As stated in the video above, popular American clothing brand, Abercrombie & Fitch, draws billions of dollars in profit annually, despite the fact that the clothier makes no qualms about its exclusionary branding, marketing, and selling practices. Abercrombie & Fitch has capitalized off of embodying sexism, classism and racism at its finest. Dwight McBride, author of Why I Hate Abercrombie and Fitch: Essays on Race and Sexuality in America, states, “Abercrombie & Fitch has devised a very clear marketing and advertising strategy that celebrates whiteness – a particularly privileged and leisure-class whiteness – and makes use of it as a “lifestyle” that it commodifies to sell otherwise extremely dull, uninspiring, and ordinary clothing… The danger of such a marketing scheme is that it depends upon the racist thinking of its consumer population in order to thrive” (66).
Powerful words, indeed. Abercrombie CEO, Michael Jeffries, makes absolutely no effort to disguise his elitism and is unapologetically dismissive of any criticism or other backlash. He has been quoted as saying, “we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong in our clothes, and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.”
Our people in the store are an inspiration to the customer. The customer sees the natural Abercrombie style and wants to be like the Brand Representative… Our Brand is natural, classic and current, with an emphasis on style. This is what a Brand Representative must be; this is what a Brand Representative must represent in order to fulfill the conditions of employment.
Excerpts of the Abercrombie Look Book, as quoted in McBride
Exclusivity is not limited to the target consumer, but potential employees as well, as exemplified by the Abercrombie Look Book, their employee manual. Keywords is the handbook include “natural”, “classic” and “American”, of which McBride explains, “such words in the context not only of Abercrombie, but in the context of US culture more broadly, are often understood for the coded ways of delineating the whiteness that they represent. Indeed, most of us carry in our imagination a very specific image that we readily access when such monikers as “natural, classic, American” are used” (McBride 68).
It is true that when one hears “natural, classic, American” that a certain image comes to mind, however that does not constitute the actual image of a classic American. It is largely accepted what that term mean, but that term, nor related image is an accurate reflection of an American, as Americans come in endless varieties.
The creation of an “A&F Look,” which almost invariably functions to produce an exclusively white staff of brand representatives in Abercrombie’s stores, might be understood as an elaborately devised method by the company of forestalling the potential legal exposure of such an exclusionary employment policy. The formal workings of what we might call the “corporate culture” of A&F provide the infrastructure for maintaining and reproducing the discriminatory, virtually all-white A&F look
It is one matter to blatantly propagate one’s individual ideals, as Jeffries does so infamously. However it is another shocking and sobering reality altogether to realize the potent accuracy of McBride’s words about a marketing scheme depending on the racist thinking of the consumer, and their relation to Jeffries’ irreverence. The fact is, Abercrombie is extremely successful, despite their widely disseminated discriminatory ideologies. Jeffries has no reason to feel bad or show any remorse because it is not his convictions (or lack thereof) that are making him repulsively rich, it is the fact that there are millions of people buying into those beliefs – and buying the clothes.
Ellen DeGeneres spoke about the latest Abercrombie scandal on her talk show, and although intermixed with her usual comedic nature, there was a distinct gravity in her remarks. “Beauty isn’t between a size 0 and a size 8; it is not a number at all. It is not physical… What you look like on the outside is not what makes you cool, at all.”
According to him anyone who’s a plus size isn’t cool enough to shop in Abercrombie & Fitch. You know what I say to that? Oh, Fitch please!
Similar to the impractical and precluding ideologies put forth by Abercrombie, the the beauty industry comes under similar scrutiny for its unrealistic standards. Michelle M. Lazar says in, “Discover the Power of Femininity!”, “The beauty industry has long been criticized by some feminists as oppressive upon women for its promulgation of impossible beauty standards” (506). This ad for Dove is a perfect example of the impossible standards. Impossible and simply unreal.
An ongoing issue in various sectors of the beauty industry is “whitewashing“, a trend in which the skin of women of color appear much lighter in printed ads than in real life. This practice is another perpetuation of the false notion that “white is right”, in lifestyle and standards of beauty.
Lazar was focusing on the relationship between feminism and consumerism, a “global sisterhood”, however in studying this, she had no choice but to acknowledge factors such as class, culture and ethnicity, and their lack of representation in the majority of beauty advertising. “I shall consider the dimension of female consumer identity and identification afforded by power femininity, which co-opts a modern global sisterhood of “women.” One way in which a globalized consumer sisterhood is construed in the as is, paradoxically, through erasure of difference among women from different geographical regions, cultures and ethnicites… In other words, the white models are not particularized; instead, they stand for the universal modern woman” (514).
