The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is a huge commercial success. Beginning as a small show in 1995, it now reaches 500 million viewers in 185 countries (Robehend 2015). Thus the potential for harm from gender and racial stereotyping is enormous. Criticisms of the show include the sexual objectification of women and a lineup that excludes plus sized, gender fluid, and racially diverse models (Harrington 2015). The following analysis will focus on the show’s lack of racial diversity and racial sensitivity. The whitewashed nature of the show will be described, followed by an assessment of the show’s cultural appropriation. The show’s attempts to address gender inequality in the industry will be discussed, as will ways in which it would benefit from adopting intersectionality.
The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is an example of a mass culture piece that is targeted primarily at a white audience. According to Susie O’Brien in The Consuming Life, mass culture is a system characterized by “voluntary experiences, produced by a relatively small number of specialists, for millions across the nation to share, in similar or identical form, either simultaneously or nearly so; with dependable frequency; mass culture shapes habitual audiences, around common needs or interests; and it is made for profit” (O’Brien et al. 2014). The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show fits this description, as although it is available to millions, it is marketed to a select group of viewers. It is aimed towards white women and men: “Everyone is primarily white with the exception of a few black and Latina women. Even if women of colour are featured, they are never the focus of the campaign and are usually on the side or in the back” (Chuang 2015). Not only does its “whitewashing” of the runway exclude more than half of the US population (Corby and Ortman, 2015), it also excludes the two-thirds of the US population who are overweight (Ng et al. 2013), and the many gender fluid individuals in the population. Emphasis on ‘whiteness’ and marketing towards white men and women of a specific body type, gender, and sexuality is one of the many ways the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show ignores diversity.
Racial insensitivity in the form of cultural appropriation has been demonstrated numerous times since the show’s its creation. In 2012, Karlie Kloss, a white model, wore a Native American-inspired headdress and leopard print bottoms. This association between minorities and ‘exotic prints’ arises numerous times (Edwards, 2012). A set titled “the sexy little geisha”, fostered Asian stereotypes. The 2010 show featured black models wearing “jungle-inspired” outfits, with ‘tribal’ body paint, once again associating being black with exoticism or primitiveness (Edwards, 2015). This appropriation of black culture transpires in other shows. The designer Valentino produced a show that “was inspired by Wild, Tribal Africa”. It included bone necklaces, belts made from African beads, and prodigious use of feathers. The show employed 87 models, only 8 of whom were black (Stansfield, 2014). The placing of models into the category of ‘black women’ by fashion shows belittles the many facets that make up an individual woman’s persona include her ethnicity, sexual preference, gender, etcetera. In short, Victoria’s Secret seems oblivious to the importance of intersectionality. The concept of ‘race’ itself is questionable, as it’s not an attribute of human biology, but merely a cultural and historical category separating people by skin tone (Storey 2009). Thus it is unnecessary for Victoria’s Secret to categorize it’s models as ‘wild African women’, ‘sexy Asian geishas’ or otherwise.
Despite these shortcomings, the most recent Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show has been described as one of the most diverse in the industry (Builder, 2015). The Victoria’s Secret ‘Angels’, the company’s top rated models, included two black women for the first time (Builder, 2015). The remaining cast included 31 white, 5 black, 5 multiracial, two Asian women, and one Hispanic woman (Ferber, 2015). While this does not mirror the diversity of the show’s audience from a racial perspective, let alone the many other aspects of cultural diversity including body size, disabilities, class, gender, and so on, this is more diverse than most shows, which usually employ about 20% of models from racial minorities. (Builder, 2015). Furthermore, black model Maria Borges became the first to walk the runway with her natural hair (Andrews, 2015). Models, regardless of race, are expected to have long, silky hair; which is inconsistent with the natural hair of most black individuals (Andrews, 2015). This: “help[s] to disrupt the damaging myth that natural hair is unattractive” (Andrews, 2015). Imani Perry in “Who(se) am I? The identity and Image of Women in Hip Hop” has described how black girls had been the social group with the highest self esteem and body image scores, which Perry attributes to an absence of black women in the media. Paradoxically, glacial movement towards improved racial equality in terms of increased black female presence in the media may have contributed to worsening body image in young black women (Perry). The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, an important influence on what society defines as ‘sexy’, is now showing black girls and women that natural hair is beautiful: “If it’s so undesirable, how can you explain its appearance on the Victoria’s Secret runway, a bastion of sexiness?” (Andrews, 2015). As damaging as the show is in terms of racial stereotypes and gender inequality, it is perhaps not as bad as other fashion shows. “Tales of racism in fashion”, according to Julee Wilson of the Huffington Post, “are, sadly, never ending. From ridiculously insensitive editorials to the blatant white-washing of runways – and beyond” (Wilson 2014). French model Anais Mali explains her own experiences: “In Milan, you don’t really see black girls on the runway; it’s sad. You hear things like, ‘We already have Jourdan [Dunn], one black girl is enough” (Lee 2015).
The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show objectifies women, is whitewashed in its approach to its audience and in it’s hiring of models, utilizes shameless cultural appropriation, and when it does attempt to employ some degree of diversity, ignores intersectionality by assigning its models to categories such as ‘black women’. Despite these flaws, it’s messages are reached by hundreds of millions globally. While it could certainly be argued that fashion shows contribute little to equality, if the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show were to employ concepts based on intersectionality, including models from diverse groups based on ethnicity, sexual preference, gender fluidity, and beyond, it could undo some of the harms of its whitewashed, racially insensitive, cultural appropriating past.
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