Every November since about Grade 11, I’ve faced the same conundrum: can I be a feminist and still enjoy the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show?
When I started watching the VSFS, I saw it as just a fun, entertaining thing to watch. But when I mentioned to one of my guy friends at the time that a few of my girl friends and I were planning on watching it, he immediately told me how he thought it was objectifying and disrespectful towards women, questioning why I didn’t think so, too. For the most part, I brushed it off as I didn’t think a guy should be telling me what is and isn’t disrespectful towards women. But some small part of it stuck with me enough that I still wonder if I’m a Bad Feminist for enjoying the Fashion Show.
I’m not quite sure if I have a definitive answer, or if I’m even the right person to say for sure what the answer is. Though I’m not ruling out the possibility that I may see things differently in the future, so far, I don’t think the Fashion Show is inherently something feminists can’t enjoy.
If feminism is in part about women being free to make choices about their lives and bodies without restriction or judgement, then if a woman chooses to be a model for Victoria’s Secret, shouldn’t she be free to make that choice and profit from it without being looked down on for it? Models, especially Victoria’s Secret models, are crazy hard-working; most of them spend hours in the gym every day, essentially training like professional athletes. They also stick to super healthy diets, many of them avoiding things like sugar and alcohol for the majority of the time. As someone who hasn’t been to a gym in years and regularly eats potato chips with herb and garlic cream cheese, I can’t help but find it impressive.
Modelling is also one of the few industries with a gender wage gap that favours women. Not that I think any wage gap is okay, but it’s something to consider: many of the Victoria’s Secret Angels make millions of dollars every year. In terms of financial security, these ladies don’t have to worry. For the models with male partners, most of them are the higher-earning person in the relationship.
Though models have been referred to as glamourized clothes hangers, like the blank-faced models we see in most fashion shows, the Victoria’s Secret models are known for showing their personalities and joie de vivre. They smile, laugh, dance, and sing on the runway; they’re not just blank slates, but real people. Victoria’s Secret seems to emphasize that their models are real, interesting people. Their list of models is often hyped up and released like is usually done with movie casts. In the lead up to the Fashion Show, Victoria’s Secret often showcases their models’ personalities and backgrounds, posting videos of interviews on social media, or having them appear on talk shows, emphasizing that they are there for more than selling products. When my friends and I would talk about the Fashion Show in high school, we would barely mention the costumes, focusing more on the women.
Like all fashion shows, I also see the Fashion Show as a showcase of art. The costumes the models wear take hundreds of people and hours of work to design, create, fit, and fix—attention is paid to every detail, down to every last sequin and feather. I don’t see it as that different from an interactive art exhibit, and it’s arguably more accessible than going to a museum. It’s a testament to the designers that they can make something as simple as bras and underwear look unique every year. Recently, I’ve been glad that lingerie design and creation is being seen more as a talent and art, just as clothing design is.
Part of the reason I think the Fashion Show may have a bad rap is the idea that lingerie is created solely for the male gaze and to please male audiences. This may have been true to a certain extent in the past, but it seems now we’re recognizing buying and wearing lingerie as something that can be done for oneself, not just something one does to please a man. Most of my friends now who buy lingerie or are lingerie aficionados are single, buying it or looking at it for their own happiness and aesthetic satisfaction. When I worked at Victoria’s Secret for a few months over the holiday season, most people I met seemed to be buying the products that made them feel good about their bodies and saw buying themselves a fancy new bra as an act of self-care, similar to going to Lush and buying themselves a new bath bomb. Even in our training, we were told that our aim should be to help customers find something that made them feel gorgeous and confident in their bodies. Though, it’s clear that the women they catered to the most were a specific type of women.
This is where my moral conundrum really starts to come into play. I can argue that the models are empowered and not objectified, I can argue that lingerie isn’t primarily made or purchased to please the male gaze, but if I’m looking at the fashion show from an intersectional feminist lens, I cannot argue that it’s empowering for all women. As a cisgender, traditionally feminine, young white woman who has never struggled with my weight, I’m basically the target market for Victoria’s Secret, but I know that many people cannot say this. The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show features cisgender, feminine, skinny, young, white women. Though they have a more diverse range of models than most runway shows, with this year’s cast having 23 women of colour (out of 49 models), and *slightly* curvier models than we tend to see during fashion weeks, there’s still a traditional Victoria’s Secret look that excludes those who don’t fit into their beauty standards, and I’d venture a guess those people don’t feel empowered by the show. Though Victoria’s Secret has never claimed that their Fashion Show is a beacon of feminist light, they obviously have a lot of work to do before I would ever consider the show itself feminist.
Many of their models are self-proclaimed feminists, and I believe them. I think they should be able to do what they want with their bodies, and that their work can make them feel empowered. I also think that lingerie in itself is not unfeminist. But I think a show that empowers only a privileged few cannot be feminist. So, this November, I won’t be watching the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show for its feminist ideals, but I don’t think watching it will invalidate mine.