The Reason We Keep Showing American Apparel Softcore

This is not an ad for American Apparel. Nor is this. Or this. Or this, either. None of the posts that comprise our coverage of the struggling t-shirt company and its pants-optional C.E.O. is an ad. Critique depends upon quotation.

Walter Benjamin argued that the reproduction of an image in a new context utterly changes the nature of that image — that copies are qualitatively different from originals. Postmodernists from David Shields to David Antin to Andy Warhol have since made much out of the relatively simple tactic of recontextualizing the imagery and language of advertising and consumer culture. The symbology of manufactured desire, and all of the simple-minded tropes it relies upon, looks different (a lot sillier, and more pathetic) when it's ripped out of the context its creators engineered for it.

That much is obvious; we all know the differences between critique, appropriation, and pastiche, and endorsement, affirmation, and reification. (Or at least, I thought we did.) A picture of an underclothed young woman posing as though she were at the gynecologist's office, posted next to a rundown of the latest developments in American Apparel's ongoing financial meltdown, is not an endorsement of whatever product(s) she might be wearing, or the troubled company that makes them. A picture of an underclothed young woman posing as though she were at the gynecologist's office, posted next to a rundown of the latest developments in American Apparel's ongoing financial meltdown, written by a feminist and published by a strongly feminist-leaning website under the tags "American Appalling" and "American Apparel bankruptcy watch" and "sexual harassment" — that a critique of that image and all it stands for is what is being offered is self-explanatory.

Illustrating posts about American Apparel with the company's own ads is nothing new around these parts (and we often illustrate posts about other companies we cover with recontextualized advertising images, for the record). As the company continues its apparent implosion — the circling-the-drain stock price, the delisting warnings, the shareholder lawsuits, the ongoing debt crisis, the late filings, the revelation that there is "substantial risk" American Apparel will no longer be a "going concern," the ludicrous over-expansion, the Department of Justice subpoenas, the financial irregularities — I will continue to use the most appalling (though obviously SFW and non-nude) American Apparel ads I can find to illustrate my coverage. Because the company's brand image — and its treatment of women, including Dov Charney's own history of sexual harassment — is integral to the story of the company's downfall. And because seeing a scantily-clad model next to a story about Charney's capacity for self-delusion seems strangely appropriate. Telling the story of American Apparel's death spiral and illustrating it with the company's own imagery offers an irresistible ironic kick. For God's sake, if this were an undergraduate study group we'd say it's, like, totally using the tools of the patriarchal oppressor to critically unpack his dialectic. (We would mean "rhetoric.") Or some earnest bullshit like that.

We get sold a lot of things simply by dint of being women living in the West under late capitalism. If advertisers had their way, our insecurities would have insecurities by now (and our hair would still not be any shinier, bouncier, or softer). The fusillade of manufactured needs to which we are subjected is a bullshit system, a happiness shell game, with charge cards, and that system deserves to be questioned and, yes, critically unpacked. (And it is, refreshingly, by us and so many other blogs.) Taking ads out of their context is a way of making them puny. It dispels what Benjamin would have called their "aura." And it is absolutely part of that good fight.

Earlier: Jezebel's Ongoing Coverage Of American Apparel