This column may contain strong language, sexual content, adult humor, and other themes that may not be suitable for minors. Parental guidance is strongly advised.
This past week was a historic one for women. In one night alone, women, in all their diversity, triumphed. Women of all ethnicities dominated the stage, and international attention was focused on them, with viewers often on edge, unable to contain their excitement.
The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show?
While the annual pageant of over-the-top lace and gossamer fantasy did feature more models of color this year, including one with vitiligo, the stunning Winnie Harlow, it was less significant than the election of 100 women of all stripes and sexual preferences to the US Congress during the 2018 midterms. Unfortunately, some of the rabid anti-gun control beneficiaries of the National Rifle Association’s largesse slipped through the cracks, but on the whole, it was a victory for women. How inspiring to have, for instance, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as the youngest woman to be elected to the House of Representatives, and a Latina to boot. Or Rahsida Tlaib and Ilham Omar, the first Muslim-American women to win seats. Or Ayana Pressley, the first black congresswoman out of Massachusetts. Or Sharice Davids and Deb Haaland, the first Native American women to be voted into Congress, with Davids openly identifying as LGBT.
Unlike the dynastic syndrome that seems to afflict many of the current crop of Congress hopefuls in the Philippines, it’s quite refreshing to see newly-elected officials whose candidacy was based on issues that affect all women, not political ass-licking. And women voters respond to these female candidates who echoed their concerns.
As the president of the National Organization for Women, Toni Van Pelt, said in a statement, “Women voted for health care, for reproductive rights, for economic justice, and for gender equality.”
These newly elected female lawmakers also ran against misogyny and racism, a clear repudiation of their current president.
Name me one—just one—female candidate in the 2019 elections who is running on this platform.
None? Thought so.
Perhaps they were more focused on the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.
There was something so empowering and modern and welcome about seeing the diverse range of women voted into power during the mid-terms. From mothers to millennials to minorities, these were women with a mission, and women with agency. By contrast, the Victoria’s Secret fashion show seemed, quite frankly, dated.
Which is not to say that the “Angels” this year were any less gorgeous, or alluring or than years past. In fact, this year one could say that Victoria’s Secret was rather progressive, parading on the runway a diversity more inclusive than before, in terms of models, albeit with a negligible percentage of body fat.
The show itself, however, is starting to feel like an anachronism. Like the Folies Bergere or one of those Las Vegas extravaganzas complete with feathers and sequins and crazy headdresses, the show seems, well, quaint, belonging more to a time when women existed primarily for the male gaze. True, the show is pure fantasy, with much of the lingerie impractical and unwearable and, once you put on the headdress and slip into those stilettos, really rather difficult to pull off in bed. Of course, it’s primary purpose is seduction, so one might calculate that the end result might be worth a few minutes of sacrifice—or a laugh.
But is it worth the trouble?
The thing about the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is that despite the glam factor—it would appear to be every model’s dream to become an “Angel”—it peddles a version of sex that is still rooted in that Playboy mentality, equal parts glitter and tawdriness, while it peddles the myth that women enjoy doing this as much as men enjoy watching it. Because, look!—the Angels love it! They’re smiling, dancing, laughing as they make their way up and down the catwalk.
As Olivia Petter writes in The Independent, “…the Victoria’s Secret Show gives us one thing for sure: sex. But this is the show’s Achilles heel. The costumes and the context present two conflicting versions of female sexuality. One is virginal, replete with smiley faces, romantic headdresses and actual angel wings. The other, as characterized by g-strings, thigh-high boots and labyrinthine corsets, suggests something very different. The contrast is unnerving and, in truth, makes the whole thing feel a bit pornographic. It implies that the Victoria’s Secret woman is pure yet promiscuous, demure yet debauched. In other words, she is both the Madonna and the whore.”
No doubt becoming a Victoria’s Secret Angel is a career-defining moment. But in the larger scheme of things, what else does it define? An almost pornographic nostalgia for the way things used to be, and a rather blithe obliviousness to the waves of change effected by the #MeToo movement, not to mention Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court despite credible allegations of sexual assault.
The thing is, Victoria’s Secret is in on the joke, even if it knows the times they are a-changing. They paid lip service to this with the various models commenting, in a video aired before the spectacle began, about how doing the show made them feel “successful,” “powerful,” “empowered,” and “strong,” etc., etc.
But as Vanessa Friedman observed at The New York Times, “its essential vocabulary—its approach to the world—is still dedicated to an idea of sexy rooted in the pinup era, when women and their bodies were defined by the eye and imagination of a male beholder; when they were at the mercy of the moguls. When their flesh was strapped in and sucked in and their cleavage was pushed up and their bottoms were cantilevered out by the physics of spike heels, and everything was waxed and moisturized to airbrushed extremes, and it was all covered by a scrim of lacy peekaboo. And that era is on its way to extinction.”
And judging from sales, that era no longer really finds favor with customers. The sparkly bras and the teeny-weeny thongs may excite the men, but the shoppers? Not really.
The fashion industry’s newspaper of record, WWD—(full disclosure: I have been a contributor to WWD for more than a decade)—quoted a retail analyst a few months back:
“‘Victoria’s Secret is just really struggling, they can’t sell anything at full price, their margins continue to go south,’ said Ike Boruchow, a Wells Fargo retail analyst. ‘It could be the brand needs a makeover. It could be younger customers are finding other options. It could be the marketing needs to be addressed. The brand is not resonating like it used to.’”
What seems to be striking a chord instead is inclusivity and modernity and self-love, as epitomized by the likes of Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty line.
I’d like to think that with the emergence of strong, principled, bold, racially diverse, even gender non-conforming women of all ages, colors and sizes, girls today might realize that you can define exactly what sexy and strong mean to you.
It seems fitting that capping a week of historic firsts was Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The Supreme Court Justice broke three ribs when she fell in her office, but went back to working after a night in the hospital. She’s 85 years old.
Now that’s badass.
B. Wiser is the author of Making Love in Spanish, a novel published by Anvil Publishing and available in National Book Store and Powerbooks, as well as online. When not assuming her Sasha Fierce alter-ego, she takes on the role of serious journalist and media consultant.
For comments and questions, e-mail email@example.com.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of Preen.ph, or any other entity of the Inquirer Group of Companies.
Photo from Timothy A. Clary for AFP
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