Back in the bad old days that are always threatening to repeat on us, it was alleged that rape victims were “asking for it.” We were supposed to know that the woman was asking for it—even when she obviously wasn’t, and even when she was saying no— because of how she was dressed: Too “provocatively,” suggestively, sensually, flirtatiously, or sluttily. Or, because she was wearing too much make-up. These sartorial and fashion decisions made a woman’s lack of consent mute, and meaningless. Her clothes spoke for her, and asked for it.
Now, Victoria’s Secret is marketing underwear to teenage girls that is, literally, asking for it.
In their latest ill-conceived campaign, “Bright Young Things,” they’re marketing underwear to teenage girls with phrases like call me, wild, and feel lucky? emblazoned across the front, such as a front exists. Victoria’s Secret explains that 15 and 16 year olds want to feel older (or, perhaps that’s what adults want from younger girls, because plenty of teenagers are happy to be whatever age they are, if only adults would let them be it). The underwear appeals to this desire to be like a college student.
A few parents (and Miss Representation) have started petitions against this campaign. I can understand why. The underwear is designed from the point of view of an outsider’s lusty gaze on their daughter’s crotch. Many a parent of a 15-year-old hopes that her daughter’s underwear won’t have a “readership” until they’re older, even if the message on the thong is, “Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny,” the Pythagorean Theorem, or an excerpt from Beowulf.
And the gaze is entirely male—or, if not male, then it’s the imagined gaze of a lover, although let’s be real, Victoria’s Secret isn’t attempting to tap in to the adolescent lesbian demographic, here. An adolescent girl who’s exploring her sexuality sees this small message in the store, and she aggregates it with a million other small messages in other places, that her intimate life and body is read and defined visually (and not by any other of the five senses, or experiences), by a male, and is in that sense something apart from her.
The wearer is invited to let her underwear do her talking, or presume her desire. What if you’re fooling around in some adolescent way, and your underwear is at cross purposes with what your mouth is saying?
Just imagine saying no, or let’s stop, while your underwear reads, “feel lucky?” In this scenario, your own underwear would be mocking you. It’s the sexual equivalent of having a Kick Me Hard sign on your back, but you don’t know it.
I’m only partially joking, here. With such coy messaging, courtesy of Victoria’s Secret, would something like this ever be taken as such an obvious act of sartorial provocation, of asking for it, that it would undermine the victim by showing just how “sexualized” or sexually intentional she was, or, more likely, mire the victim in second-guessing about herself? I can hear a teenage girl’s inner monologue now: “I didn’t really want to have sex… but I was wearing that underwear, and that outfit…”
It’s the nature of teenagers to stumble in over their heads. It’s the responsibility of adults to make it as safe and as easy as possible for them stumble back out, unharmed—not to sell them products that further confuse them.
Here’s an illuminating hypothetical: Would we ever see the same thing with 15-year old boys’ underwear? Maybe there’s a manufacturer somewhere that’s written “Call Me” across the crotch of underwear marketed to teenage boys. But I just can’t imagine that, at all. A young man would be the laughingstock if he wore something like that around his friends.
Actually, I can totally see The Onion doing it, as satire. They’d sell men’s underwear with, “this beautiful cock can be yours for the asking,” or “feeling lucky?”—as a joke.
Why is it a gag gift, or idiocy, for boys and an actual, sincere product for girls?
For one thing, because men enjoy the status of being sexual subjects, which means that we assume that if a man wants sex, or feels sexy, then he’s going to use his voice and ask for sex, and is permitted, nay, expected, to do so. He’s not going to entrust that all-important expression of sexuality to his coy underwear.
A man’s desire isn’t assumed to be vague, hidden, or ambivalent. Worn on his body, and in his life, the undie message would look preposterous and emasculating, not at all sexy, provocative, or cute.
It seems plausible as a serious product line for a 15-year-old girl only because of lingering assumptions that females are coy, sexually disingenuous, and duplicitous. That’s the unstated logic of products like this, the logic that makes them seem interesting, or cute, in the first place. Women won’t really say that they want sex, so it’s charming to see it suggestively implied on their underwear. They don’t really mean no. Just read their underwear.
And men’s bodies don’t principally exist to satisfy the female sexual appetite. “Feel Lucky” boxer shorts would demean a man into an act of self-objectification in a life that isn’t otherwise sexually objectified. Maybe in a long-term relationship, the message would elicit a mild, amused chuckle from his lover or spouse, but that’s about it.
This frivolous little underwear is such an elegantly tacky, disturbing artifact of our culture’s sexual derangement. Maybe it belongs in a time capsule. Whatever the case, I agree with Miss Representation: “not buying it.”