Maybe you have heard recently that Victoria's Secret is under fire for starting a line of sexy lingerie for pre-teens. Maybe you were one of the nearly 40,000 people to sign a petition against this "line," or maybe you just read about that petition in the Telegraph, the New York Daily News, or the New York Times. Maybe you felt an upwelling of feminist pique at the thought of the sexualization of young girls for corporate gain.
Maybe you didn't realize you were participating in a media event created by the right-wing blogosphere.
The whole outcry over Victoria's Secret traces back to a single article published ten days ago on the arch-conservative Web site The Black Sphere. It was written by a woman named Amy Gerwing. Gerwing is the kind of person who, in her author bio, says her "passions in life include speaking out for the unborn and standing up to an over-reaching government threatening the fiber of our freedom." The article was all about the current ad campaign for the Victoria's Secret brand Pink, which bore the slogan "Bright Young Things." Gerwing apparently believed "Bright Young Things" was a new clothing line produced by Victoria's Secret, and that it was intended for tween girls. In her post, which was titled, "Victoria's Secret is coming for your Middle Schooler," Gerwing wrote:
As of this spring, the risqué brand will launch an undergarment line aimed specifically at pre-teens and young teen age girls. And lest you think that Victoria's Secret has toned down their recognizably racy style to appeal to this younger demographic, think again.
The new brand called, "Bright Young Things," includes lace black cheeksters with the word "Wild" emblazoned on it, green and white polka-dot hipsters screen printed with "Feeling Lucky?" and a lace trim thong with the words, "Call me" on the front.
This is flatly untrue. Victoria's Secret is not "launching" an underwear line "for pre-teens." Pink is a standalone Victoria's Secret brand marketed at older teens and 20-somethings. "Bright Young Things" is the advertising tag-line the company gave to a Pink collection that hit stores in time for spring break. Spring break is a university vacation. It has nothing to do with pre-teen girls.
It is true that Pink's customer base skews younger than Victoria's Secret. When it launched Pink in 2002, Victoria's Secret announced it as a line aimed at women aged 15-22. And this January, an executive at Limited Brands, the retailer's parent company, said at a conference, "When somebody's 15 or 16 years old, what do they want? They want to be older, and they want to be cool like the girl in college, and that's part of the magic of what we do at Pink." That statement is so true it's obvious: most teenagers indeed wish they were older, and lots of brands use that desire to try and sell them things. It is also true there is a world of difference between making underwear that might appeal to a 15, 16, or 17-year-old, and "sexualizing pre-teens."
Victoria's Secret is actually scrupulous about only hiring models over the age of 18; most of the models for Pink are in their 20s. This stance contrasts notably with that of many of its competitors in the mass market, and with virtually all of the high-fashion brands, which regularly use models as young as 13 or 14 in their ads, and which often portray those minors in highly sexualized ways. If you want to see the sexualization of a minor, look no further than the Prada campaign with a then-13-year-old Ondria Hardin. Or the Lacoste show where a then-15-year-old Lindsey Wixson was made to wear a see-through blouse and no bra.
The woman in the Pink campaign that has everyone so up-in-arms is named Elsa Hosk. A San Francisco Chronicle blogger characterized her as "a lanky model posing provocatively" in the ad. "Victoria's Secret's models are often voluptuous and curvy but this one has a youthful skinny figure," she wrote. In fact, Hosk is 24 years old. Why a comparatively chaste picture of her in a bikini, sweat pants, and sneakers has made half the moms and dads on the Internet mad this week remains a mystery. The other models featured in the Pink ad campaign include Magdalena Frackowiak, who is 28, Sara Sampaio, 21, and Gracie Carvalho, 22. None of these women could possibly be mistaken for a pre-teen girl. For them to advertise clothing to older teenagers and 20-somethings is entirely appropriate. They are 20-somethings themselves.
In her post, Gerwing goes on to link the Pink spring break advertising campaign to everything from the "unprecedented number of young girls suffering from eating disorders and body mutilation," to "sexual promiscuity," to the "wide-spread crisis" of "female sex trafficking," and to "the objectification of...God-given femininity."
Gerwing's dog-whistling to conservative values couldn't be more obvious. Social conservatives aren't interested in fighting the objectification of women in advertising or the sexualization of young girls: they're interested in the social control of women's sexuality, plain and simple. They are not feminist allies.
As for the products Gerwing called out specifically, she might as well have been criticizing at random — Pink sells underwear with stupid slogans on it every single month of the year. The spring break batch was no more or less "offensive" than any other, and nor were its ads. Most of the catalog pictures that Gerwing and other bloggers found such fault with showed nothing "racier" than women wearing t-shirts, shorts and sweats. A video Pink produced for the "Bright Young Things" collection showed a bunch of models wearing bikinis and shorts at the beach. This was paint-by-numbers outrage. What would Gerwing have women wear at the beach? Burqas? The criticism doesn't hold water.
