Victoria’s Secret Models: Anti-Feminists in Disguise or Girl Power Elite

Millennial pink wall and lips.

The annual celebration of all things sparkly, pink and feminine rings upon us! The Victoria’s Secret 2012 Fashion show taped Wednesday night but will air on television right in time for the Christmas season. In terms of the Fashion industry, this show is a launching pad for upcoming models; it’s an event to display your runway strut, your modeling prowess and a hint of your personality outside of the model-faced façade. If I’m to be completely honest, I enjoy the show, the models and the Victoria’s Secret brand. However, while I watch the show and follow the models (who are heavily marketed year-round), it does leave a nagging feeling in the back of mind of whether or not I should be so willing to partake in the viewing festivities of the show, after all it’s a bunch of nearly naked women prancing around promoting sex – something that can be considered degrading in the given context. So with this article, I hope to open a discussion on another dilemma that I’ve toyed with for some time on the subject of Feminism and Pop culture today by using contemporary icons the Victoria’s Secret Angels as well as the infamous, Lady Gaga.

Feminism has always been a contentious issue. For one, people don’t like change and when early feminists sprang up towards the late 19th century fighting for more rights to property and de jure equality, men (and often women) were not ready to give into the new power dynamics at play. Whether you consider yourself a feminist or not, you cannot ignore the fact that without these brave women fighting for suffrage and rights, you would not have the right to vote today nor would you have many other rights at all for that matter. The First Wave of Feminism was believed to have ended with the inclusion of the 19th Amendment, allowing women that precious right to vote. With the Second Wave, the newly empowered generations took to the streets once more to fight for more de facto equality – equal opportunity to jobs and schools, the right to deviate from prescribed gender roles (hence the burning of the bras, etc.), racial politics and increased rights over sexual health and reproductive issues.

The Third Wave, which leads us into the current era, was a further push towards female autonomy over our bodies, our roles as successful businesswomen, a return to prescribed feminine sexuality in terms of fashion and appearance and a resurging acceptance towards the role of mother and housewife. This wave enraged many earlier feminists who believe that cleavage, lipstick, mothering and anything else relating to prescribed gender roles was not to be brought back. The counter-argument by said “Girlie Feminists” is that they “have stepped onto the stage as strong and empowered, eschewing victimization and defining feminine beauty for themselves as subjects, not as objects of a sexist patriarchy.” (Rampton, Martha, 2008, The Magazine of Pacific University).

This is where the Victoria’s Secret models and other Pop Culture references come in. Basically, the time that we’re in now, the Third Wave, has brought about vast progressive changes as well as reflecting on past conservative theories and arguments. Women are freer than ever to live equally – to go to university, to become the top lawyers, CEOs and more, to bring home equal pay, to vote and to have an abundant amount of say over our lives and body rights. To that same effect though, we still run into issues of misogyny in the workplace, on the street and in politics. One look at the recent American election and you can see a powerful divergence: a large percentage of progressive female voters versus a large percentage of votes still against the last legs of the battle for female equality. The other thing to note is that the percentage of women in power positions is still fairly slim in comparison with our male counterparts. Perhaps that isn’t a matter of inequality but rather a matter of how long new patterns of thought take to shift and merge into society. It takes a long time to officially acknowledge change, and it takes even more time for that change to take place in reality.

However, Victoria’s Secret represents a dichotomy. It was started by Roy and Gaye Raymond, a middle class presumably normal couple who began the company more or less out of a desire to make it less awkward and more appealing for both women and their men to buy nice undergarments. Now today, the company is run by CEO Lori Greeley who has partaken in the more recent success of the company through means of expert marketing and brand awareness – along with the fabulous Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show! So what you have here is a company that was started with a positive message in mind, by a male-female duo, is now run by women (more so) and men and continues to promote female self-confidence in a variety of ways that they see fit. Some have embraced this message; others find it a constant source of debate.

Then we have the models: the Victoria’s Secret Angels. I think this is where many people have issues, however varied and internally driven they may be; they still exist as a contentious subject in society. It may have something to do with the fact they are chosen based on very stringent standards including a specific chest to waist to hip ratio, a certain height requirement, and of course, a classically beautiful face. You can think about this from several standpoints. For starters, the company is known for “pioneering sexy underwear as fashion” (Wikipedia via Hirsch, James (1990), WSJ), the key word here being fashion, and fashion is and has generally been ascribed to certain rules including the use of tall, thin models. Also, the point of the company is to sell 2 things: lingerie and fantasy, and the fantasy is based on current images in media today. You could, on the other hand, argue that they have a responsibility to alter the current standard of beauty by incorporating a wider selection of models to their roster, but even then problems concerning female body image would persist; so do we push for it or do we accept what they are presenting us with?

