On feminist blog Jezebel, contributor and former model Jenna Sauers has made criticizing American Apparel one of her key beats. Yesterday, another American Apparel post by Sauers popped up on the site, but this time with a different, more defensive angle: “The Reason We Keep Showing American Apparel Softcore.” See, most of the time Jezebel posts about American Apparel, they run one of American Apparel’s raunchy ads with it. And since Jezebel finds the sexuality in those ads offensive, it looks a little hypocritical to keep running them. So, what gives?As a feminist site, one thing Jezebel devotes itself to is critiquing what it perceives to be sexist, exploitative, or misogynist imagery in pop culture. Considering how regularly Jezebel posts about American Apparel — you can scan the archives here — one can conclude that Jezebel finds American Apparel’s ads — which routinely feature scantily clad women in sexy, soft-core, and quasi-pornographic poses — among the most offensive practitioners of sexist advertising.
Whether or not you find American Apparel ads offensive or not — it’s a matter of perspective, when it comes down to it — the indisputable fact of the matter is that Jezebel runs those same ads on their site. Jezebel isn’t paid to run those ads. They run them by choice. Granted, the commentary of them is critical, but the ad is still there. Simply put, Jezebel, while consistently criticizing American Apparel — for its ads, its business practices, and the actions of its CEO Dov Charney — runs American Apparel ads for free.
Jezebel claims that in doing so they are exposing the wizard behind the machine, deconstructing AA ads for the site’s readers so those same readers won’t be beholden to what are perceived to be the ads oversexed, hyper-graphic, objectifying messages. But, is that really the case? Doesn’t further disseminating the so-called problematic visual messages only reinforce those messages? If, in fact, you wanted to take away the power of those images, wouldn’t you stop, for lack of a better word, promoting them?
Apparently, it was this very set of questions that Sauers seeks to address in her latest post. She begins by citing Walter Benjamin, who, she writes, “argued that the reproduction of an image in a new context utterly changes the nature of that image.” In other words, Sauers et. al’s AA advertisements redux are sort-of simulacrums of actual AA ads. They only pretend to be real ads. When they reproduce the ads in the context of, say, that feminist site, those ads become something else altogether.
Sauers continues onward, throwing postmodernism, recontextualizations, Warhol, and the “symbology of manufactured desire,” as well as references to “critique, appropriation, and pastiche, and endorsement, affirmation, and reification” into the mix. Then we discover what prompted Sauers’ post in the first place, a comment by one of Jezebel’s own readers: “Oh, hey. Jezebel is sticking to its gimmick of posting borderline/inappropriate AA photos to bump up pageviews. Stay classy.”
What follows is Sauers’ justification for re-publishing the very racy ads she criticizes for their very raciness:
“A picture of an underclothed young woman posing as though she were at the gynecologist’s office, posted next to a rundown of the latest developments in American Apparel’s ongoing financial meltdown, is not an endorsement of whatever product(s) she might be wearing, or the troubled company that makes them. A picture of an underclothed young woman posing as though she were at the gynecologist’s office, posted next to a rundown of the latest developments in American Apparel’s ongoing financial meltdown, written by a feminist and published by a strongly feminist-leaning website under the tags ‘American Appalling’ and ‘American Apparel bankruptcy watch’ and ‘sexual harassment’ — that a critique of that image and all it stands for is what is being offered is self-explanatory.”
Sauers indicates her defense — that context changes everything — is obvious and, judging by her tone, a tad bit beneath her. Because she has a sophisticated grasp of how pop culture imagery works, she is above its effects. Anyone who shares her level of awareness shares her camp. If you don’t? Well, you just don’t get it.
But not everyone knows who Walter Benjamin is. Not everyone reads a post’s text in full. And the idea that one’s intellect, polysyllabic vocabulary, and/or education level can somehow snuff out said viewer’s/reader’s subconscious reaction to said images/texts is more wishful fantasy than reality. Our reactions to the photos and words before us are far more complex than that which can be neatly tied up in a bow of: “This doesn’t count because I say so.”
Sauers will have none of that. Instead, she vows to “continue to use the most appalling (though obviously SFW and non-nude) American Apparel ads I can find to illustrate my coverage.” She calls her actions “ironic.” Yet sexually graphic posts beget high pageviews, and this is that from which she and Gawker Media profit. Ironically, this is the same method American Apparel employs with its kinky ads. The bottom line is they’re no different, really. Except one is straightforward, and one is inconsistent at best and duplicitous at worst.