Answering the Question: Victoria’s Secret and Feminism

In ART & FASHION, Commentary, HOME by Hannah Beer

The 2nd of December this year saw the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show take a step out of the USA for only the second time since its inception in the 1990s, and held its glossy parade of company-dubbed ‘Angels’ in eye-wateringly expensive lingerie in London.

Whenever presented with media spectacles of this form, I am fairly conflicted. On the one hand, these women are undoubtedly the top of their field and are unquestioningly raking in very large pay checks at least on par with men in similar industries. On the other hand, I don’t seem to be able to shake the feeling that what they are personifying is unattainable, elitist, and yes, tangibly harmful to the thousands of females glued to their parade on television or liking their photos on Instagram.

However this personal conflict of opinions laid fairly dormant, until this year, when a journalist went a little further than the standard issue questions for interviewing the ‘Angels’, and asked: ‘some say this show objectifies women – what would you say to that?’. ‘Can we maybe not ask that question’ was the response. Hence, my two cents. Let’s just go ahead and ask that question.

10839623_10154912660375553_1973005481_oWhat is this ”body” and what on earth do the speech marks insinuate?

Oh dear. You think the show is ‘harmful’? You’re a feminist, aren’t you? Yes, I’m afraid I am. Personal identification as such can warrant a variety responses from people, I have come to realise. It ranges from the acceptance (‘yeah? Me too!’), the disdainful and dismissive (‘Oh? Oh right’) and the misinformed (‘You just hate men then? You don’t really want equality, you want special treatment?’). But I guess this whole piece would be a bit more coherent if I took a second to go back to why I identify as a feminist.

I was raised by two wonderful parents, both very intelligent and informed. It may surprise you that in my time growing up, it was my father who was the vehement vocal champion of feminist type views in the household. That isn’t to say my mother didn’t agree, but as they would both likely verify, my father can tend to be more discursive about his stronger opinions.

So when adverts would flash on television for the latest anti-aging cream, it was my father who give a commentary on these – something along the lines of, ‘There you go ladies, there’s something wrong with you, and you need to buy that product to fix it’. Or in news broadcastings and tv shows, where the male anchor could be older, greying of hair, overweight, and his female counterpart would likely have all the same qualifications and had to be coiffed and makeup and glamorous to the nines.

Strictly Come DancingGood old Strictly – hiring old men and firing old women since 2004.

I don’t exactly know when he formed these views – perhaps it was when he found out he was going to have a daughter, perhaps before – but I do know that they absolutely shaped my own.

Okay. You’re a feminist. What does all this have to do with the ‘Angels’? If I’m honest, I think they are participating in objectification, with a false image of what a female body can look like solely to sell you lots and lots of stuff. Victoria’s Secret aren’t doing it simply to put on a nice big spectacle. They’re not doing it just to give the models something to do in December. They want you to want to look the way the models do, and they want you to buy their products in an attempt to do so.

Even the models don’t look the way they do on stage all year round. Martha Hunt has in the past described her pre-show regime as ‘torture’. For the preceding weeks, the girls limit their solid food and survive on liquid-only and supplement filled diets. This isn’t sustainable in normal life, but watching the show, the glossy hair, fluffy wings and spangled underwear would have you believe otherwise. The big smiles scream ease. That you too could look like this, if only you weren’t, well, you.

Pictures2Look what days of ‘torture’ can achieve.

Do I really think such images are really ‘harmful’? Well, yes. Around 90% of eating disorder sufferers are women. Over 50% of 9 and 10 year old female children feel better about themselves if they are on a ‘diet’, even though the estimate for that age range of those who are actually overweight is 18%. No, I do not believe that is completely unrelated to the type of female bodies which are heralded through the mainstream media. (Someone has been reading too much Naomi Wolf, haven’t they?)

I can hear the responses ringing soundly. ‘Oh for god sake, just another cynical feminist’. ‘They’re models, it’s their job. Why do you read so much into it?’. There are those out there who would be of the mindset that these models are helpless, at the mercy of the big horrible corporation, being objectified against their better judgement and they need rescuing from the nasty talons of misogyny.

This I disagree with. These models aren’t stupid, and they certainly aren’t being paraded against their will. It is their complete freedom and autonomous choice to behave as they wish. They are making the choice to stand for and represent this organisation. While I do not agree with it, I support their freedom to do so.

But this is not ‘just’ underwear. This is not ‘just’ a fashion show. This is not ‘just’ a bit of fun with no greater aim. This show exists predominantly to make us feel bad, and further to make us think that we could feel better, look better, be more like an ‘Angel’ – if we buy their range of products.

Admittedly, the use of the word ‘objectification’ in itself can bring about more discussion than it can solve. How are these models being objectified? And even if they are, so what? Objectification, according to the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, is simply the treating of a person as an inanimate tool for another’s purpose. Surely all models, male and female, are objects in this sense?

Well, yes. They are, effectively, human mannequins. My particular problem with this show, however, is that most of the underwear they model never goes on sale. You cannot go into a store and buy one of the thousand dollar crystal-encrusted bras. What, then, are they being ‘used’ for here?

It is my own, perhaps overly cynical view, that they are being used simply to promote an ideal that most of us will never achieve. And so long as we want to strive to that ideal, we will keep spending our money, not just on Victoria Secret products, but all the products that the female beauty industries have to offer.

Think I’m making too much of a leap? That no one is impressionable enough to watch such a spectacle and automatically think that they have to go and buy the products? 

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we are just that impressionable. Last year, Victoria’s Secret sales totaled a nice tidy sum of $3.6bn and I highly doubt that this was just because they design nice underwear. Big companies, such as VS, are willing to spend vast percentages of their budgets on publicity to make us feel that there are things about us which we need improving and which can be improved by their products. Do you think that they would spend so much on this if it didn’t work?

The show itself gets an insane amount of media coverage. Unless you are a real fashion aficionado, you wouldn’t know the exact date of the Chanel fashion show, and you probably wouldn’t be able to name models that walked for Marc Jacobs off the top of your head, but many more do about this show. It’s the biggest advert slot of them all, six sections long and broadcast worldwide.

10850460_10154912660650553_1971849768_nAdriana Lima, Alessandra Ambrosio and their two unattainable bodies.

And can we say there is enough progress, that no more needs to be done, when some of the highest paid female celebrities are those who maintain gruelling regimes and walk nearly naked in the media’s lens, rather than, say, top female footballers? This is not to say women should not be free to model in their underwear – to say that would be completely contrary to the opinions I hold – but rather an indicator that perhaps the balance is not quite where it should be in an ideal world.

This is summed up perfectly, I think, in a quote from the 2012 Show’s tip sheet:

‘This year, it’s all about looking like an Angel. Confidence and irresistible sexiness shines from within – though hair extensions can’t hurt.’

Amanda Gordon

Amanda is a law student in the dusty rooms of theUniversity of Edinburgh, which despite what most of her peers would have you believe, is nothing like Suits. Her talents include being able to spend hours scrolling pictures of puppies on Instagram, and being able to demolish ungodly amounts of cheese products in single sittings. Instant friendship can be procured by voluntarily duet-ing Disney songs with her.

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