Monday, August 9, 2010

WARNING: Product may contain sexism.

In "Hiring hot people: The overblown outrage,"'s Mary Elizabeth Williams takes aim at those who criticize American Apparel for allegedly discriminating against their employees based on their physical appearance.

American Apparel (AA) has been accused by store managers and others of hiring and firing employees based on their looks, and they require all job applicants to submit a photo of themselves "pref. head to toe," regardless of whether or not they are applying for a job that requires interaction with customers.

AA CEO Dov Charney has faced multiple lawsuits (some settled, some dismissed) for sexual harassment and wrongful termination.  According to the Los Angeles times, a female employee alleged that he "[used] sexually explicit language and [behaved] in sexually inappropriate ways" in the workplace, appeared in only his underwear (and less), and "referred to women as "whores" and "sluts" and invited her to masturbate in front of him."

Charney masturbated in front of reporter Claudine Ko and admitted to having multiple relationships with his employees in an interview for Jane magazine in 2004.

AA and Charney's increased exploitation of women more than makes up for the lower rate of exploitation of garment workers in their "sweatshop free" factories.

AA ads, which often portray employees, feature scantily-clad (mostly female) models in suggestive poses, using sex to sell clothing.  They even had a "Best Bottom" contest that invited customers (again, mostly women) to send in photos of their butts in AA merchandise.

The ads generally feature young, thin women somewhere near the age of consent, and one ad shows a topless, disheveled Charney lying in a rumpled bed with a scantily-clad young woman.  You do the math.

Despite all of this, while Williams describes workplace discrimination (she links to a Gawker article where AA employees speak about about racism as well as sexism) as "messed up," she ultimately justifies discrimination in hiring based on appearance, writing that:
"Retailers expect a degree of attractiveness from their sales force for the same reasons they put models in their advertisements: to move the merch. Is that unfair? Take it up with the gene pool. If you're my Apple support team, I don't care what you look like. But if you're selling me pants, it's entirely possible that I do."
In one sense, Williams is right.  Capitalism commodifies everything, including our bodies and our sexuality.  American Apparel is not the first nor the only company to use sex to move their products (although they are a worse offender than many), and people who meet traditional standards of beauty tend to be paid more across the board.

Still, just because this is the way things work doesn't mean it should, or has to, be this way.  Nor is the "gene pool" the culprit.

Companies like AA, with their ads that promote a specific ideal (young, thin, white, or hyper-sexualized women of color), as well as the broader media, shape what society defines as beautiful (so they can sell it to us), a definition that excludes the majority of women (and men).

Not only does this result in widespread low self-esteem, body issues and eating disorders in women and girls (and growing numbers of men and boys), but it's good for companies' bottom lines: in addition to using sex to sell goods, these sexually-exploitative ads are designed to make us feel inadequate, offering the purchase of a commodity as a quick feel-good fix.

Of course, a new t-shirt, thong, or pair of leggings only offers a short-term jolt to the consumer's self-esteem, and then it's back to the pusher for another dose.

Capitalism, not genetics, is at the root of this body-image-warping consumerism, and our genes do not rigidly determine beauty standards, which have varied over the years, embracing a variety of body types.  For examples, see here and here.

While standards of beauty may change, capitalist mass production (despite what we're told about "freedom of choice") tends towards conformity.  This is because capitalists benefit from economies of scale (cost savings from producing large quantities of identical goods) and are conservative, preferring to sell a product similar to something already proven successful (which is why every successful band spawns dozens of imitators pushed by record companies).  Whatever body-type is "in" at the moment will always exclude the majority of human bodies.

A socialist society not based on the sexist commodification of the human form could do away with standards of beauty altogether, and embrace a diversity of body types for men and women, celebrating beauty in all forms.

Williams accepts as given and eternal the commodification of human beings, not just as sex objects in advertisements, but as walking mannequins on the job in a clothing store.

Under capitalism, most of us are ourselves commodities.  We sell our time, our creativity, our ability to work, and yes, our bodies, to the boss for a wage in order to pay the bills and put food on the table.  And we keep only a small portion of the value we create, most of which goes to enrich capitalists like Dov Charney, who rakes in millions while his workers, despite above-average wages for the industry, live one or two paychecks away from destitution.

Short of a revolution that does away with this exploitation, retail workers do not have to passively accept discrimination based on appearance, nor should they accept a climate of sexual harassment and discrimination in exchange for charity from Charney in the form of better wages and "sweatshop free" conditions (and Charney explains he pays better wages for business, not moral reasons).

AA workers would do well to learn from garment workers in Bangladesh, currently engaged in mass struggle to fight for a decent wage.

Then there are the sex workers fighting for their rights against state repression in China, an inspiring example of defiant agency from workers whose bodies and sexuality are literally sold as a commodity on the market.

Capitalists will always treat workers as commodities, and encourage consumers to do the same, because that it what we are under the wage system.  They purchase our time and ability to work just like they purchase raw materials and machinery, and they expect to be able to control us just like they do the inanimate objects that we spin and weave into the commodities that make them rich.

But, unlike a bolt of fabric or an industrial sewing machine, we can think for ourselves.  And we can resist.

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