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.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • joy

    “Progressive.” These bonerheads keep using this word, and I do not think it means what they think it means.

  • kathy

    agree with Joy. Great entry Meghan. We have to challenge the idea that there are some kinds of sexual objectification of women that are better than others. dumb and wrong. but really, sometimes it’s not so easy to explain because pornography has so penetrated, as it were, visual language, not least when it comes to images of women and “sex” (as if sex could be imagined outside of pornography and compulsory heterosexuality–at this point, can it?). This ad presents a simpler case, and you explain it perfectly!

    • joy

      Thanks, Kathy! And I’m going to answer the question “can sex be imagined outside of porn and compulsory heterosexuality?” with the same resounding “No.” Even many lesbians can’t imagine it. I know I can’t, and I’ve been working really hard to try.

      Or rather, we can imagine a separation, but implementing it even in our own personal relationships is next to impossible. Both partners have to be on the same page (and have totally open, honest channels of communication — otherwise it isn’t even a healthy or equal relationship), and a backslide from either can mean a major backslide for both. It’s constant work.

      Hell, no wonder, since it’s nearly impossible to separate the concept of “woman” from the concept of “sex” — thus from the concepts of “objectification”, “pornography”, and “compulsory heterosexuality” (or “acting out the same power dynamics of heterosexual relationships while within a lesbian relationship”, which may as well be considered heterosexuality itself). Even if one is able to achieve it herself, or can miraculously achieve it within her relationship, she’s still walking porn, walking sex, a walking object to the rest of the world.

      (For any on-the-fence readership: The concept of “sex” separate from “pornography” does not mean “missionary position, in the dark” or “secretive” or “shameful.” Also, the concept of “woman” separate from the concept of “sex” does not mean “pious, prudish, [what is popularly referred to as] ‘modest'”, etc. It just means “not a sex object.” Covered-up women are still sex objects in this culture. We all are, no matter what we do, and that is part of what feminism seeks to change.)

      • I wish we didn’t have to keep repeating that last part, but the misconception is still out there. And if they’re to accuse us of being boring one-trick ponies in bed, wouldn’t “Cowgirl” be more appropriate than missionary? We’re such manhaters, after all.

        • joy

          Yeah, you can’t get too much more patriarchal than ‘missionary.’

          Well, of course, you can. And how! But really — I always laugh whenever I read that nonfeminists and antifeminists think we think man-atop-prone-and-trapped-woman is the only acceptable sex position.

          The notion of “acceptable sex position” aside, we’re kind of trying to keep men *off of* women. In every sense. That’s sort of our point.

  • omniavanitas

    Yeay, more propaganda from the puppeteers for the world’s teenagers. American Apparel is a horribly sexist, racist, misogynist and pedophelic company that should not be spreading its toxic messages to anyone, anywhere.

  • Kirsten

    I believe they need to get some women in their ad department!

  • Decius

    Better fashion choices for women who have a body that has been excluded from fashion would be progressive.

    I don’t think American Apparel intends to provide better fashion choices than those currently available.

  • joy

    The abolition of *the notion of fashion* would be actually progressive.

    As would the abolition of a beauty standard at all.

    There’s currently ideas about what “fat” is and isn’t (basically, anyone who is not thin is considered fat), and ideas — even implicit rules — about what “fat” people should and shouldn’t wear. There’s also ideas about what “thin” people should and shouldn’t wear (when those people are women, the answer is typically ‘as little as possible’). How about we grow beyond any and all of those ideas?

    American Apparel’s campaign has nothing to do with ending any of those ideas. Therefore (and for other reasons), it is not progressive.

    I think that’s the point of Meghan’s article.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Thanks, Joy. Righto!

  • This attempt to make sexist advertisements is so silly to me…as if it somehow erases AA and their sexist, misogynist business. It is just another way they are attempting to make more money by selling women – skinny, curvy or large…it makes no difference since the women are still being used in such a way. It’s like the idea that if you take porno shots of a woman in tattoos it is somehow progressive and alternative when all it entails is the addition of tattoos and piercings and doesn’t take away from the dehumanization.

  • “The abolition of *the notion of fashion* would be actually progressive.

    As would the abolition of a beauty standard at all.”

    Bingo!

  • Sam

    I worked with American Apparel and them expanding their customer base is a joke. The company has said time and time again we don’t make these sizes because we do not want these people near our stores. Dov himself has said AA only likes skinny people. It’s the dirty ways of American Apparel that disgust people. Not the fact they do not carry certain sizes or that they are basically the worst company to work for and they have a cheap quality that they over price and sell to kids who steal money to buy their clothes or steal AA clothes.

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