Young adult books about the Muslim girl usually feature a veiled adolescent on the cover. Her face is cropped and concealed, usually by her own hands or her veil. Much of her face is covered, including, most significantly, her mouth. Images serve as a shorthand vocabulary. Consider how iconic images—a white or black cowboy hat, a scientist wearing a white lab coat, a princess—set up a stock plot. The repeated images of veiled girls reinforce familiar, mainstream ideas about the confined existence of Muslim women and girls. This is the Muslim girl story we expect to read.
Just about every book in this genre features such an image on its cover. These are familiar metaphors for how the Muslim girl’s life will be presented within the novel. The way the girls’ mouths are covered reinforces existing ideas about their silence and suggests that we in the West (conceptualized as “free” and “liberated”) need to help unveil and “give” them voice. The images also invite ideas about girlhood innocence and vulnerability, and invite Western readers to protect, save, and speak for these oppressed girls.
The veil or burqa, which has exclusively functioned as the short-hand marker of women’s oppression, is a much more complicated thing. To give you a sense of the range of meaning of the veil, consider for instance that in Turkey—a predominantly Muslim country—the veil (or “religious dress”) is outlawed in public spaces as a means to underline the government’s commitments to Kemalism, a “modern,” secularist stance. In response and as a sign of resistance, some women, especially young university students and those in urban areas, consider the veil to be a marker of protest against government regulation of their bodies and the artificial division of “modern” versus “faithful.” Similar acts of resistance are taken up by feminists in Egypt who wear the veil as a conscious act of resistance against Western imperialism. As another example, before 9/11, the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (RAWA) documented the Taliban’s crimes against girls and women by hiding video cameras under their burqas and transformed the burqa from simply a marker of oppression to a tool of resistance.
It is problematic to wholly and simplistically equate women’s oppression with the burqa, just as it would be problematic to claim that once Western women stop using make-up to cover their faces, it will mean an end to domestic violence in the United States and Canada.
Monthly Archives: March 2010
The “French Explorer” Jacket from “vintage style” retailer J. Peterman (recently discussed here), described thusly: “Remember Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, considered by many to be France’s greatest explorer? Some think it was his unique brand of Colonialism…. But I think the secret to his empire-building was this jacket, which he often wore to meetings with tribal chieftans. Historians agree with me.”
The problem of patina, which McCracken has recently proposed as a general term to deal with that property of goods in which their age becomes a key index of their high status, disguises a deeper dilemma, the dilemma of distinguishing wear from tear. That is, while is many cases, wear is a sign of the right sort of duration in the social life of things, sheer disrepair or decrepitude is not….
Objects with patina are perpetual reminders of the passage of time as a double-edged sword, which credentials the “right” people, just as it threatens the way they lived. Whenever aristocratic lifestyles are threatened, patina acquires a double meaning, indexing both the special status of its owner and the owner’s special relationship to a way of life that is no longer available. The latter is what makes patina a truly scarce resource, for it always indicates the fact that a way of living is now gone forever. Yet, this very fact is a guarantee against the newly arrived, for they can acquire objects with patina, but never the subtly embodied anguish of those who can legitimately bemoan the loss of a way of life. Naturally, good imposters may seek to mimic this nostalgic posture as well. but here both performances and reviews are a more tightly regulated affair. It is harder to pretend to have lost something than it is to actually do so, or to claim to have found it. Here material wear cannot disguise social rupture.
— Arjun Appadurai, 1993, “Consumption, Duration, and History,” in Streams of Cultural Capital, D. Palumbo-Liu and H. U. Gumbrecht (eds.), Stanford: Stanford University Press.
A Washington D.C. woman adopted an orphaned squirrel in the early 1940s. Dubbed Tommy Tucker, he became her animal companion –accompanying her to the grocery store, for instance– and model for her designs. LIFE Magazine took photographs and decades later, publishes them online for aspiring animal dress designers as “A Squirrel’s Guide to Fashion.” Rock on, sassy squirrel!
Few retailers or labels make me as cranky as Abercrombie & Fitch which is why I don’t feel mean-spirited at all about being happy over the news that their sales are in a steep decline (woo-hoo!!) – see here and here. Not only are their “stale styles” way overpriced but the “American” lifestyle they stand for, promote, valorize, and export in their advertising and hiring practices (detailed in their “Appearance Policy”) is shamelessly racist, ableist, Islamophobic, gender normative, and heteronormative. See, for example, A&F chief executive Mike Jeffries’ obnoxious rationale of the retailer’s marketing strategy:
In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids. Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.
By the way, several years ago my intrepid and prolific co-blogger, the lovely Mimi Thi Nguyen, wrote a wonderful article about Abercrombie’s “Orientalist Kitsch” for the website, Pop Politics. Read it, read it!
