The shot shows a woman bent over a car, head unseen buried into its window: The focus is on her bare, colt-thin legs, and the ruffled base of a skirt teasing the outline of her buttocks. The articles condemning American Apparel for posting the image on its U.K. Instagram account block out the buttock area, or blur it—intriguingly, as without blurring it’s barely visible. The technique makes the advertisement seem more pornographic than it is.
As ever when it comes to American Apparel, the photograph is less about the article of clothing and more about objectifying and sexualizing the wearer.
Twitter users decried the image: part of a “back to school” campaign, American Apparel was accused of “fueling Lolita fantasies” and “rampant sexism.” One Tweeter asked: “At what high school do those clothes pass dress code? Not mine.”
Last March, E! Online, those guardians of good taste who would never objectify anyone on the red carpet, along with many others, condemned American Apparel for “sinking to a perverted new low” with another advertisement for a miniskirt, which showed a similar pornily conceived bend-down—this time revealing the white outline of knickers.
The fetishized sleaziness of the advertisements corresponds with the image the company took on as a result of its onetime CEO, Dov Charney, who faced multiple sexual harassment, labor and abuse lawsuits through the past decade of his working there.
But American Apparel seems in no rush to change its image; to divert from its territory of teenage Boogie Nights, red lollipops being sucked by young lips, tousled hair, and sexual aggressiveness and suggestion. It is guilty of all the things in its advertisements its accusers level at it. But it is far from alone: It simply operates at the most overt level of sexualization in the highly sexualized culture it exists within.
American Apparel is hated for its blatancy, for making the tawdry look even tawdrier; for making the sexual look unseemly; and for making—in the most crudely obvious terms—its young models sexual objects and agents.
But American Apparel is far from the worst offender. As a culture, sexuality and youth are played out in mild and extreme contexts in other fashion campaigns, television, and movies.
The other night I watched American Beauty again. In that film, Mena Suvari, playing a teenager, is imagined by Kevin Spacey’s character nude, rose petals covering her breasts and vagina, the petals falling temptingly from her body; her facial expression come-hither. He also imagines her dancing a sexually aggressive spotlit dance. Just because the film is artily shot doesn’t make the objectification of Suvari any less unvarnished.
Far more disturbing than the American Apparel adverts are those featuring Thylane Blondeau, aged 12 in April and hailed by Jalouse magazine in France as “the nouvelle Kate Moss.” In 2011, Blondeau had been featured in a widely criticized French Vogue feature in a series of sexy-adult dresses, her face—even more weirdly—contorted into a series of adult-desire expressions.
The use of young models is nothing new: Brooke Shields was a child model under the aegis of Eileen Ford, who denied to me when I interviewed her in 2012 that she had exploited the young women she employed. “It was a joy to see them developing as my children were developing. For us, modeling wasn’t just a business, it was love—and we loved those models.”
Shields was photographed nude when she was 10, the photograph later used in an artwork by Richard Prince. At 12 she played a teen prostitute in the Louis Malle film, Pretty Baby. She made The Blue Lagoon and Endless Love as a teenager. By 15, Shields was saying: “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins” in an advert for Calvin Klein underwear.
Shields told me in an interview for The Times of London, vociferously, she was nobody’s victim. “There was no shame around my body—my kids now walk around naked all the time,” she said. “From a young age, I saw the idiocy of what was written and said about me: it was only ever partially true. Having those photos taken of me when I was 10 didn’t bother me until the guy tried to sell them after I became famous. Now he’s a dog walker. I had body doubles in the movies. I made a lot of money.”
Keith Haring once apologized to Shields for objectifying her by using her Calvin Klein image next to a naked guy’s. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding? It’s a huge compliment!’” she said. “I guess if I’d fallen prey to someone, or become a statistic and fallen into drugs, then it would be different, but I stayed unscathed. Becoming part of pop culture, part of the art, made it less personal.”
Pretty Baby, she noted, was made by Malle, and The Blue Lagoon shot by the renowned cinematographer Néstor Almendros: “I wasn’t on 42nd Street being photographed with a little camera. I was never out of the artistic realm.”
Not all models and actresses have the agency or confidence of Shields, of course, but the intriguing thing is as our culture has become more sexualized—certainly way more since the early 1980s—the charges of exploitation and sexism have become more concerted and voluble. A culture that is more sexually aware and apparently liberated is also more sensitive.
The American Apparel adverts are deemed tacky and offensive because they dramatize, brazenly, the sex-drenched time we live in. As with Terry Richardson, the gaze upon the girls and young women in the advertisements feels creepily older and male. (Are women involved in their conception—or just men?)
They cause headlines because they are easy villains, and yet the more uncomfortable truth is we are hideously confused about what we know about young people socially and sexually: their demands, expectations, and desires—and these images make that confusion explicit. And this is also Planet Fashion, where shock reigns supreme and where taboos are challenged in imagery. So the models are shown in various extremes, here as extremely young, with blurred sexuality added.
TV shows and magazines skewed towards the young address them as adults; their relationships and communication, played out in shows like The Hills, 16 and Pregnant, Jersey Shore, and The Rich Kids of Beverly Hills, are adult. Teen pop stars sing songs with lyrics about relationships tried, tested and processed, with all the knowledge of someone in their mid-40s. And adults, their parents, are dressing and behaving younger. There has been the strangest collapse between generations. It used to seem novel if a mother borrowed her daughter’s jeans; now she’ll try and nab her flirty summer top, too. She talks like her daughter now; everyone does, in that speedy, all-knowing, wisecrack-spattered sitcom patois of Modern Family.
When I see those American Apparel advertisements, in the saddest, most depressing way possible, they speak of a culture that wants all things from its young people: to stay innocent, and yet be all-knowing; to be sexually submissive and sexually vixen-ish; to be vulnerable yet all-commanding.
The adverts and images reek, most unattractively beyond their pop-pornography, of a sketchy narcissism. When we speak of the “exploitation” of young women in these shots, it feels less sexual to me, more an impulse to make the young people seem older than they are—young, nubile bodies concealing older, practiced sexual desire.
American Apparel is a useful conduit for our distaste, but the real offense is socially pervasive: Our culture—we—have perverted the notion of childhood. These images of schoolgirl skirts and peekaboo buttock outlines are just the most open, unapologetic manifestation of that.
Blame American Apparel, call them smut peddlers, tut and criticize all you like; and then turn the pages of the Daily Mail’s website for pictures perving over Taylor Swift’s “thigh-skimming frock,” featuring “sheer blue gingham fabric…hark(ing) back to schoolgirl summer uniforms with a pretty pointed flat white collar.”
The “Lolita” criticism is the most intriguing, because it alludes to the faultline of sexual innocence and command the young women in the American Apparel advertisements become endowed with, the same faultline encoded in Nabokov’s fictional character, later configured on film by Sue Lyon in 1962 and Dominique Swain in 1997.
That Lolita complex has never been resolved; American Apparel advertisements would fail miserably if it had. But we betray our own inability to think properly about young people’s sexuality when we lose it over some tacky adverts. That a photograph of a miniskirt skimming some buttocks causes such a fuss is merely a symptom of how utterly confused the wider culture is about young people—girls and women in particular—who it now dictates grow up faster and faster.