When white women are used in ads, even those targeted to or intended to be inclusive of women of color, they are positioned as the ubiquitous, all-encompassing epitome of beauty. When an actual woman of color is used in an ad, like Beyonce and Freida Pinto, she is more often than not altered in her appearance, either digitally or by the use of wigs and other cosmetic aids, to resemble more of that “natural, classic American” that Abercrombie works so relentlessly to maintain as ideal.
Recently, the American hip-hop community was buzzing because a legendary radio DJ and music producer, Mister Cee, was seen on video in the act of soliciting a prostitute – that was not a woman. The situation was such a ‘scandal’ because Cee had been arrested for solicitation before, however he had refused to acknowledge that the prostitute was transgendered, and dismissed any inquiries as to his sexuality. The story eventually died out, as most gossip does, but upon the release of yet another video, Cee felt as though he could no longer keep his sexual preferences private.
Soon after the video went viral, Cee did an 30-minute interview with a close friend and coworker at his radio station, Ebro, and admitted live on air to having certain sexual interactions with men. The revealing exchange falls closely in line with Foucault’s Scientia Sexualis chapter in The History of Sexuality, and his assertions about the confession.
We have since become a singularly confessing society. The confession has spread its effects far and wide…. One confesses one’s crimes, one’s sins, one’s thoughts and desires, one’s illnesses and troubles; one goes about telling, with the greatest precision, whatever is most difficult to tell. Once confesses in public and in private… to those one loves; one admits to oneself, in pleasure and in pain, things it would be impossible to tell to anyone else, the things people write books about. Once confesses – or is forced to confess. When it is not spontaneous or dictated by some internal imperative, the confession is wrung from a person by violence or threat; it is driven from its hiding place in the soul, or extracted from the body.
Foucault, The History of Sexuality, p. 59
Ebro stated, “You’ve been dealing with this privately… but after this video comes out, I don’t really know what to tell the listeners. I take our listeners seriously because without them we wouldn’t have a job. So I kinda feel obligated to share, especially when something like this happens in public, and especially when you’re breaking the law.”
Ebro went on to say that Mister Cee didn’t “owe anybody anything,” which directly contradicted his previous statement. The presumed obligation that Cee has a moral imperative to be forthcoming about any element of his personal life, especially something as intimate as one’s sexual preferences, to anyone other than his immediate family, is arguably quite intrusive and offensive. Mister Cee’s sexuality has no bearing on his ability to produce music, conduct interviews, or perform any other duties associated with his career. Even Ebro’s comments that Cee’s actions were unlawful and that the escapade was caught on a video that ended up going viral, do not constitute an obligation to reveal and discuss personal matters. At the very least he might be compelled to address his legal troubles, but should reasonably be allowed a modicum of privacy to exclude details. This also speaks to another issue of the rights of public figures.
Cee’s reluctance to admit his sexuality was directly tied to his fear of how he would be received in his truth. “My whole dilemma has always been ‘am I still gonna be looked at the same?’” This is an example of what The Trouble With Normal author, Michael Warner, refers to as the politics of shame. According to Warner, Cee is a stigmaphobe, a member of a world in which, “conformity is ensured through fear of stigma” (43).
People are constantly encouraged to believe that heterosexual desire, dating, marriage, reproduction, child rearing, and home life are not only valuable to themselves, but the bedrock on which every other value in the world rests. Heterosexual desire and romance are though to be the very core of humanity… Nonstandard sex has non of this normative richness, this built-in sense of connection to the meaningful life, the community of richness, the future of the world.
Warner, The Trouble With Normal, p. 47
It is never easy to put oneself in a position that is beyond the boundaries of general social acceptance or in any way not aligned with mainstream beliefs, whether it has to do with sexuality or otherwise. Warner explains, “nearly everyone, it seems, wants to be normal. And who can blame them, if the alternative is being abnormal, or deviant, or not being one of the rest of us? Put in those terms, there doesn’t seem to be a choice at all. Especially not in America, where normal probably outranks all other social aspirations” (53).
Further extending the conversation of normality, Mister Cee did not confess, come out, or otherwise admit to being “gay”, despite participating in what is generally categorized as homosexual behavior. “I know I’m gonna get hit with social media when I get ready to say this, but I’m gonna say it anyway. Do I consider myself gay? No, I don’t consider myself gay. I do – I have gotten fellatio from transvestites. And that’s as far as it went…. I’ve never had actual sexual intercourse with another man, and vise versa, that has never been done to me.”
It is completely an individual’s right to define and perform gender and sexuality as one sees fit. If his definition of ‘gay’ in centered on the act of penetration, that is perfectly okay, but it is more likely that Cee’s discomfort with putting himself in the gay box further underscores his stigmaphobic nature and his innate desire to be accepted – or normal. He not only had to face the perceived abnormality and deviance of his sexual preferences in the heterocentric general population, but as well as his perception amongst peers and fans in microclimate of the hip-hop community.
