Wednesday, May 26, 2010

american able: why does fashion have to give us complexes?

Almost a month ago, Worn Journal posted a condensed version of this interview on their website. It caused quite a stir, being linked everywhere from Jezebel, to Bitch Magazine, to Sociological Images. Today, if you haven't already seen American Able somewhere in the blogosphere, you can catch it on the TTC in Toronto. And you can read the entire extended interview and article here!

A condescended version of this interview was originally posted at Worn Journal on May 3rd, 2010

I remember back when the very first American Apparel store opened in Canada. Its sole location was on Queen Street in downtown Toronto, and I was really, really excited about it. I had just become interested in the question of ethically made clothing; at the time, most of the clothing i bought was second-hand, but knowing full-well that buying used is not a universal solution to the exploitation that happens in all levels of the fashion industry, I was interested to learn more about stores with initiatives like American Apparel.

Unfortunately, after a few visits and purchases at the store, I found myself... slightly underwhelmed. Sure, the stores sure were selling what I had been told they did - ethically made, simple basics - but only in terms of the clothing. In terms of their marketing as an "ethical" clothing store (proudly boasting that every step of production happens in downtown LA, emphasizing diversity among their staff, among other things) I felt as though I had been sorely duped - as a critical very left-leaning feminist - when I saw their advertising splattered across billboards and in magazines. Even though the televisions in their stores screened videos about how much they respect their factory workers, store employees, I felt like the rules were slightly different when it came to the women in their ads. I thought this would be a company that respected people across the board, in every step of the way. But seeing a picture of a nubile young blonde wearing knee high socks orgasming (or simulating orgasm) for the male gaze as a way of selling me a pair of socks made me uncomfortable, to say the least. Things only got worse after I heard rumours of founder and CEO Dov Charney masturbating while being interviewed by a female reporter and charges of sexual harrassment swirled in the mid 2000's. Well, Dov Charney might be masturbating to a slightly different picture if Holly Norris and jes sasche have anything to do with it.

So much ink has already been spilled about what American Apparel has done wrong (and yes, right) as a company. Ironically, Woody Allen has even gotten involved, suing one of their rare ad campaigns that featured something other than a half-dressed hypersexualized woman. But I digress! This is not what I'm here to talk to you about; rather, I want to talk about a refreshing take up of their notorious ad campaigns.

Let me paint you a picture. You’re headed towards a bus stop on your daily commute to work. You notice a gigantic advertisement plastered on the side of the bus shelter - a young, thin, blonde woman wearing nothing but striped socks and a pair of underwear. It’s not even 8 :30 in the morning yet, and you’re sighing at the sight of a woman objectified and hyper-sexualized, all in the name of advertising. How cliché. The problem isn’t even necessarily the fact that she’s half-naked, it’s more that you’re sick of seeing the same kind of woman sexualized in these boring, uncreative ways. What’s even worse is that the fine print of the ad tells you that this is not, in fact, a professional model but rather an every day, average gal. Just like you! Ah, American Apparel strikes again, you tell yourself. As if this speaks to my life.

In my reality, all kinds of people are sexy and sexual: People who identify as queer, as trans, as disabled, as fat, some combination of the aforementioned terms but most generally, as awesome. But in this world of American Apparel and various other “real beauty” ad campaigns making claims of representing the “average woman,” I never see myself or the kinds of people I know. It still doesn’t speak to my reality, and I’m sure it doesn’t speak to a lot of other people’s realities as well.

Luckily, thanks to Holly Norris and jes sachse, we might have to prepare ourselves for a sea change. This May, riders of the TTC in Toronto will bear witness to the critical sass created by photographer Holly Norris who teamed up with her then-roommate and poet/photographer/pornographer jes sachse to satirize the notorious American Apparel ad campaings in a witty, sex-positive way. Their spoofs of the ads, titled American Able, are currently being shown on television screens in subway stations across the city as part of the Contact Toronto What’s the Hype? Exhibition.

