In November, Victoria’s Secret announced the cancelation of their 2019 fashion show, citing increased competition, rapidly declining profits and a disconnect with their consumer base as reasons for the end of this decades long tradition. For a company that built an empire by selling sex, it seems as though sex has gone out of style.
Victoria’s Secret’s downfall is a reflection of social and cultural change in the United States, which is moving further away from the characterization of women as needing to be sexy for men. Women are replacing Victoria’s Secret’s overpriced, poorly-made push-up bras for alternative brands and start-ups, that aim to be comfortable and inclusive. But the distaste for Victoria’s Secret represents something much deeper than the quality of an underwire or the lack of proper sizing.
It’s the experience of walking into a Victoria’s Secret store that goes against to the contemporary women’s movement; the stores exist as the perfect example to what society decided women should be. Each store is sickeningly pink and lacy, the walls covered with slow-moving images of thinly-clad, pouty-lipped women strutting to deafening house music. As a 120 year-old girl or a 20-year-old woman, the impact is the same: You feel small, insecure and unsexy.
Perhaps the demise of Victoria’s Secret is promising for how our culture is changing, but today it still remains a market leader. Yet, lingerie is not the only sector facing criticism for its outdated portrayal of women. In Hollywood, where many gender constructions are reinforced through television and media scripts, women and women of color are still underrepresented and hypersexualized.
Of the 100 top-grossing movies between 2017-2018, only nine percent of Hollywood movies had a gender-balanced cast and only 33.1 percent of all named, speaking characters were women. Only 11 movies had a woman of color as the lead. There is 29.2 perecent of women being shown in revealing attire including teenage girls. Latina women, who make up only one out of 1,200 directors, are the most likely to be hypersexualized or shown nude in feature films. This misrepresentation shows that without women to write, direct or spearhead creative works, the female narrative becomes skewed.
How does this erasure and subsequent fabrication of the female narrative impact viewers? For young girls, the internalized adherence to gender roles is almost impossible to fight off. Even I, who was raised in the same way and with the same opportunities as my brother, felt the immense pressure imposed on me through television and movies. In the action movies I would watch with my brother, there was always a male lead – the hero – and a female love interest, whose sole purpose was to look hot on the back of said hero’s motorcycle…and that’s about it. She would be lucky to even have a line. This kind of representation (or lack thereof) conditions women to the idea that we have to be quiet but sexy, powerful but secondary, active but objects. That our purpose is to please men.
It’s obvious that our institutions, brands and culture are rooted in patriarchal traditions, and though they are being reformed, change takes time. Meanwhile, a parallel process to that of culture and policy is occurring in social media, a free platform where women can take authority over their own bodies and rewrite the narrative. When I entered high school, social media like Instagram and Snapchat were beginning to take on a new life. I had been accustomed to posting awkward photos of myself throwing up the peace sign on Facebook or using Instagram for the “cool” filters. But in parallel to my budding adolescence, Snapchat and Instagram were now places where you could post pictures of your body – however exposed – and receive praise for it (most of the time).
This ranged from girls posting selfies in low-cut tops for their 300 followers or to the popular body-positive movement, which overtook the media’s standard of beauty as thin, white and unblemished and was replaced by more realistic representations of women that they created themselves. The latter redefined the image of women in the media, but the former is where social media platforms and their place in empowerment becomes questionable. It is clearly unfeminist to judge a woman for her sexuality and confidence, but some question if social media is causing women to contribute to their own objectification.
Even though women use social media more and use it as a place to build their sense of self, apps like Snapchat and Instagram are largely owned by males, and images posted by women are subjected to the male gaze without compensation (of course, sponsorships exist, but only for those with lots of followers, and not every photo is a sponsored deal). And we’ve all seen the terrible, cringey Instagram accounts that serve to only post photos of attractive women – most of which are through submissions from the women themselves.
It would be easy to write off social media as another failed place of honest representation for women – or even blame women themselves – but the male gaze is inevitable. It doesn’t matter if a woman posts a seductive photo online or just walks down the street – she will be objectified either way.
From a young age, women are taught that our bodies are inherently sexual. In sixth grade, I was dress-coded for “provocative clothing”, back when I thought a boner was a literal reference to a bone (so I obviously had no understanding of what “provocative” even meant). In the early summers, my soccer team sweated through our shirts because we weren’t allowed to play in only a sports bra in case a boy walked by the field (the boys were allowed to play with their shirts off). In high school, there was an online dropbox for boys to post nude photos they had received from girls in our town. The list goes on and on and on.
All forms of media will create a space for sexualized imaging and characterization because we are human and find bodies attractive. Some people know how to capitalize on this phenomenon and make a profit off of it. The question is not whether social media is holding us back from the social change we are seeing with more representation of women in the media or brands like Victoria’s Secret starting to lose their appeal. The question is how can we reconcile representations of women and sexuality in a way that allows for them to be their most sexy selves when they feel like it, or vice versa, without it being exploited for the male gaze and for male profit.
How can we teach a generation of young girls that they too can be the hero while being proud of having big boobs or long legs? It is not as simple as making the lead of an action movie a woman and dressing her in a skirt. Yes, it is empowering to know you can save the world in heels, but the reality is deeper than that. The only way to have complex stories that show women and our sexuality in a true way is by having women write and share them, whether it be in a Tweet or on the silver screen.