusations and controversies there is continually a second side to the story, that regardless of reputation an questionable appearances, the reality is that American Apparel is revolutionizing the garment industry. But then again, Jezebel has the same kind of witty banter you’d find on Gawker… so what can you say?

I think even I’m more confused now, than I was before… what do you think?

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Matt Hanson February 1, 2008 at 2:00 pm

I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you.

Matt Hanson

2 Chic and Charming February 1, 2008 at 2:19 pm

All I can think of when I see those advertisements is Dov Charney’s history of sexual harassment and exploiting young female workers. Victoria Secret models are paid well, and are posed in positions that are more sexy than slutty. I mean, really, outside of hustler where are you going to see a photo of a girl’s butt with the caption “stuff this?” It is offensive.

3 Kez February 1, 2008 at 4:00 pm

I know it’s not a popular, much less “cool” belief, but I think that ads (and images) that turn women into objects play a role in violence against women. That said, I share J’s sense of conflict. There are certainly images, literature, media, etc. that I have (and likely will) enjoy that is offensive. Those AA ads just skeeve me out and make my skin crawl.

4 b February 1, 2008 at 4:04 pm

oh god, i remember even hearing small scale gossip about dov’s sexual harassment when AA first opened. i remember wanting to apply there when i was like 18 and being told, “o don’t bother unless you plan on making porn and sleeping with the owner.”

and i completely agree with the comment about how VS is more sexy than slutty… i don’t find the AA ads remotely sexy… just pure shock value.

5 patti February 1, 2008 at 4:34 pm

American Apparel ads don’t get my panties in a bunch, much the opposite. I don’t see them as offensive and don’t connect Dov’s behavior to the ad’s. It took me awhile in my adult life to get comfortable with my sexuality as a woman. We can’t all be airbrushed into our daily lives like a Victoria Secret model but I feel like I can step into some comfortable cotton underwear and be sexy. ( I do acknowledge that most of the AA models are unfairly hot) This is not Hustler. This is being naughty in your bedroom with your boyfriend. Maybe these things should be private but I think while we subscribe to feminist thought we also have to be careful not to fall back into puritanical heritage. A sexually overt human body in tight cotton clothing is deservedly hot.

6 Maven February 1, 2008 at 4:55 pm

The AA ads have always made me not want to shop there, and to this day I’ve never bought anything from AA. I think my problem is this: they’re revolutionizing the garment industry in many ways-so why is their advertising fundamentally just like everyone else’s? I want forward-thinking companies to be forward-thinking in every realm of their business. If AA’s really going to revolutionize the garment industry, I want them to go all the way: make clothes that fit everyone, show beautiful people of all sizes and colors wearing the clothes, and be as arty as you want to be in your advertising but stop using T & A to sell stuff. THAT would be a revolution. It’s kind of a social responsibility thing for me, I guess.

Plus, at this point there’s just absolutely nothing shocking or subversive about sex in advertising.

7 Timbo February 1, 2008 at 4:58 pm

Isn’t it irrelevant whether the ads are slutty or sexy? I mean if the issue is the idea that “the material world is all there is”, then even if the ads are sexy, the idea is still promoted. When it comes down to it, it sounds like people are happy to be objectified, as long as its in a way which complies with their values - their sexy, sexy values… not their slutty ones.

8 thealchemist February 1, 2008 at 5:14 pm

hmmm… overall i find that i’m not that offended by most of AA’s ads. i say most, because there have been a few that i’ve seen on the billboard down in the lower east side that are really skeevy. i mean really skeevy. i also think that dov is sleazy but with all of this knowledge that hasn’t stopped me from buying some items from them. so i guess i’m conflicted too. if we’re going to say one form of advertisement is too much then what is the barometer for others? why is VS thought of as sexy, is it because it subscribes to some formula of sexiness that we have learnt to accept? it’s still a half-naked woman.

9 Ashe Mischief February 1, 2008 at 7:12 pm

“I want them to go all the way: make clothes that fit everyone, show beautiful people of all sizes and colors wearing the clothes, and be as arty as you want to be in your advertising but stop using T & A to sell stuff. THAT would be a revolution.”

That I can agree with. Especially about fitting for people of all sizes and colors. While American Apparel tries to be progressive and for the people, in many ways, they fall in to the same stereotypes of many fashion companies, which is women and men over a certain size should not and cannot wear their clothes. When I was a size 10-12, I could not comfortably (or respectably) fit in to any of their garments. What is American about that, when I’m below the average size of a woman?

I’m interested in those who say that American Apparel exploits the barely underage sexual appeal, as it compares to VS. Typically, VS has posed a more adult woman in supposedly beautiful and sexy garments as a way to treat our bods and our loves. However, recently, in one of their books, they were portraying a nubile young woman, big dimpes and does eyes with tight curls and a lollipop, wearing frills and polka dots. Are they trying to sell underage sex here suddenly, or would they argue they are competing with the sexual appeal of places like AA? Regardless, I was rather offended by the VS piece as much as I can be by some of AAs ads.

10 WendyB February 7, 2008 at 7:46 am

So are you telling me to stop masturbating with tube socks in front of female reporters? Dang!

11 jennine February 7, 2008 at 11:23 am

Well… Wendy… I”m sure you can get away with it!

I don’t know, I think I’m most in agreement with Patti on this one… I’ve thought about it, and it’s really just about the lesser of two evils.

Personally, I’d rather shop at a store that’s controversial on the surface but adheres to more of my values in reality, than a shop that projects my values but doesn’t really make a point of actually doing anything…

And besides, most of the american apparel models, may be sexualized, but they are soo much more natural than the fake-boobied airbrushed, hair pieced victoria’s secret models. i’d rather men want me to look like an aa model than a vs one.

my opinion….

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