Victoria's Secret does it again: When racism meets fashion

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

From the website: "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.
This piece by Forward Together staffer Nina Jacinto ran on Racialicious on September 6th.  We just heard from Yahoo that Victoria's Secret pulled the piece pictured here.

Here is a brief response from Nina:

It looks like Victoria's Secret has taken a step in the right direction - there's no trace of the "sexy geisha" outfit on their website, which is great. I imagine there were a number of factors that went into that decision. Especially because their "Cherry Blossoms" page still exists and still contains language such as "indulge in touches of eastern delight" - the clothing itself may not be as overtly distasteful as the geisha piece, but the language is still troublesome. Surely there must be another way to advertise these particular items in a way that doesn't exoticize Asian women and capitalize on Orientalist imagery.

The majority of people who have submitted to Huffington Post's piece say the "Go East" line was "no big deal". In the grand scheme of things, it may not be. After all, Victoria's Secret has problems that go deeper than their advertising, including previous allegations of using child and prison labor. But in the context of fashion, it's important that companies like Victoria's Secret know that capitalizing on a stereotype and on a culture is tasteless and offensive. The messaging we insert in our culture shapes people's attitudes - so questioning clothing like this is important. We can only hope that this is the start of a new standard of advertising, in which we don't depend on racist narratives to push product.

Victoria's Secret does it again: When racism meets fashion

by Nina Jacinto

In case you missed it, Victoria's Secret recently launched a new lingerie collection. Entitled "Go East," it's the kind of overt racism masked behind claims of inspired fashion and exploring sexual fantasy that makes my skin crawl.

The collection varies in its level of exoticism. The "Sexy Little Geisha" is a perversion of its reference, featuring a sultry white model donned in lingerie, chopsticks in her hair, fan in her hand. Other items in the collection include red sleepwear and nightgowns with cherry blossoms. I may have glossed over some of these pieces entirely, except the catalog descriptions had me reeling. "Indulge in touches of Eastern delight." Translation - Buying these clothes can help you experience the Exotic East and all the sexual fantasies that come along with it, without all the messy racial politics!

When someone creates a collection like this, making inauthentic references to "Eastern culture" (whatever that means) with hints of red or a fan accessory or floral designs, it reinforces a narrative that says that all Asian cultures are exotic, far-away but easy to access. It's a narrative that says the culture can be completely stripped of its realness in order to fulfill our fantasies of a non-threatening, mysterious East.

But when a company takes it one step further by developing a story about how the clothes can offer a sort of escape using explicit sexualized and exploitive language, it takes the whole thing to another level. It's a troubling attempt to sidestep authentic representation and humanization of a culture, and opt instead for racialized fetishizing.

It's telling that none of the models wearing the "Go East" collection appear to be Asian. Perhaps this is a way for the company to distance itself from accusations of racism, given the backlash of previous campaigns such as "Wild Thing," a fashion show segment in which black models wore "tribal" body paint and African-themed wraps. The lack of Asian faces here simply exposes the deep-rooted nature of the Orientalist narrative, one that trades real humanness for access to culture. Besides, it can only feel sexy and exotic if it's on an "American" body - without the feeling of accessing something foreign or forbidden, there can be no fantasy.

I'm not trying to deny that people have their own unique sexual desires and sources of pleasure. But like all things, sex and sexuality don't live in a bubble. They intersect with our historical and cultural contexts. Donning a "sexy Geisha" outfit to get the ball rolling in the bedroom remains offensive because it confirms a paradigm in which Asian people and their culture can be modified and sexualized and appropriated for the benefit of the West. This particular kind of racism has existed for a long time, and we're far from moving beyond it.