No, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is not empowering.
On Nov. 20 of 2017, the annual Victoria’s Secret fashion show was hosted in Shanghai and screened to the public — and on our own University of Redlands campus — around a week later. The event has undoubtedly worked its way into mainstream popular culture with 4.98 million viewers this year but it is no stranger to controversy concerning its marketing techniques, model diversity and the hyper-sexualization of women’s bodies.
Of course, I’ll admit it myself: I’m a sucker for the finely polished and visual eye candy that is the Victoria’s Secret website, and if you’ve ever walked into a Victoria’s Secret or Pink yourself, you’ll notice that everything from its flattering lighting to the carefully placed sale signs to organization of apparel and lingerie screams “buy me.”
That’s because Victoria’s Secret’s advertising has simply worked, having been palatable to consumer desires for the past few decades. When it was launched in 1977, Victoria Secret’s original intention was to market to men who wanted to buy lingerie for their wives but felt ashamed doing so in standard department stores. The brand’s success at this point was relatively limited. But when Leslie Wexner acquired the brand in the 80’s, he capitalized off the sexual revolution that had began in the 60’s with the introduction of the birth control pill and as Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners told Newsweek, “made sexy mainstream,” by marketing to women.
And truthfully, only a few things have required Victoria’s Secret to change since then, like Connie Sobczak and Elizabeth Scott founding The Body Positivity movement in 1996. Since the birth of that movement, there have been frequent calls for women to reclaim their femininity. Thought pieces like “Why You Should Embrace Your Sexuality” go up and trend weekly.
All Victoria’s Secret had to do was throw in a few less photoshopped ads that showed another conventionally attractive supermodel (but a black one, with stretch marks!) and slap the phrase “love your body” over the same prepackaged advertisement strategy that’s been used for decades and voilà — the public applauds their “diverse body-positive” PR once more.
This is called “femvertising” — what media company SheKnows describes as “advertising that employs pro-female talent, messages, and imagery to empower women and girls.” The problem with femvertising is that it usually rebounds off of pre-existing movements and dilutes their purpose for a profit. That message results in something like: it’s not only good to borrow convenient aspects of legitimate social movements without actually attempting to assist them, but it’s even better to commodify them for monetary gain, only to be later discarded when it’s no longer trendy.
And if you still think that maybe at the root of the advertising campaigns, there is pure intent that got misconstrued down the line, consider the following. Instead of acting like placing a woman larger than a size 6 or a woman of color in an advertisement is something revolutionary, why don’t these companies simply normalize diversity rather than parade it around and expect applause?
Right — because we do applaud, and sales skyrocket.
That’s not to say Victoria’s Secret hasn’t had backlash, but it is to say, for the most part, that consumers have been able to ignore, forgive, or forget its use of prison labor, obvious issues with body diversity and blatant cultural appropriation enough to leave Victoria’s Secret still dominating the lingerie market.
In fact, arguably the biggest and possibly the only reason why sales have been dropping recently is simply because other brands are femvertising better.
Aerie’s “Love Your Real” campaign explicitly challenged photoshopped photos prompting girls to post unedited selfies with #AerieReal — and consequently saw shares rising by 18.3 percent, which really shouldn’t be surprising.
There’s a funny stereotype that the Victoria’s Secret fashion show caters towards men who want to watch women strutting down the runway nearly nude, which pretty much overlooks the entire way Victoria’s Secret has been advertising since the 80’s — towards women. When I walked into the screening of the fashion show hosted by University of Redlands’ ASUR student activities, the audience was only comprised of female students.
Make no mistake: the Victoria’s Secret fashion show is catering to women in the same way it does with its website and in-store advertising. Taylor Swift and Rihanna have made appearances. Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner walked the runway in 2015 and Bella Hadid this year. Featuring gorgeous “it girl” celebrities is merely an equivalent of the bright lights and pretty pink packaging, except instead of “buy me,” the message says “be me.” While I congratulate these women on their stunning genes, using them as the only representation of female appearances inevitably creates impossible beauty standards. Simply not all women can — or should — aim to achieve the vision of feminine beauty that is dominantly white, size 2 or less, possessing facial features without asymmetry of any kind, and acne, scar and stretch mark free.
This doesn’t mean abandonment of companies who display such images is necessary; after all, there is nothing inherently wrong with fashion shows, lingerie or a genuine body positivity movement. Reclaiming femininity is good. Embracing sexuality is good. Diverse body and racial representation is good.
Allowing companies to put one leg in and profit off of women who have pioneered those movements is not. And, as consumers, pretending like buying those products and using #AerieReal contributes to the actual body positivity movement more so than a growing PR budget isn’t productive either.
It does mean that, as consumers, we need to be wary and highly critical of the way things like body imagery and diversity are being portrayed, and to hold companies who do so wrongly, accountable.
photo courtesy of a “free to use and share” Flikr photo.