Toward the end of 2013, a video called “How the Media Failed Women in 2013” went viral. It showcased a few of the year’s proudest moments for women as well as the many ways mainstream media underrepresented women and perpetuated sexist attitudes.
Among these examples of harmful representation, American Apparel was featured briefly. The video calls attention to one of American Apparel’s ads in which a fully dressed man undresses a woman.
The video is not the first time the clothing company has received criticism for its sexist and racist practices.
Controversy has surrounded who exactly the models are. For some time, the models were rumored to have been Charney’s one-night-stands. When the company claimed its models were “real people,” factory and retail employees instead of professional models, evidence showed some of the models were, in fact, professional models.
Ads feature women in submissive poses and men in dominant ones. Women are rarely fully dressed, if not completely nude—save one article of clothing; men are rarely undressed at all. Some ads play on such themes as child pornography.
In 2012, Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority banned the display of American Apparel ads under the grounds that they were, in many cases, pornographic, exploitative or irresponsibly voyeuristic.
Clearly, American Apparel doesn’t have the best track record as far as gender representation goes.
In fact, many cite American Apparel as the prime example of ironic sexism, also known as hipster sexism, which perpetuates sexist attitudes with a wink and an unspoken, “only kidding, folks.” Ironic sexism relies on the false assumption that sexism is no longer a prevalent problem in modern society, so it ends up doing more harm than good.
But the company isn’t completely harmful. As anyone who has been in an American Apparel store would know, the company boasts itself as “sweatshop-free.” Factory workers manufacture all products in the United States, offering appeal to national-minded consumers.
With the new year came new ads. Ads have started featuring fewer naked women and more nearly nude men. More women have been pictured as dominant to men. That doesn’t mean images of women as subservient to men are, in any way, a thing of the past for the clothing line.
Really, there’s no need to display any gender as dominant to another, but it isn’t bad to start by evening the ratio.
More drastically, American Apparel stores have begun displaying mannequins with full bushes of pubic hair.
Evidently the mannequins come as a statement meant to reinforce the idea that American Apparel has always supported the natural look. Or could it be an extension of Charney’s fetishization of hairy women? No one can know for sure.
Additionally, the clothing line announced Thursday it had hired a new model, Jacky O’Shaughnessy, age 62, who has already been photographed in lingerie as well as casual wear.
Whether American Apparel’s decision to hire O’Shaughnessy came as a response to the criticism of its exploitation of young women or the result of “something so compelling about Jacky’s look and energy,” as one representative said, it’s hard to tell. Still, it’s definitely a step in the right direction for the company.
Even with all of these changes, from the micro-dynamics presented in advertisements to the in-your-face publicity stunts in mannequins and models, American Apparel isn’t completely off the hook.
Ads still portray women in compromising positions far more than they do men. The company still relies on photos imitating voyeurism to sell clothes.
It will be important to keep a close eye on American Apparel in the coming months and years, as it has demonstrated a capacity to move toward less problematic practices. Let’s just hope it stays on track.
Send Nicky your thoughts to email@example.com.