A friend posted this article about the recent launch of the “Go East” Victoria’s Secret line on their Facebook page, and a comment exchange ensued between some folks, myself included. I thought some points that were raised deserved a response (and a public one at that, not caught up in the FB privacy settings). I’ve paraphrased and bolded them here + added some responses.
- How is this racist? A geisha is a sexual figure in East Asia already.
This line isn’t just sexualizing the geisha—the entire LINE is all about “sexy exotic Asian-ness,” and it’s all predicated on a commodified, simplified, and inauthentic view of “exotic asian culture.” For the purposes of Victoria’s Secret, “going east” means “let’s put some cherry blossoms and red on some lingerie and make our models wear chopsticks in their hair and OH OH don’t forget the kimono!” Of course it brings in the geisha as one of the lingerie styles because that’s one of the easiest things to sexualize here in the U.S., since so many people are familiar with the concept. Speaking of which, most of us have a pretty simplified and misinformed idea about what being a geisha entails anyway, and the level of education and training geishas got/get as well as the diversity of their actions/professions is not something a lot of people know about. Most folks just think “yeah, a geisha, a Japanese prostitute with the white face and stuff, like in Mulan or something.”
- Sexual fantasy doesn’t indicate personally racist/bigoted beliefs. Wanting to dress like a geisha doesn’t make someone a racist.
Sexual attitudes and desires don’t happen inside of a magic bubble. We all have the responsibility to ask ourselves why we like what we do instead of just saying “AH WELL I JUST LIKE STUFF WHO KNOWS WHY.” Just as we adopt racist, sexist, etc.-ist beliefs in other areas of our lives, we adopt them in our sexual life and sexuality too. It’s our responsibility to interrogate what we want and how that intersects with the world around us. It’s like saying “yeah I only date white people, I dunno, I just find them more attractive.” Beauty is not this magically 100% objective thing–it’s very conditioned by our upbringing and cultural surroundings, and if those have racism embedded into them, you betcha your ideas of beauty will also have racism embedded unless you actively work to fight that and deconstruct it as much as possible.
And even if someone doesn’t want to dress like a geisha due to “explicitly racist” reasons, it involves a degree of subconscious entitlement to do so–that “yes, I can wear this, because I can do whatever I want, I have access to these pieces of this culture and I don’t have to think about the context or the impact of this choice.” It’s that dismissiveness, that disregard, that idea that all things are possible/accessible and OK because “I’m not actually a racist.” Racism isn’t just lynchings and cross-burning and denying people jobs; it’s way more complicated and pervasive than that.
- Taking this line down and not carrying foreign-oriented lines of lingerie = just as offensive as carrying them.
There’s a difference between carrying a line catered to a particular community and appropriating that community’s culture. There’s also a difference between actually trying to provide positive and accurate representation of a culture for that culture (or even for society) and doing something simplified to purely make profit and create the newest fashion collection. Here, the intent as well as the outcome are important. Furthermore, no, these things are not “equally offensive.”
Of course, product advertising and these sexy lingerie things are never going to fully capture the entire history of whatever they’re symbolizing/hinting at, but when it’s done along already tense axes, where there have been lots of struggles between those who are creating the products and those who they are “depicting,” it’s a problem. Why? Because it’s once again a reiteration of the same power dynamics. In a climate where there are still a lot of anti-Asian feelings (check out this website for example
!), it’s just one more way in which U.S. culture, especially non-asian/specifically-white U.S. culture, asserts that it can take whatever it wants from these cultures for its own purposes, demonize the fuck out of those same cultures, and not be held accountable.