One of the most effective ways for feminists to constructively criticize the fashion industry and their problematic ad campaigns is with humour. Many of us have seen Sarah Haskins’ Target Women videos, which are probably the best known contemporary examples of criticizing the rampant stereotyping and sexism that goes on in advertising while simultaneously making you laugh your ass off. Holly and jes’ thoughtful and witty takeup of American Apparel’s notorious ad campaigns is just another way to think about how (and which) women are presented and sold to us in the advertising industry.

To talk a bit about why a photo series like American Able is needed, I caught up with these old friends to ask them a few questions.

Julia : tell me a bit about your goal with this project and how you came up with it. did you bounce ideas off of each other? did you know what you wanted it to look like before you starting shooting?

Holly was taking Women and Pop Culture I think? We'd lived together during the summer of 2008, sitting through the hell that was the TCSA. Which, naturally got us talking about disability politics. Holly was relatively new to critical dis theory, and would ask me lots of questions, which got us into great conversations. The shoot was Holly's idea, but the actual process was collaborative. The second set was all my own clothing, much of which was American Apparel. So, the poses were all me. The "shane" look was my idea. And the general attitude was mine. But Holly is the genius behind the lens.

Holly :
Originally, it was just a project for a Women and Pop Culture class at Trent University in 2008. While working on the assignment, I saw a photograph on Facebook of the Fat Femme Mafia in a change room wearing tight, shiny American Apparel tracksuits. It got me thinking about how different bodies look in clothing, and how we only see one specific kind of body in advertisements. I had been living with Jes that summer, and we had started talking about disabilities and difference. She does a bit of modeling so I asked her if she could model for this little ad thing I was doing for class and it just grew from there.

Fat Femme Mafia
Julia : there are so many sexist ad campaigns out there. why single out american apparel?

God. American Apparel is sexy. I dunno about holly but i love their style. Its andro and 'basic' and hipster. Lots of lyrca. Lots of 'your body as is' type clothing. However, model and sales clerk wise? Tall skinny white people. The usual. The fact that AA is hyper sexual appeals to me. The fact that the lens isn't really on an empowered body, is less appealing. Sexy sells. But why does sexy always seem to intersect with misogyny? Ultimately, AA is a popular brand of choice for hipsters. Many of whom are educated. Many of whom are familiar with the provocative nature of their ads. American Able doesn't mock from the outside. It mocks from the inside. I like that.

American Apparel is... oh gosh. predictable. sexy clothes outfitting lotsa variant people but advertising rather conforming depictions. no surprise here. the way my boobs and curved spine and facial difference sits in their sheer vnecks and tighties makes me giggle. one thing about their style is that its provocative. the clothes are made to conform to your shape, as it is. its actually some of the most comfortable clothing for me, because often more structured stuff is hit or miss, too big or too loose or too constricting. i'm not an hour glass, i'm two intersecting ones. i'm leggy and under 5 feet. i'm reeeeeeally tiny in places and pucker in others. i have the bum bum of a 12 year old, and the underwear tastes of a boy (mmmm mmmost days). but i rock the rack of a milk maid. what the hell is a milk maid? anyway. you get the picture.

Holly :
First off, on their ads there are often little blurbs like “Sarah is a student in New York…”, so they are positioning their models as representative of ‘regular people.’ However, they all fit into a specific idea of what a “regular woman” is. More practically speaking, for me as a photographer, it is easier to spoof their advertisements because they have that notable style with on-location shoots, simple cotton basics (which is half of my closet anyway), and helvetica font. It is a lot easier to recreate their ads as there is no need for a studio or for high fashion.

Hilariously enough, I've applied for a job at American Apparel before a few years back when I was in Halifax and desperate for a job. I didn't get a call back from them, but I was in the store a few months later and overheard a lot of gossip about the importance of appearance and of attaching the right kind of sexy headshot to your resumé.

It just seems really absurd that these sorts of objectifications aren't only relegated to their ad campaigns, but are in their stores as well. Even on their website anyone can submit to the contest of "best ass."
Julia : what did you hope people would take away from the american able series?