Mimi’s addendum: And for more on the “appearance policy,” read Dwight McBride’s Why I Hate Abercrombie & Fitch: Essays on Race and Sexuality and the second chapter (also called “Why I Hate Abercrombie & Fitch”).
While some in the fashion media have been fixating on the growing importance of editorial coverage by young bloggers, relatively little has been said about a broader democratisation that’s happening in the fashion industry overall. For one thing, runway knock-offs — formerly a marginal industry — have become a borderline acceptable business practice, with stores such as Zara and Forever 21 building successful franchises by copycatting high fashion designs. In a sense, fast fashion collaborations such as Jimmy Choo for H&M or Rodarte for Target seem to legitimise this practice.
This is a quote from a recent article on the effects of fashion’s democratization from the website The Business of Fashion. Unfortunately, Ken Miller (the writer) doesn’t examine the changing meanings of knock-offs in this era of democratization or analyze which knock-offs are acceptable and which aren’t (and why) in the context of the emerging creative economy. Nonetheless, I’m intrigued by the relationship he’s suggesting between cheap chic fashion retailers like H&M and Target and the industry of legitimate knock-offs. Who authorizes this legitimacy? And what are the conditions of cultural legitimation?
Oh, my. A vlogger who was mentioned in a post about the phenomenon of “haul vlogging” in New York magazine’s The Cut last week is fighting back against what she perceived as the slandering of her reputation, in particular, and the profession of haul vloggers, in general. To be sure, The Cut’s assessment of haul vloggers was rather piquant:
“‘[H]aul videos’ . . . consist of girls videotaping themselves showing the world what they just bought at the mall. Like, they go home, plop down in front of their webcams, and pull their new purchases out of shopping bags. And discuss each item in way too much detail . . . Haul vloggers seem to be primarily of one species: the girl who flatirons her hair, wears too-thick eye shimmer up to her eyebrows, drowns in eyeliner, and gets her brows waxed regularly. She also wears trendy-but-ugly nail polish and probably gets chemical peels at regular monthly intervals. Haul vloggers seem to favor, typically, cheap stores like Forever 21 and Target. Also, they don’t ever seem to wear half the trendy crap they’re constantly buying. And to think these people think they need this stuff, when what they need most of all are lives, hobbies, jobs, maybe cats.
As an example of haul vlogging, The Cut offered this popular video – apparently viewed nearly 8,000 times when the post was published.
The haul vlogger ChanelBlueSatin, a 22 year-old “Blogger, Youtuber, teacher, model, and wife!” from Texas, was so incensed by The Cut’s characterization of her that she made this response video.
Last week, I posted about the backlash against fashion bloggers and what this backlash might suggest about the shifting meanings of fashion’s democratization. The Cut’s review of haul vloggers is yet another example of this backlash. But what’s particularly interesting about this kerfuffle between ChanelBlueSatin and The Cut (mostly its readers now rather than the blogger Amy Odell who has since issued a mea culpa to the vlogger) is the ways in which the response calls Odell out for the misogynistic tone of her post:
Shouldn’t the editor of New York magazine try to be inspiring to women rather than bashing other women? I mean, shouldn’t they try to report on factual information rather than accusations based on outward appearances? . . . Bottom line is I respect the editor for having an interest in us beauty gurus on YouTube but I don’t respect the fact that she took a negative spin on it. Listen, there’s a whole lot of hate in this world so let’s just stop hating and start loving again. So keep the peace.
While the vlogger misidentifies Odell as the “editor” of New York magazine (Odell is the magazine’s fashion blogger) and misrepresents the blog post as a “featured article,” she is right to feel gender bashed by Odell and especially the readers who commented on the blog post. There’s a lot of “dumb girl fashion/capitalist victim” talk that dismisses fashion consumerism as feminine stupidity. (Click here for another example of this as well as Susie Bubble’s response.) We’ve posted about the stupidity of this line of logic but for a summation of the significance of fashion that is so spot-on that I wish we had written it, see Good Morning Midnight‘s post, which Mimi has also cited in a previous post. (See especially the paragraph that begins, “Would the world be a better place without Uggs and Ed Hardy? Probably.” – a blogger after my own heart.) Moreover, the classist strain of Odell’s evaluation of ChanelBlueSatin and haul vloggers in general is incredibly ugly. Odell seems most bothered not by haul vlogging as such but by the inauthenticity of haul vloggers who shop at down-market stores like Forever21 and “wears too-thick eye shimmer up to her eyebrows, drowns in eyeliner, and . . . wears trendy-but-ugly nail polish.”
