A version of this article previously appeared in the Pepperdine Graphic
Although the initial flurry of ogling women and what has become the subject of fantasy of every suburban teenage girl has somewhat abated since its premiere every Christmas season, its remnants still remain in the rubble of hyper-feminine girl power: in Tumblr posts, BuzzFeed lists, and in the mental inventory of millennial feminists who spout the merits of Taylor Swift's "Girl Squad," with the same gusto of second-wave feminists lobbying for the passage of the ERA.
The annual Victoria's Secret fashion show is the suburban teenage girl's fantasy, and the subject of universal ogling. It has amassed a cult following, with critics and devoted "angels" entering to a seemingly dichotomous relationship where the line between absolute enamorment and disgust is narrow. You either gather behind the squealing girls that lament over the fact that they don't look like Angel X or Z, or the individuals that lament over the unrealistic beauty standards women are beholden to, and how the Victoria's Secret angels are held as the paradigm of female beauty.
But instead of these two disparate frameworks of womanhood, as of late, we get a fusion--a fusion of the giggly teenage girl ogling over the perfectly proportioned torso of the Victoria's Secret Angel (let's call her Candice Swanepoel) and of the unabashed and stalwart feminist. The giggly teenage girl tells you beauty, aesthetics, and commentary shrouded in the rhetoric of "why can't I just be her?"
The stalwart feminist tells you of choice and liberation. The giggly stalwart feminist hybrid tells you that lingerie is choice, and parading around in lingerie is feminism; the hybrid abides by the belief that if something is done by a woman, then it has feminist underpinnings. The cynic of the giggly stalwart feminist hybrid, however, will tell you that giggly stalwart mainstream feminism is sexism under the guise of liberation. The cynic will also add that this brand of feminism is neither sustaining nor grounded in legitimate feminist ideology and neither stops nor begins at Victoria's Secret, that this brand of feminism is pervasive in our culture. Allow me to take the role of cynic.
What I will call Victoria's Secret Feminism has been aptly described by Ariel Levy in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. Levy posits that raunch culture (think Playboy and Girls Gone Wild) has given rise to a new kind of feminism where sexual promiscuity is conflated with liberation. The rough translation is Victoria's Secret Feminism is a brand of feminism that advances the idea that wearing sultry clothing (read: lingerie) is about choice, and as such, shows a woman taking charge of her sexuality and taking ownership of herself. However, in attempts to define the Victoria's Secret fashion show and the brand's other ilk as a feminist triumph advances a narrow version of feminism. If feminism were indeed about inclusivity--about "choice" as modern day champions of the movement advocate, then the following question is begged: is "choice" and the championing of feminist virtues only exclusive to a largely white, privileged, and conventionally attractive group of women?
If Victoria's Secret wanted to advocate for true feminism--not pop culture feminism--then women of all shapes, sizes, ages, and origin would be considered. But the inclusion of a wider breadth of women into the Victoria's Secret only solves the topical problem of inclusivity, of superficial diversity in the face of far deeper and trickier issues. But what about the question of modeling lingerie, should that be considered a feminist act in itself?
The chief problem with the lingerie question lies in the fact that Victoria's Secret, and the wider view cultivated in mainstream feminism preys on a kind of warped re-appropriation of things that are classically sexist--and mysogynist. Yes, one could certainly abide by the belief that wearing lingerie and displaying one's body can be an act of empowerment, but as of late it has become the only act of empowerment worth noting. I fear that what we champion as feminism today is nothing more than the preexisting seeds of misogyny, of our own oppression. I think this fear is legitimized in the hyper feminine version of girl power that exists today, that champions a one-size fits all version of feminism.
The fashion show and ultimately, the brand of feminism that has risen up around it serve as a larger commentary on what we view as liberating, and how our concept of liberation revolves tightly around naked (or almost naked) female bodies. But perhaps more noticeably, how feminism has become commodified to the extent of every female action having some feminist underpinning.
I do not mean to imply that feminism should be exclusive, or that there should be a feminist checklist where completing 7/10 items grants one a lifetime membership to humanitarian causes. I only mean to say that our conception of feminism and of womanhood should be probed deeper--deeper than lingerie, that feminism should be deeper than some pop culture spectacle that is encapsulated in a BuzzFeed list.
But perhaps most importantly, that not every female action is a feminist triumph, that individuals need to stop using the term "feminist" as an adjective to legitimize every seemingly controversial or mildly misogynistic and sexist action. You don't get to call yourself or something feminist just by being a woman. Work to rectify and erase sexism, and understand the viewpoints of the marginalized (err--not Taylor swift's girl squad), and check your privilege. And for good measure, burn the million dollar bra too.