The other problem arises from obvious historical forms of female objectification, and also from current trends in female body issues on a mass scale. Today we are inundated by media – television, film, internet, print – you can’t really escape it. The images of women represented in the media today are an amalgamation of things that the media push combined with what the audience subconsciously demands. People, especially women, tend to take things personally whether knowingly or not, and hence take the images they see and apply it to themselves. This creates all kinds of problems, resulting in eating disorders of all variety, poor overall self–esteem and yet a yearning for more of the same image in a never-ending cycle chasing the perceived ‘dream’. However, I don’t think that all the blame should be attributed to media and instead can be attributed to our upbringing. As much as our parents and teachers have improved their approach at pushing girls to achieve the same heights as the boys, the emphasis on looks from family, friends and peers has never really diminished. Perhaps if we were brought up with the most limited aesthetic-related comments possible and a heightened emphasis on intelligence and success, we might not be so quick to buy into the media’s version of beauty either.

Perhaps then, the Victoria’s Secret Models are the champions of Third Wave “Girly Feminism” as they embrace what they were given physically and turn it into successful careers as more than just clothes hangers. Their role is to represent the Victoria’s Secret Company as healthy, fit and fabulous women – something I think they do remarkably well. They have influenced the route of healthy eating and consistent exercise, along with being entrepreneurs and globetrotters. Whether you love Victoria’s Secret or you think it is incredibly degrading, one thing I would like to instigate in this article (and generally speaking) is that in debates like this, neither side should attack the other. One of the bigger issues of today is women pitting themselves against each other and to be honest, if we’re going to continue to fight for equality I think we have to be more positive about each other and stick to the broader issues because no matter how much you find fault with the other opinion. In the end, we all have similar needs and insecurities, and we also fight for a common goal, equality, and when we degrade each other it’s a sure sign that we’ve lost the battle.

So, without hating on the Victoria’s Secret Models, perhaps for those of you who are less inclined to accept the merits of these women, you might instead buy into that of the one and only, Lady Gaga. For the second example in my argument, I want to highlight the infamous singer/songwriter Lady Gaga as she has also found herself caught up in a storm of people lauding her pro-feminist performances and others remaining wide-eyed at her over-the-top sexual content.

A common thread between Victoria’s Secret Angels and Lady Gaga is concentrated in the arena of female sexuality – one frilly and flirty, the other dark and mysterious, though both displaying lots of skin. However, the recorded difference between these media darlings is that Lady Gaga embodies the essence of the Girly Feminist argument by being openly sexual and feminine but completely on her own terms – and she’s killing it. Women love her, gay men love her and honestly, most straight men will admit to having a penchant for the Gaga. Her content is explicit but carries with it an intelligent commentary on various subjects; whilst her complimentary and strange outfits are meant to be a prescribed sexy at first, until you realize that curve hugging dress is fashioned out of a mass of raw meat.  That is a strong statement, and one that holds a lot of weight behind it.

She takes the typical Popstar presentation and fashions it into a vehicle for social commentary. Again, you don’t have to like her but you should take a closer look at her; her lyrics, her performances and her careful choice in fashion and words she unleashes on the media. No one really knows who she is, nor can you guess at her personality. She has a true public persona, separate from her personal life and self, used to create entertainment and push progressive social messages; all while bearing much of her taut derriere. When you think about it though, how often have you heard people critique her for being a terrible representation for women? The only relative example I’ve heard is that she isn’t feminist enough – which again, comes down to personal opinion. The overall understanding on Lady Gaga seems to be positive and progressive; making her a true Pop Culture champion of women’s and gender rights.

Take Lady Gaga and her unique view on female sexuality and compare it to the Victoria’s Secret route. Both are said to stand for the same thing – positive body image and female empowerment. Both use the idea that “sex sells”. And both have been critiqued for similar reasons. However, some studies have also shown the reverse effect of these women on their audience counterparts. They have found that often, women find the image set forth from these pop icons to actually be inspiring and elevate self-confidence levels. This is from the positive personalities exuded from the angels and the autonomy over sexuality like with Lady Gaga. Those messages are the ones resonating with the audience and if that’s the case and women are being mindful and taking control of their own lives and bodies as a result, then perhaps Girly Feminism is arguably a force for good.

In the end, it comes down to the individual and to the thought process behind their decision making, for instance, asking yourself if you dress up in heels who is it that you are doing it for, and does it make you feel good specifically. The fight for women’s equality as fellow subjects comes from making active, powerful decisions – and understanding that not everyone will like or respect them but if you make them for the right reason (you) then you become the subject of your own world and on your own terms. If we can combine the image ideals we’ve been brought up with (because it would be ridiculous to say that we would and should reject everything we’ve been taught) and incorporate our own ideals into the mix, we can then embody the true sense of individuality and what it means to be an autonomous self.

So there are obviously different ways to look at Pop Culture’s effects on Feminism today, and from the above examples it seems imperative that we stay aware of what we are consuming through media. We should stay informed on who is directing corporations, media and so forth and also examine the basis of companies and people that claim to be promoting a positive female image to ensure that they are genuinely interested in women’s rights. That being said, it is also important not to assume anything about anyone, be it companies, pop stars, politicians or our peers. Everyone has an agenda and it may or may not be intentionally detrimental to others. To the same effect, and as previously mentioned, no matter what side of the fence you are on – Girly Feminism or not – it is important to remember that we won’t always agree with what other people are doing in the name of Feminism, but in supporting each other we can overcome more than if we stand divided.

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