Chin: Sexist or Sexy?

Sex sells — unless it’s ironic, complicated or non-gender normative.

by Clara Chin | 4/6/17 12:45am

I never go on shopping sprees, but on a whim, I bought a black California Fleece sweatshirt and a grayish trench coat from American Apparel following the announcement of its closing. I will miss their black turtlenecks, thigh high socks and soft t-shirts; to some extent, I’ll even miss their controversial advertisements. Yet, when I lamented the death of American Apparel and expressed my ensuing urgency to buy more clothing before it closed, one of my friends said, “Clara, how could you?” Because of the sexual assault allegations against former American Apparel executive Dov Charney and the apparent sexism of American Apparel advertisements, I have been forced to call my American Apparel clothing “Problematic Faves.”

This, I imagine, is how many American Apparel shoppers view their relationship with the brand. American Apparel is often associated with hipster, liberal Americana and sexual liberation; this combination means that many American Apparel shoppers are likely to identify as feminists. It is unusual that a brand so reliant on sex appeal and at the center of sexual harassment violations is one also associated with hipsters and feminists, since sexual misconduct seems diametrically opposed to the general political beliefs of many American Apparel shoppers.

Critique of American Apparel advertisements often point out their overt racism or sexism. Past American Apparel advertisements include an objectifying and exoticizing ad with the words “Made in Bangladesh,” referring to the model’s Bangladeshi nationality, covering a woman’s breasts, as well as another objectifying ad featuring a scantily clad woman with her legs spread apart and the words “Now Open” in bold font next to her.

Sexy and sexist ads are not out of the ordinary. Sex sells. It’s a tactic used by Carl’s Junior, GoDaddy, countless car companies and most alcohol commercials that play during the Super Bowl. What distinguishes American Apparel advertisements from other companies’ advertisements is its cavalier approach to both sexuality and nudity. Whereas mainstream advertisements typically showcase buxom women so romanticized that they cannot be real, nudity in American Apparel advertisements challenges the normative, objectifying sexuality in brand advertisements with which the public is generally comfortable.

The lack of clothing present in most American Apparel advertisements is not just an expression of sex appeal; it is part of its overarching minimalist aesthetic. American Apparel advertisements are bare in terms of clothing, but they are also bare in other ways. Instead of slogans, photos are often accompanied by text in large font with only the word of the clothing that it features, such as “Tights,” “Micro Mesh” or “Summer Basics.” Models often stand in front of a white wall or lie on a white bed. The aesthetic of minimalism is, in fact, true to the nature of American Apparel clothing, which usually lack logos, patterns and elaborate designs. Nudity in American Apparel ads thus functions not as a simple way of “selling sex” but as one aspect of the broader American Apparel aesthetic.

Furthermore, American Apparel advertisements may appear unsettling because the women are actually less objectified. Other clothing brands such as Victoria’s Secret show retouched women with such perfect and almost unrealistic bodies that it is easy for the viewer to objectify them. On the other hand, the models in American Apparel advertisements are also clearly real people — they are not retouched, have different body sizes and wear minimal makeup. American Apparel’s 2011 advertisement called “Neat Pleats…” shows two topless women in pleated pants. While they are topless, the advertisement does not necessarily exploit feminine sexuality. Rather, the nude body is a blank canvas upon which to place the pants — adding any other article of clothing on top would distract from them.

Another important element that breaks down the traditional objectification of women in advertisements is the way that the models stare directly into the camera as if they know they are being watched, again forcing a self-awareness upon the viewer. The models are also given some context, thus humanizing them. In “Mesh,” small text at the bottom of the page reads, “Kyung, a 22-year-old American Apparel retail employee, is wearing the Mesh Short.”

It might seem like American Apparel advertisements predominantly feature women, but this is related to the fact that the brand’s fan base is largely women. Nevertheless, many American Apparel advertisements sexualize men. In one advertisement with the word “Pre Party,” a man sits on the floor, clothed only in a t-shirt and underwear with his legs spread apart suggestively. In the second picture, the t-shirt is gone, and the framing of the picture prevents the viewer from seeing his face.

And let’s not forget about ads that push against traditionally feminine or femme clothing such as 2009’s “Metropolitan Girls,” which features two women in long jeans and baggy shirts. The brand’s ads feature both clothed and unclothed women, remaining consistent in its inconsistency and demonstration of various types of sexiness for both men and women.

The allegations about Charney should not be ignored, but the aesthetic of the brand may be more complex and less trashy than what many believe. The issue of sexuality in American Apparel advertisements brings to mind the acceptance of Emma Watson’s sexuality and controversy surrounding Beyoncé’s sexuality. Is sexiness only acceptable if it follows a traditionally feminine, fantasized narrative? Is cavalier or ironic sexuality too outside the gender norm? Amid the visual minimalism of an American Apparel advertisement is a complex utilization of sexuality and a challenge to gender normativity in media.