Victoria’s Secret: Bringing sexy racism back

10 Oct

Victoria Secret wants you to Go East with the “Sexy Little Geisha” outfit:

Don’t bother trying to find it on the VS website: critical response apparently influenced the company to bury the geisha look, although you can still get your Sexy on as a Little Police Officer, Little Sailor or Little Angel.

Notwithstanding the blatant, unapologetic sizeism and sexism of the entire “Sexy Little” campaign (the idea of women as police officers and sailors is fantasy?), the Sexy Little Geisha and entire Go East collection proved particularly provocative due to their sales pitch:

Indulge in touches of Eastern delight.

Your ticket to an exotic adventure: a sexy mesh teddy with flirty cutouts and Eastern-inspired florals. Sexy little fantasies, there’s one for every sexy you.

As the Huffington Post asked its readers (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/24/victorias-secret-geisha-outfit-photos_n_1909366.html?utm_hp_ref=mostpopular#slide=1263575):

Do you find the “Sexy Little Geisha” offensive or totally innocuous?

  • TASTELESS! The use of such stereotypes is offensive.
  • NO BIG DEAL. They probably meant no harm.

Well.

While I can see VS not meaning any harm (that would be senseless, right? to try to offend your consumer base?), we all know there’s a difference between intention and impact, and it’s entirely possible for this to be harmful without harm intended. (Let’s just start with the idea that while “Asian” is good for dress up, it takes a blonde white woman to make “Asian” sexy.)

So as to avoid redundancy, I’ll direct you to the Racialicious blog (http://www.racialicious.com/2012/09/06/victorias-secret-does-it-again-when-racism-meets-fashion/) for an explication of what makes the geisha stereotype racist.

But let me ask you another question: if you do think this campaign and the stereotypes it perpetuates are a big deal, how big a deal would you say it is? How offensive?

By way of gauging your offense-o-meter, check out these other examples of controversial products that the Huff Post archived (see link above for more). As you scroll through them, notice your gut response to each, relative to the others:

That last product is dye to color “the hair down there.”

So, did you notice any difference in your reaction to these products, all of which play off and perpetuate stereotypes of targeted groups? It would be very human–and socially aware–if you did.

The histories of these groups (Asians, Mexicans, Irish, sub-Saharan black women and women with dark body hair) are not the same, including the histories of their denied and protected rights. Their social status in the US are not the same. And the product messages about them are not the same (the VS lingerie campaign doesn’t have the mean spirit of the New Mexico t-shirt or the polite but denigrating tone of the hair dye. Of course, that’s what makes the VS lingerie campaign so insidious).

In addition to (and partially as a result of) how these groups are unlike each other is how we perceive them: among other things, where they fall on our personal social justice spectrum of awareness.

Because all too quickly, that spectrum can turn into a series of podiums at the Olympics Oppression (recognizing the most oppressed! And it’s all too easy to forget the groups that don’t medal), it’s important for each of us to notice our social justice bias: whom and what we tend to see and speak up about. Noticing our social justice triggers (it might be certain groups or certain language) in turn sheds some light on our social justice blindspots.

Not that we have to be equally outraged about everything. But if we’re going to shrug something off as “no big deal,” I think it’s only fair that ask we ourselves why it’s not a big deal… to us.

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