It’s Holly’s project, but personally? I hope people see these ads in the TTC, laugh, and put on something skin tight when they go home and stare at their bodies. It’s like an invitation to a healthy dose of vanity. Why does fashion necessarily have to give people complexes?

I’d love to be a model. I love designers and fashion, it’s art on bodies. I guess I love modeling because I feel like I embody a piece of that stare in my own work. That “I see you lookin’ at me” stare. I know I don’t look like a stereotypical model, and I like my body, but I get stared at a lot, in a different way. So when I pose, I have the opportunity to engage with my voyeurs. Or act indifferent about their gaze. Or make them question the politics in their stare. Or seduce them. Or pierce them. It’s really fun.

Barbara Kruger

All this feminist 'oh look at how this woman is being objectified' stuff with respect to advertisements and things, condemning the "ogle" comes from the same fibres as anti-porn sentiments. It grinds against what i know to be true about this culture. us as people. we stare. feminists stare at me. say ableist things to me... shit like this has stopped surprising me. the level of hate we hold toward ourselves and weave into the supposed 'gaze' of the world is obscene.
Holly :
I’m really interested in where it will be seen. It is showing on digital screens that are typically ad space, and has the potential to make people do a double take and question what they are seeing and how it differs from a regular ad. I think the realization that it’s a spoof makes people question and critique why - why do they only ever see able-bodied people in fashion advertising? People with visible disabilities are rendered invisible by mass media, and I think the reactions to American Able really highlight that. Even when there are claims of ‘diversity’ it is usually really lacking, to say the least. One rarely sees people with disabilities in advertising, unless it’s in a group photo and then it often seems more tokenizing than anything else.

American Able featured in the Toronto Star
Julia : the first thing i took away from the photos was a mischievious, sexy sense of humour. what do you think about the place of humour in criticizing media (tv/ads/newspapers) of an oppressive nature? do you think it is more or less effective than, say, boycotts, letter writing campaigns, or other traditional activist approaches?

Humour is my life. On the surface it’s easy to take me less seriously because of it. But humour also gets you in the door in a way that a rebellious placard never will (lamentably). Writing for Arthur as Arts Editor, I decided to merge news reporting with a first person persona that i think lent beautifully to art coverage. Some people told me my articles were the only thing they read. and i dont take that flattery 100% as credit to myself, but rather the opportunity that satire and wit provides. People still talk about that damn Swift essay, but who remembers any political campaigns from the day? If you can make em laugh, they'll trust you...

I suppose thats where the humour and smirk comes from. i'm 25 and the reality, truth and illusion necessitate each other. you can find that in an ad. in a photograph. in a pick up line.

Me boycotting AA is ridiculous. You show me a fashion line that rocks my disability politics. None of em do! I'll wear what i want to, because my body, like everything else, contradicts itself.

This is too much rambling. But i guess Holly doesn't necessarily know all this when she shoots me. i'm just jes to her. goofy and sexually 'free' and comfy bein naked for her project, for the TTC, whatevs.

Oh i'm so ready to move beyond 'this girl reclaiming her body'. It's not about 'my journey'. Maybe it is for people looking at me lookin at them. But shit. I wish the negative people would just move on.
Holly :
I don’t think it’s necessarily more or less effective, I think they can compliment each other. Because it’s not like someone is out yelling in the street, it’s a piece that you can sit and look at it and inform your own thoughts and opinions on your own. With spoofs, its sort of pointing out the sort of problems with it what you otherwise wouldn’t be seeing.

It’s a really interesting space, I really like looking at spoof advertisements, I love Adbusters, that sort of thing. We live in this culture where we are so bombarded by imagery and advertisements and stuff like that, I really like putting this kind of thing in the space where we’d otherwise be seeing these corporate advertisements we see over and over, and over that really does question and challenge what we’re seeing . Why am I not seeing ads like these in real life. Why aren't bodies like jes' seen in major ad campaigns?
Julia : i've heard rumours that the american able series was even forwarded to the american apparel head offices; what do you think their reaction might have been like? jes, are you excited by the idea that dov charney may have lusted for your hot bod?

