Nothing shocking: A look at the latest Victoria’s Secret controversy

Any feminist worth their salt has no doubt seen at least one mention of the latest Victoria’s Secret dust-up. This time, the retailer has struck the ire of conservatives and feminists alike for the reported launch of a hyper-sexualized line of lingerie marketed to tweens. Or did they?

It wouldn’t be surprising that a brand that has faced constant backlashes for not just one racist incident, but two racist incidents in less than two years. Need I remind you of the “geisha outfit” and the Sioux-style war bonnet incident? And then there’s the whole “fair trade” fiasco, in which cotton underwear marketed as fair trade were actually made by abused African children. (Note to Victoria’s Secret: The definition of fair trade is to empower normally oppressed populations with work that pays a fair wage and sets a precedent for a fair work environment.)

So cue a Liz Lemon-style eye roll, when reports started surfacing on the internet and in the media at large — I’ve counted stories on FOX News, MSNBC, ABC News, Huffington Post, and more — that Victoria’s Secret was up to no good, again. And this time the story has been framed largely by an outcry from “angry moms.” Now as a mother myself, I have to find out which kind of “angry moms” these are. Color me Glinda, asking the internet: But are you angry moms the good kind, or the bad kind?

The genesis for this current shit-storm seems to originate with anti-choice “mom of seven sillies” and “homeschooling guru” Amy Gerwig via the Black Sphere in a an article titled, “Victoria’s Secret is coming for your Middle Schooler.” Sound the alarm!

Gerwig proceeded to denounce a new spring collection called “Bright Young Things,” marketed to teens and tweens. We’re going to circle back to that in a sec, but for the time being let’s stick with what Gerwig said about the line, which includes thongs and underwear with suggestive slogans on the them including “Wild,” “Feeling lucky?” and “Call me.”

Gerwig writes:

Our country is replete with an unprecedented number of young girls suffering from eating disorders and body mutilation, while pushing the limits of sexual promiscuity. Is this racy underwear modeled by unrealistically thin girls really the best that we have to offer our girls? In this age when female sex trafficking is becoming a wide-spread crisis, reaching into the depths of our inner cities, is it really responsible for Victoria’s Secret to entice our impressionable young girls with this “come hither” message?

Here, Gerwig hits upon messages that, in part, overlap with many feminist themes. We feminists frequently call out products and marketing campaigns that enable the misogyny of our society — including imagery that encourages people to have unrealistic beauty myth ideals, which can lead to eating disorders and other forms of self-harm. Gerwig really lights it up by including human trafficking. Well done, Gerwig.

From here, several outlets — both conservative and feminist — picked up the meme. Notably, Rev. Evan Dolive, of Houston posted an open letter to the company, imploring them to scale back their role in the sexualized media-assault on young women and girls. Dolive’s letter gained a lot of traction, perhaps more than Gerwig’s piece. I admit, I posted it on my social media feeds, as I was surprised by the relatively inclusive tone (there’s a hint of LGBTQ acceptance here) and the message that fathers care about the negative messaging girls are receiving.

I believe that this sends the wrong message to not only my daughter but to all young girls.
I don’t want my daughter to ever think that her self-worth and acceptance by others is based on the choice of her undergarments. I don’t want my daughter to ever think that to be popular or even attractive she has to have emblazon words on her bottom.

I want my daughter (and every girl) to be faced with tough decisions in her formative years of adolescence. Decisions like should I be a doctor or a lawyer? Should I take calculus as a junior or a senior? Do I want to go to Texas A&M or University of Texas or some Ivy League School? Should I raise awareness for slave trafficking or lack of water in developing nations? There are many, many more questions that all young women should be asking themselves… not will a boy (or girl) like me if I wear a “call me” thong?

Then came the Jezebel piece that sort of tossed a grenade into this whole meme, pointing an accusatory finger at conservatives for co-opting feminist themes and at the feminists who may have been duped by it, or even been among the 40,000 who signed a petition to stop the line.