In this hip-hop community of ours, it’s not cool to be gay. It’s not cool to be bisexual. I felt that if I was to actually be honest about myself that nobody would want to deal with me anymore. But the more that I kept lying and the more I kept trying to deceive you and myself – the more I was being more closed in and not being who I really am… I got tired of lying and hiding. But I’m here to tell you today that you don’t have to lie or hide no more about your sexual freedom.
Mister Cee, quoted in his PSA for the Aids Healthcare Foundation
Foucault says, “The obligation to confess is now relayed through so many different points, is so deeply ingrained in us, that we no longer perceive it as the effect of a power that constrains us; on the contrary, it seems to us that truth, lodged in our most secret nature, “demands” only to surface” (60). Cee’s confession, his decision to stop lying and trying to deceive himself and others, was his truth demanding to surface. It was no longer the power of constraint, but the embracing of freedom.
This week’s reading and discussion raise two critical points, the first being that women cannot and should not be analyzed as one entity, with no regard to key differences such as class, cultural, economics, etc. The second point being, Muslim and other Third World women are not all in need of the White Savior.
The encounter between the Sex And The City women and the Muslim women exemplified the erroneous generalization that not just all Muslim women, but all women are one homogeneous group united by the same reductive assumptions. In Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses, author Chandra Talpade Mohanty explains, “I am referring to the critical assumption that all of us of the same gender, across classes and cultures, are somehow socially constituted as a homogeneous group identified prior to the process of analysis… Thus, for instance, in any given piece of feminist analysis, women are characterized as a singular group on the basis of a shared oppression” (337).
When the Muslim women ripped off their religious wear to reveal the Western ideal of women’s fashion, the ‘spring collection’, it demonstrates the flawed ideology that no matter where we (women) are in the world and what struggles we must overcome, underneath it all, we are all the same. That ‘same’ being the Western ideal, of course. And let us (Westerners, or white people) show you that you are like us – let us liberate you! This is a light, more pop cultural example of what Myra Macdonald referred to in, Muslim Women and the Veil, as the victim narrative. However, I believe that scene also, albeit unintentionally, showed that in actuality, underneath it all Muslim women do not need to be rescued. Yes, some Muslim women may have the same fashion access, interests, etc., as Westerners but choosing to respect their culture/religion does not mean they are being oppressed or need to be ‘saved’.
The image of a veiled Muslim woman seems to be one of the most popular Western ways of representing the ‘problems of Islam…The metaphoric desire to “unveil” alien cultures, by “laying them bare” and bringing them into conformity with the ideological norms of the dominating power has a long discursive history amongst Western colonialists and imperialists… missions to rescue women from the brutality and oppression signified by the veil” (Macdonald 8, 9).
Additionally, I believe the scene illustrated how the West has the potential to embrace the “other” only so far as the benefits will extend, and then abandon the culture as soon as it is no longer of use. For example, the SATC women gladly welcomed the local culture and wore the veils to ‘escape their male oppressors’ after liberating their ‘sisters in struggle’, but any reverence for the garb was disregarded when Carrie exposed her leg to catch the cab. They are no longer sisters in struggle, Carrie must revert back to her Western roots to save herself and the girls.
Although Third World women are not necessarily in need of rescue, they do face adversity when it comes to overcoming socially constructed gender roles within their culture – which is equally true of Western women. Women as a whole do not belong barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen, as the saying goes – unless, of course, that is their choice!
Below is an interesting video about Palestenian race car drivers – that happen to be women. They do not fit the stereotype of what most would envision a Middle Eastern woman to be. In fact, one driver, Mouna Ennab, says, “They were telling us ‘you should be at the home, not racing with the boys, you should be at the home, cooking and cleaning’, something like that.”
Paula Slier, the reporter in the story, commented, “In some small way, using the power at their fingertips, these drivers are challenging the way women are seen and treated in this part of the Middle East.”
This quote from Mohanty sums up the discussion nicely –
Instead of analytically demonstrating the production of women as socio-economic political groups within particular local contexts, this move limits the definition of the female subject to gender identity, completely bypassing social class and ethnic identities. What characterizes women as a group is their gender (sociologically not necessarily biologically defined) over and above everything else, indicating a monolithic notion of sexual difference. Because women are thus constituted as a coherent group, sexual difference becomes coterminus with female subordination, and power is automatically defined in binary terms: people who have it (read: men), and people who do not (read: women)… Such simplistic formulations are both reductive and ineffectual in designing strategies to combat oppressions. All they do is reinforce binary divisions between men and women.