Yet, how does ChanelBlueSatin’s call for peace (among women) square with her self-identification as a “beauty guru”? How is the mastery over one’s image and body (the real commodity beauty and style gurus sell) the means and measure of pop-feminist inspiration, according to this vlogger? Put another way, how are material entitlements to Forever21 jewelry and teeth whitening strips coextensive with a moral discourse about love and inspiration among women?
Unfortunately, ChanelBlueSatin’s pop-feminism is commodified rather than politicized in consumer culture. It is, as Sarah Banet-Weiser describes postfeminism, a “commodity-driven empowerment.” More from Banet-Weiser’s essay “What’s Your Flava?”: “As a contemporary social and political movement, then, feminism has been rescripted (though not necessarily disavowed) so as to allow its smooth incorporation into the world of commerce and corporate culture.”
As a self-professed “beauty guru,” ChanelBlueSatin as well as the growing cadre of fashion bloggers, vloggers, television personalities, and print media authors of the what-to-wear/what-not-to-wear makeover variety disenables precisely the humanist feminist project she claims to be leading. The relationship between the makeover guru and makeoveree is an inherently hierarchical one that is based not simply on an uneven distribution of skills (shopping, styling, etc.) but rather an uneven distribution of personhood based on the apparent mastery of or incompetence about dominant codes of beauty and behavior. The subject “in need” of the expertise of the lifestyle guru is imagined as a deficient person – a person who lacks self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth – and thus, in need of correction. I’ve cited Brenda Weber’s account of the role of the fashion/beauty guru before and she’s useful here again:
A new and improved appearance will not only make the woman more congruent with larger codes of beauty, but will increase her confidence and thus her personal power. In order to gain access to this form of power, however, makeover subjects (often called “victims,” “targets,” “marks”) must submit fully to style authorities.”
So while ChanelBlueSatin’s self-identification as a “beauty guru” made me giggle, it is worth recalling that being a lifestyle guru is serious economic and cultural political business that is also ideological and disciplinary. The social relationship of lifestyle gurus to their subjects is one of casual, consensual, neoliberal domination. As Tania Lewis, the editor of a wonderful special issue on the topic of makeover television in the journal Continuum (volume 22.4) explains: “As government seeks to devolve responsibility for welfare to individuals, television, and in particular what they term ‘life intervention’ formats . . . can be seen to play an increasingly central role in inducting viewers into new neoliberal modes of self-governing citizenship.”
The Internet, which is quickly surpassing the television as the primary medium of visual and consumer culture, makes “life intervention” ideologies especially appealing. Whereas television is generally understood to be a top-down medium controlled by a handful of profit-seeking corporations, the prevailing logic about the Internet is that it is an inherently democratic form in which ordinary people participate in the structuring and content-building of new cultural publics. And indeed, the celebrity of bloggers and vloggers like Tavi Gevinson and ChanelBlueSatin are particular to the way the Internet works. What is especially appealing about these “gurus” is that they are ordinary people, people whose person and style of modern personhood seem to be easily accessible. As embodiments of the democratization of fashion, the figure of the citizen blogger/vlogger occludes the uneven access to commodities and communication technologies between makeover gurus and makeoverees (both Gevinson and ChanelBlueSatin, for example, are privy to the deep pockets of fashion and media companies) and thus conceals the ways in which the promise of self-invention is shaped and limited by one’s successful self-governing and normativizing of body, image, and behavior.
March 4 is an international day of action to defend public education against its increasing privatization by state and corporate powers. From Defend Education, a national clearinghouse for many of these efforts:
As people throughout the country struggle under the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, public education from pre-K to higher and adult education is threatened by budget cuts, layoffs, privatization, tuition and fee increases, and other attacks. Budget cuts degrade the quality of public education by decreasing student services and increasing class size, while tuition hikes and layoffs force the cost of the recession onto students and teachers and off of the financial institutions that caused the recession in the first place. Non-unionized charter schools threaten to divide, weaken and privatize the public school system and damage teachers’ unions, which are needed now more than ever. More and more students are going deep into debt to finance their education, while high unemployment forces many students and youth to join the military to receive a higher education. And all of the attacks described above have hit working people and people of color the hardest.
