American Apparel, the brand that famously gave us the image of a spread-legged model with the caption 'now open,' is now closed. American Apparel established its brand on images of ironic sexism which quickly became famous and, eventually, infamous. With its ironically posed 'cool-girl' models and its on-trend graphics, the company was valued at 1 billion in its prime. It was as if, for a time, American Apparel held the secret to being unanimously pardoned for shameless sexualization, and it was as simple high-contrast images on a white background with bold, neon typeface.
Now American Apparel will shut its doors, but will it take its ironic sexism aesthetic with it? Ideally, the failure of the brand would also mark the end of the irony era. But I'm not sure we'll be that lucky: the parading of '-isms' protected by the shield of enlightened humor is a potent combination, and one that I fear may be hard to relinquish.
Re-branding the male gaze as current and edgy wasn't American Apparel's exclusive feat; Vice and Urban Outfitters have also built empires on similar aesthetics. In many cool bars and 'eateries' today, ironic sexism winks at us from retro Playboy posters behind bearded bartenders. American Apparel's mascot, the hipster, embodied an ironic style of living that is self-defensive and suave, and has remained at the pinnacle of cool for over a decade.
The company cornered the retro-chic market, tapping what Emma Pitman calls "the specific facet of hipster culture that prefers to repurpose old things to enjoy ironically, rather than show earnest enthusiasm for anything." American Apparel not only recycled fashions, but also bygone ideals of silent, sexualized women. Yet American Apparel's indulgence of crude sexualization was cleverly masked with irony. Ironic sexism, or hipster sexism, cleverly weaves itself between these safeguards. It is both an indulgence, and a parody; the latter masterfully facilitates and absolves the former. The company's overwhelming success in marketing its brand of irony has meant that hipster sexism has become pervasive in trendy spaces, saturating fashion, advertising, and television, even as the pioneering brand fizzles out.
By masquerading as a joke, American Apparel rendered its sexist images 'harmless fun.' The model's young, cheeky look told us that she was down with the joke, and we all should be, too. And many were, for a very long time. It was not until late in the brand's game that the board decided to revise its image. It's most memorable move in this effort was ousting its scandal-ridden founder Dov Charney.
Dov Charney, and his equally slippery doppelgünger, photographer Terry Richardson, were poster boys for hipster sexism. The two personify the obnoxiousness that underpins their specific brand of cool. If you've been on the internet in the last ten years, chances are that you've heard some of the accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct that have plagued both these men. Surprise, surprise, play misogyny isn't so far from the real thing after all. So will the closure of American Apparel, with its iconic/ironic male gaze, mark the end of on-trend graphics and self-awareness that claims to neutralize chauvinistic and objectifying ends?
I hope so, but I fear complacency is not the tone to take. After all, hipster sexism's irony is not just a frame of mind, but a weapon. One which admits sexism to the realm of comedy, where PC rules no longer apply. We reserve a near-sacred space for comedy, allowing it to say what often can't be said. For many of us, it's integral this sanctuary remain uncensored. Its liberty is what gives comedy the potential to be a powerful tool for social and cultural critique. There's no doubting that humor is vital, especially in this day and age. Yet, as many women around the world have noted, hipster sexism is not comedy. Where is the edginess in displaying a version of the world that is largely representative of how it is?
Hipster sexism does not reveal any forbidden truths. That is, unless perhaps you count the attitude that openly degrading women is (somewhat) frowned upon today. Gesturing at the sexualization of women and gendered power imbalances is not comedy, it's the status quo. Women are largely still measured on scales of sexiness, and I fail to see the joke here outside of the sad truth that this continues in 2017. In the article 'The Age of Hipster Sexism,' Alissa Quart also asks whether we have really reached a stage where we can engage in enlightened irony. "We think we're over sexism yet our ironic expressions of it can only reinforce the basic problem, which is that women are paid less and (degradingly) sexualized against their will far more than men."
As for the idea that the hipster sexism of American Apparel was a parody, in the brand's image I see no attempt to laugh at or demean sexist sentiments. Powerful, white men have been at the helm of American Apparel's hipster sexism since its inception. In trying to unravel who has stakes in preserving the status quo, be it through 'jokes' or otherwise, it's not difficult to find the most probable demographic. American Apparel, like hipster sexism in general, isn't laughing at classic sexism, but with it. It uses humor as a guise to proliferate ideas which serve the status quo.
Tracy Spicer argues that inherent within hipster sexism is the belief that we are in the 'post-feminist' era, and thus it is safe, nostalgic even, to play out the fantasy of 1950s women, sexualized and docile. Hipster sexism rests on the notion that remembering eras when women were seen and not heard is funny now because we are 'over it.' American Apparel certainly capitalized on this sentiment, but I would argue that the rise of hipster sexism runs far deeper than this single brand's manifestation of it.
Here, in this ubiquitous prefix 'post-' lies the problem. We are living in the 'post-' era, in post-modernity, post-feminism, post-colonialism, post-truth, post-war. But these terms are, of course, misnomers. These struggles are neither finished nor overcome; they continue to affect us. Nonetheless, the prefix 'post-' is indicative of a large scale perspective shift. The days of grand narratives are over, and committing to an ideology rests somewhere between silly and contemptible.
In this light, ironic living can be seen not simply as a trend in youth culture, but as a mangled pop incarnation of post-modernity, a kind of half-baked nihilism. Irony has become an attractive mode of living because it allows people to express views without owning the consequences. It is a mode that is surrendered to the idea that nothing means anything, and that younger generations have nothing to new to contribute. Best just make a joke of it. This is still largely true today, though it seems the reality of what many took as the Trump 'joke,' and other serious disruptions such as Brexit, are shaking young people worldwide into more active forms of political engagement.
The controversies and criticism of Dov Charney and the American Apparel brand may have been a part of its demise. I hope so. But the urge to put women in their box in fresh, new, probably 'humorous' ways, will not stop with the end of American Apparel.
Using the sacred liberty of humor, American Apparel shamelessly paraded sexism, while simultaneously accusing its critics of the mortal sin of having no sense of humor.
It created a brand out of the slipperiest form of sexism yet. Doused in designer irony, hipster sexism slides just enough space between the sexist content and its propagator for it to be difficult to call out. Its covert-overtness is uncomfortable, but it's often difficult to pinpoint why. It's because hipster sexism is silencing: it demands we play along, or risk being cast in the historic role of the hysterical female. It has women in a double bind. It postures as a joke, shielding itself from normal social etiquette, and if any woman braves pointing out its vulgarity, she is quickly ensnared in the trap of becoming the overly sensitive stereotype.
American Apparel capitalized on two clever wellsprings: disenchanted, post-modern youth and the economy of young women's bodies. It built an alluring new facade to house, essentially, the same old sexism. In this, the company was revolutionary. It sold its sexist brand to young women around the world, and for many years largely evaded accountability for the sexist ideals it propagated. Combining humor and sexism as a large scale branding effort, was made popular in the present day by American Apparel. The inherent difficulty in calling out this style of sexism makes me sure this maneuver will remain in work, through perhaps in a slightly different style. If American Apparel taught us anything, it was never to dismiss sexism that postures as enlightened.
Images: American Apparel
Published April 10, 2017
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Bella Peacock is a freelance writer and studies a Masters in English Literature at the Freie Universitüt, Berlin. Her work has been published in Roads & Kingdoms, Future Perfect Magazine, FilmInk and Reportage Online. After she's finished writing her thesis on sex-play politics, Bella plans to move to Sarajevo. You can follow her @peacock_bella and http://bellapeacock.com.