Victoria’s Secret is not “launching” an underwear line “for pre-teens.” Pink is a standalone Victoria’s Secret brand marketed at older teens and 20-somethings. “Bright Young Things” is the advertising tag-line the company gave to a Pink collection that hit stores in time for spring break. Spring break is a university vacation. It has nothing to do with pre-teen girls. …

Gerwing’s dog-whistling to conservative values couldn’t be more obvious. Social conservatives aren’t interested in fighting the objectification of women in advertising or the sexualization of young girls: they’re interested in the social control of women’s sexuality, plain and simple. They are not feminist allies. …

But the seed was planted. The notion that Victoria’s Secret was out there, and it was coming for Your Daughter was established. The media then took hold of the story. Many outlets repeated the untrue assertion that the company was actually launching a line “targeting” tweens. Others merely devoted valuable column inches to far-right rhetoric about the need to protect the “innocence” of “our” girls (it’s always “our” girls, because while boys know they belong only to themselves, girls are raised from birth in a society that tells them their bodies are never fully their own) from the potential harm of their own sexuality

So there it is. Victoria’s Secret is not coming for the tweens, the girls, or their virginity (because that’s the implied fear, right?). The uproar about what amounts to a retail marketing campaign is, either wholly manufactured or (less likely) a gross misunderstanding of the facts. I am led to believe that these “angry moms” are not the angry moms I am looking for.

But there’s something unsatisfying about tying this up in such a neat little — haha, you’ve been suckered — package. I’ve been working within the feminist movement for more than 20 years. I have a minor in Women’s Studies. And, yeah, I’m a parent. So, was I really that off-base to find a thread of empathy with the words of a Protestant pastor and father? (I didn’t even read or know about Gerwig’s piece until I was researching this post.)

I must cop to bristling at Jezebel writer Jenna Sauers’ accusatory tone. Because the open message of her piece is to question the bona fides of any feminist who agreed with any part of Dolive’s post. Yes, Gerwig’s alarmist piece is base pandering to folks I have little (if anything) in common with. But I can’t simply write off Dolive’s more reasonable defense of the innocence of childhood and a need to dismantle the damaging messages girls (and boys) receive. He might not have gotten it completely right — in a feminist sense — but as my daughter nears her third birthday, I find myself worrying about the many ways that social messaging tries to rob kids (of all genders and gender identities) of their right to a childhood without sexualization, without problematic body image campaigns, without forcing the issues of sex and sexuality before their time.

Before you get the pitchforks and torches, hear me out. I disagree whole-heartedly with the idea that “our girls” must be protected by the “natural” predatory instincts of boys. I disagree with labeling teens (of any gender) who have sex or express interest in sex as whores, sluts, or in any way wrong. I disagree with fretting that girls are not virginal, or the phallacy of a rape culture system of oppression that says there are “good” girls and “bad” girls. Full stop. I’m against all that shit.

But those problems are not the only problems I see with a lingerie line — in this case imagined — that on its face flirts with a hyper-sexualized view of girlhood, femininity, or gender identities that conform to a “weaker sex” model. As a survivor of sexual abuse, I was introduced to sex acts and sexualization well before my mind and body were developmentally ready for it. I think there is something right about protecting children from that and that has nothing to do with being feminist or anti-feminist. It has nothing to do with being religious or atheist. It has nothing to do with upholding sexist views about gender roles. What I’m talking about is a true form of, well, protecting the children. As a survivor, I have a problem with clothing, products, and marketing campaigns designed to rob kids — and by kids I mean people who are pre-pubescent — of actual childhood innocence, fun, and joy. (And, by the way, I do not agree with using this kind of argument as a way to fight against comprehensive sex education. There is a difference between medically accurate, age-appropriate education and retailers trying to sell sex to five-year-olds.)

If you want to revoke my feminist card for saying that, go ahead.

So, yeah, I take umbrage to the tone Jezebel takes. I’m glad they are dismantling the troubling, anti-feminist elements of this meme. Gerwig’s ideas seem like true anti-feminist troll-think. But I am disappointed at the limited view Sauers takes on the totality of the subject. Gerwig’s alarmist article was designed to stir up a conservative base that is more interested in maintaining the status quo of misogyny and rape culture, without a doubt. But there is an opportunity for a much broader discussion here. How do we raise feminist kids and still do an appropriate amount of watch-dogging of media and messaging that are actually harmful? Where’s the line? Is it underwear marketed to teens? Is it Disney movies that propagate the gender binary and covert racist and homophobic messaging? Is it photoshopped ads and magazine covers? Where is that line?

Because the real discussion that we could be having is about what can we do to be feminist parents and help parents participate in feminism. Sure, there are obvious signs. Purity balls and virginity pledges are obvious tools of misogyny. But is a parent’s worry about hyper-sexualized clothing automatically anti-feminist? I think that line is a lot grayer than some of the folks in this debate are willing to admit. And rather than castigating parents for their worry, how about we give them a hand by offering some help? How about we help parents in how they frame the discussion about things like the not-actually-real Bright Young Things campaign?

Because I think the last thing parents — feminist or not — need is one more group of people judging them for worrying about their kids. The last thing I need is one more person, group, or media outlet telling me I’m doing it wrong.

Originally posted on Fem2.0.

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