Oh yes. I hope he jacked off. (no but seriously... how effing hilarious is that? I've penetrated the headquarters of the company outfitting hipster worldwide...)

Holly :
American Able was sent to American Apparel in March because there were concerns from One Stop Media, the company that owns the digital screens, that they may be sued were they to show American Able without permission from AA. It was frustrating, as I felt it politically undermined the project on some levels. There was also no reason to sue - the photographs were mine and they do not own Helvetica font. I'm not sure if it actually landed on Dov Charney's desk, but it went to the head offices in Montreal and LA. Regardless, I am glad it was shown in the end.
Julia : tell me about any other projects you are working on right now and where we can see them.

I've got a lovely exhibit coming up in May for CONTACT which i premiered during artsweek last fall.

i'm also working on a brand new website, (at the moment you can see some of jes' own self-portraits and other samples of her work on that website)

also... a film project in post production called 'crooked' made with kate taylor... its a documentary-meets-hang out sesh with yours truly. basically it's a first-person narrative exploration of queerness, disability and sexuality - looking specifically as some of the ways in which people with disabilities are working to subvert popular representations of disabled sexuality, which often work to asexualize and fetishize disabled bodies. the film uses both art and humour to probe these complex intersectional spaces in a way that aims to make these issues widely accessible.

yes. what else... uhh... writing a book? i'm writing a book. haha. don't read it.
Holly :
I recently did a research project in Feminist Research Methods on photographic self-representations, looking at my own work, Jes’ work, and Nancy Roberts. I’ve been pretty inspired by all of the work I’ve been looking at. (Keep your eyes peeled for perchance another interview with Holly about self-portraits and the internet! We talked about this for a really long time)

Nancy Roberts

In the future I'm planning on working on a blog with a few friends from feminist research methods class. It's called and we're hoping that it will become a sort of positive online space to talk about sexuality. So far we've talked a lot about pleasure, consent, those sorts of things... in the end it'd be something similar to feministing, covering a broad range of topics. In the works!
Julia : last but not least, i'd love it if you could recommend some blogs, books, or movies that talk about sexuality and disability from a critical sex-positive position.

Murphy o'myer... um. where do i start! Loree Erickson's film Want, man. i saw some great ones last year. This one called GIMP bootcamp... so great. also... the griffin centre is doing some fabulous work. They started sprOUT - the first (FIRST!) group for queers with intellectual disabilities to talk and hang out and play social programming. they often do stuff at bodies. preeetty ground breaking shit. they also had an exhibit at the AGO from what i understand. there is so much more to add!


Natalya said...

great post. Very informative and necessary.

Anonymous said...

Julia, you're wonderful! Thank you for posting your interview with Holly and Jess and your thoughts on American Apparel and objectification and how it's not about crushing someone (a company)'s artistic freedom to take racy pictures of naked girls, but also about how predictable and boring and unimpressive and completely NOT subversive those images are. I remember once during a translation class I was taking at school, I thought, 'Why is every visiting international author a political exile/refugee? Surely there are great authors outside of the United States who aren't political exiles?' and then I realized that was a narrative that was attractive for American/English readers, and publishers and agents and editors and marketing people and professors and English department heads, etc want international writers who are fleeing from an oppressive regime to be the main representatives of 'international literature.' (Sorry to ramble!)

And in that same way, a company like AA is equally invested in furthering this very standard and limited narrative of the thin, hipster woman, scantily dressed with the same five suggestive facial expressions.

It's so wonderful to see social critique that is funny and witty and clever (big props for mentioning Swift's essay!) It's hard sometimes to approach things that matter profoundly with humor and irreverence, maybe because we approach these matters already feeling great reverence, but I'm in awe of those who manage to do it.

Thanks so much for this post, Julia!

xo Jenny

Amie Eliza Pinkerton said...

I saw American Able when it was posted on Worn and thought it was wonderful. Jes is just so sexy and confident and amazing and I'm so glad the project is taking off like it has. It was great reading the interview and seeing jes and Holly's thoughts. Thanks so much for posting this.

annaham said...

This was a great post and interview on a fascinating and hilarious project!

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