But Gerwing's post nonetheless ignited a firestorm. The controversy was given a significant boost when a Protestant minister in Houston named Evan Dolive blogged an open letter to Victoria's Secret, which quickly went viral. Dolive, who apparently believed the falsehood that Victoria's Secret was starting a tween line, wrote:
I want my daughter (and every girl) to be faced with tough decisions in her formative years of adolescence. Decisions like should I be a doctor or a lawyer? Should I take calculus as a junior or a senior? Do I want to go to Texas A&M or University of Texas or some Ivy League School? Should I raise awareness for slave trafficking or lack of water in developing nations? There are many, many more questions that all young women should be asking themselves… not will a boy (or girl) like me if I wear a "call me" thong?
Dolive's language is considerably less extreme than Gerwing's (hello, inclusive nod to the existence of LGBT teens). But his message is fundamentally not very different. For all his talk of not wanting any girl to grow up in a world that teaches her self-esteem "is based on the choice of her undergarments," Dolive perpetuates some nasty ideas about women. For instance, the idea that teenage girls can choose to be doctors or lawyers — or they can choose to wear thong underwear from Victoria's Secret. Never both. Dolive writes that he wants his daughter "to know that no matter what underwear she is wearing it does not define her." Except, apparently, if her underwear is made by Pink! The idea that for a teenager to have any interest in sex or sexuality is unhealthy — and, for girls, harmful — is just not true. It reinforces the message that women can't both be smart and attractive, that having self-respect is somehow incompatible with having sex. Far more than any Victoria's Secret ad, Dolive's and Gerwing's message reduces girls to their bodies.
But the seed was planted. The notion that Victoria's Secret was out there, and it was coming for Your Daughter was established. The media then took hold of the story. Many outlets repeated the untrue assertion that the company was actually launching a line "targeting" tweens. Others merely devoted valuable column inches to far-right rhetoric about the need to protect the "innocence" of "our" girls (it's always "our" girls, because while boys know they belong only to themselves, girls are raised from birth in a society that tells them their bodies are never fully their own) from the potential harm of their own sexuality:
- "Victoria's Secret goes after teen market," San Francisco Chronicle
- "Victoria's Secret 'Bright Young Things' Line Targets Teens," The Daily Beast
- "Backlash Mounts Against Victoria's Secret's "Sexy" Teen Underwear Line," Buzzfeed
"Victoria's Secret ‘Bright Young Things' ads make parents ask: Just how young?," Christian Science Monitor
- "Parents Threaten Victoria's Secret Boycott," ABC News
- "I Don't Care How Big the Market Is, Those Are My Daughters," HuffPost Parenting
- "Tweens: New Demographic For Victoria's Secret?," HLN TV
- "Victoria's Secret facing backlash over Bright Young Things campaign," Telegraph
From that same well of outrage came the Facebook pressure groups, the Change.org petitions, and the many barely literate (but very angry!) comments left on Victoria's Secret's own Facebook page.
One measly blog post from a fringe conservative Web site ignited a wide-scale moral panic. The controversy got so big that Snopes.com had to debunk it.
This story is not a feminist story, though it may at a glance appear to be consonant with some of the values of feminism. Many of the opponents of this particular Victoria's Secret campaign speak in the language of "self-esteem" and claim to oppose "objectification" and the "sexualization" of minors (even though apparently none of them cared enough to bother finding out whether any minors were actually being sexualized in the ads they so objected to). But the story's origins in the conservative blogosphere, and the way it caught on in the wider media by linking the sexual "purity" of young women to the moral fate of society, mark it as a story that exemplifies the most retrograde anti-feminist values. This is your bog standard Girls In Peril story. Lots of people love to get Very Concerned™ when talking about young women and sex for no better reason than they believe young women shouldn't be having or thinking about sex under any circumstances. Victoria's Secret has nothing to do with sex trafficking and Steubenville and "promiscuity" (whatever that is) and all the other ills that the fomenters of moral panic seek to link it with. There are plenty of grounds on which to criticize Victoria's Secret — its reliance on racial stereotypes, its reliance on prison labor, its reliance on sometimes atrocious Photoshopping — but making underwear for young women is no crime.
The fallout from this story has been strange. Victoria's Secret acted to correct the false claims that "Bright Young Things" was a new clothing brand, and not just an advertising tag-line, but by then the panic had taken on a life of its own. Instead, the company quietly removed some of the offending items. The Pink homepage now heavily features the next seasonal delivery, the Pink Major League Baseball collection. Meanwhile, a generation of teenagers has learned that Victoria's Secret sells sexy underwear and bikinis, and makes your parents mad.
"There never was product that was called ‘Bright Young Things,' no product line was called that," a Victoria's Secret corporate spokesperson, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Women's Wear Daily. "It [the undies] was just part of a normal Pink product line. I'm not sure why people thought that it was something else." The spokesperson added, "We only have 150 pairs of the ‘Call Me' thongs left."