What to make of the New York Times’ exposé of Victoria’s Secret at the weekend?
Meredith, by email
You mean the article claiming that senior executives at the company talked about women in a degrading way, and at least one – the former chief marketing officer Ed Razek – harassed the models and demanded sexual favours from them? (He denies the allegations.) What, a tacky lingerie company that puts women in geisha outfits – and, if they’re black, leopard print with tribal marks – to sell bras turns out to be less than ethical? That instead of “celebrating” women, as it claimed, it saw them as mere commodities to be exploited? Colour me astonished.
Regular readers of this column will know I am no fan of Victoria’s Secret. Indeed, slating its absurd “fashion” shows and the embarrassing amount of coverage this soft-porn garbage got in the press was for a long time one of my favourite near-annual traditions. That show was held up by the tabloids and fashion press alike as the apex of liberated femininity in a sparkly bra, and anyone who groused about it was dismissed as an ugly feminazi who clearly didn’t have good enough tits. Well, looks like we ugly feminazis won (don’t we always?) because the show was kiboshed two years ago. Lord knows where the show’s fans, such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Justin Bieber and, er, Jeffrey Epstein were able to go to leer at women in lingerie after that. Fingers really crossed for those guys.
The New York Times’ exposé is brilliant, and highly recommended. What I don’t get, however, is why it has taken this long – until 2020! – for the wheels to come off Victoria’s Secret, with its parent company’s shares falling more than 75% since 2015. Indeed, I believe a certain scholar (me) said seven whole years ago that Victoria’s Secret sells “an insultingly retrograde vision of femininity”, and at the time this seemed like such a statement of the obvious that I was embarrassed to type it. Well, let’s just file the long-awaited demolition of Victoria’s Secret’s reputation as yet another entry in the category “Hadley Was Right All Along”, in between the awfulness of Harvey Weinstein and the genius of Keanu Reeves.
Things really started to go south for the company in 2018 when Vogue interviewed Razek, and he made the shocking revelation that Victoria’s Secret has, yes, an insultingly retrograde vision of femininity: “It’s like, why don’t you do [bra size] 50? Why don’t you do 60? Shouldn’t you have transsexuals in the show? No. No, I don’t think we should. Well, why no? Because the show is a fantasy,” Razek said, as his publicist presumably plunged head-first on to her desk.
Almost all the criticism of what he said focused on his exclusion of transgender models – and, indeed, Razek later apologised solely for his remark about trans people – but his dismissal of bigger women was as worthy of condemnation. Maybe fat-phobia is still taken as a given in the fashion world. Well, it shouldn’t be.
Sweetly, some of the Victoria’s Secret models stepped forward at the time to condemn Razek’s comments, and good for them. But, really, why did they think they were hired by Victoria’s Secret to walk around in their underpants – because of their personalities? Did they think it was just a coincidence they all basically look identical? And did the public really need Razek to tell them that Victoria’s Secret is an offensive organisation with an offensive view of women? Yes, what he said was horrifically cruel about trans women – and, again, fat women – but this company has always been offensive about all women. (After all, I haven’t seen too many fortysomething mothers-of-three in the Victoria’s Secret catalogue. Sadly, Razek is no longer with the company, so I guess I’ll never learn his thoughts on whether I count as anyone’s fantasy.)
Victoria’s Secret was predicated on telling women that the ultimate fantasy is Gigi Hadid in lingerie and a pair of tacky angel wings. It is the modern era’s Playboy mansion, and it was always obvious that it had the morals to match, so if you didn’t realise this before, I’d suggest getting your eyes and your brain tested. But now you do know and you can join the rest of us in protesting against Victoria’s Secret in the most effective way possible: by not giving it a dime and depleting its finances ever further.
Post your questions to Hadley Freeman, Ask Hadley, The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU. Email email@example.com