We are also united with friends, students, workers, and colleagues in California who are facing an slew of “local” attacks on marginalized campus populations, including the “Compton Cookout” and noose-hanging at UC San Diego, but also the vandalization of the LGBT Resource Center at UC Davis. We recognize that such incidents do not indict “isolated individuals” but also implicate larger structures of inequity, including the processes of privatization. From Queers For Public Education:
We are not surprised that these actions have erupted in the midst of a financial crisis for the UC system, and for its students, faculty, and workers. We note that most of the students organizing against budget cuts and fee increases do so from marginalized positions, foregrounding broader questions of social justice and calling for the downward distribution of resources. In this context, recent violent acts are best understood as part of a larger backlash against modes of student organizing that threaten the privileges linked to whiteness, wealth, heterosexuality, and citizenship. Such events do not emerge suddenly or unexpectedly, but are intimately linked to more pervasive and naturalized systems of oppression. Focusing responses only on the punishment of individual perpetrators effaces the larger context out of which such actions emerge. Students who are already wary of the presence of armed security forces that have historically targeted people who are queer and/or of color, take the proposed presence of the FBI and increased surveillance of campus as a threat and fundamental misunderstanding of our experiences rather than a solution or a sign of support.
There are some signs that the best days of the fashion blogger phenomenon may be behind us. This isn’t to say that fashion bloggers are going away but the public discourse about them and the value of their digital labors seems to have shifted in the past couple of months.
- First, Elle editor Anne Slowey described Tavi Gevinson’s commissioned column for Harper’s Bazaar as “gimmicky” and then Huffington Post’s style editor Lesley Blume was quoted as saying that asking adult women to take style cues from young women like the Olsen twins and Gevinson was “insulting.” (Read here.)
This month, Barney’s Creative Director Simon Doonan told GQ magazine that he wants his front row seats back from the teen/tween bloggers that have overtaken runway shows. He even throws a little snark at 13 year-old blogger: “Since they are all about my height, I am going to impersonate one of them. I am going to wear a doily on my head (Tavi!) and tell everyone I’m a teen blogger.”
Late last week, New York Times fashion writer Guy Trebay told WWD that he doesn’t really care “whether Bryanboy gets excited by a handbag or something.”
The easiest explanation for this backlash is to cite the techno-generational divide: the persnickety old guard vs. the whipper-snapping new guard. And I think that’s part of it, but only part of it. Instead of resting the critique of this backlash entirely on the laps of cantankerous sartorial Luddites, I think it’s useful to consider the political economy in which this backlash emerges.
Not too long ago, fashion/style bloggers were embraced as the embodiment of fashion’s democratization. Along with cheap chic fashion, fashion/style bloggers were heralded as proof that fashion had finally become accessible to everyone despite race, gender, class, physical location, time zone, etc. The free flow of fashion objects and images across socioeconomic differences and fiber optic cable lines (as with the deregulated circuits of trade, capital, and labor) signified, according to numerous fashion editors, writers, and neoliberal politicians, a truly democratic society where everyone has the right to access the commodities that will enable them to practice their freedoms of expression, self-determination, and consumer choices. Free market agency, we were told, is coextensive with political agency.
Drowning out previous celebrations of democratization are anxious cries about the massification of fashion journalism. Consider Trebay’s statement: “It sounds like a very Establishment view, but I think that the Establishment is composed, in general, of really skilled people.” The inference, of course, is that bloggers (now positioned as a threat to the Establishment rather than as a sign of the Establishment’s fairness and openness) are unskilled. But the significance of massification rhetoric has implications that go far beyond a techno-generational divide.
Massification rhetoric has historically secured dominant power relations by producing a category of collective identification called “the masses” and then casting suspicion on them as unruly, unthinking, and uncultured. Moreover, as Andreas Huyssen has pointed out, the categorization of “the masses” carries with it gender inscriptions that imagine the masses (here, the collective of “teen/tween bloggers”) as subjective, emotional, and thus feminine. This is evident in the Pulitzer Prize winning fashion writer Robin Givhan’s assessment of fashion bloggers: “[T]heir opinions [are] suspect. They’re too invested. They’re biased. Passion gets in the way of truth-telling.” Establishment fashion journalists, we are meant to understand, are dispassionate and objective reporters.
I don’t think that the recent backlash against bloggers suggests that the era of fashion’s democratization is coming to a close – it’s difficult to imagine that fashion, in this economic climate, would risk alienating any potential customers especially customers with as much cultural capital as star bloggers like Gevinson and BryanBoy. However, I think this backlash does signal a shift in the popular understanding of “democracy” in the creative economy, a return to a social theory of apprenticeship in which hierarchies of power are not seen as opposed to democracy and free market societies but rather as opportunities for “paying one’s dues” and “earning one’s stripes.” This is precisely the link Weber observed between the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism.
Exclusion and exploitation in the forms of higher rates of un- and underemployment and free labor (typical in the new creative economy, in general, and in fashion, in particular), are incorporated and naturalized as part of the cost of democracy. Enduring exploitation becomes a virtue – it demonstrates a faith in and a faithfulness to the meritocracy and magicality of capitalism.