Chittagong, Bangladesh. March 11, 2013: American Apparel’s “Made in Bangladesh” advertisement was aptly released around International Women’s Day on March 8, 2014. Around this time of the year, discerning members of the digitally-connected international female community are pulled between conflicting definitions of feminism. From body-baring Femen provocateurs, we are treated with colorful paint emblazoned bodies declaring, “Every Day is Women’s Day.”
From the more staid slew of academics and postmodernist thinkers, we learn that even the declaration of such a day in the international media suggests the abject state of failure for women’s empowerment worldwide. Within this rich discussion and questioning around symbolism, representations, and uses of the female body, it should come as no surprise that someone came up with a way to gain attention and make money from the issue of space.
Enter American Apparel’S CEO Dov Charney, who provides us with a visually striking, controversy sparking and apparently socially conscious advertising move. Charney, the owner of this $600 million a year publicly held garments apparel, which sells only “American” made products, has not coincidentally been at the receiving end of several sexual harassment lawsuits, all of which have been miraculously dismissed or settled out of court.
“The era of cheap labour is coming to an end,” Charney said to The Daily Beast in an interview in May 2013, speaking about the Bangladeshi garments industry tragedy in April 2013. What Charney fails to mention is his own cheap tricks. The New York Times noted of Charney in an April 2011 article:
Mr. Charney masturbated in front of a female reporter from now-defunct Jane magazine. In 2008 he was lampooned on ‘Saturday Night Live’ for walking around the office in his underpants.
While the lack of ethical and moral obligations of a businessmen hardly comes as a surprise, a crucial question remains: Is Charney’s latest stunt with the aureole revealing “Maks,” an embodiment of US American “freedom of expression,” of support of the women’s lib movement and radical unveiling, or the work of a morally dubious marketing mastermind intent on stirring controversy?
From a competitor, the advertisement tacitly positions all of Bangladesh as a “backward,” unliberated country, whose garment exports are produced by enslaved laborers, constrained by backward Islamic mores. This is familiar territory: Charney arrogates for himself and his company, named “American Apparel,” a traditional patriarchal role of judge and liberator, all the while making a comfortable profit.
To explore this seemingly simple publicity stunt, let’s backtrack, and look at the image, alongside excerpts of the language accompanying this now infamous advert (you can find the whole speech elsewhere on the web- it’s been shortened here for our purposes).
“She is a merchandiser who has been with American Apparel since 2010. Born in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, Maks vividly remembers attending mosque as a child alongside her conservative Muslim parents. At age four, her family made a life-changing move to Marina Del Rey, California. Although she suddenly found herself a world away from Dhaka, she continued following her parent’s religious traditions and sustained her Islamic faith throughout her childhood. Upon entering high school, Maks began to feel the need to forge her own identity and ultimately distanced herself from Islamic traditions. A woman continuously in search of new creative outlets, Maks unreservedly embraced this photo shoot… She doesn’t feel the need to identify herself as an American or a Bengali and is not content to fit her life into anyone else’s conventional narrative. That’s what makes her essential to the mosaic that is Los Angeles, and unequivocally, a distinct figure in the ever-expanding American Apparel family.”
The aureole revealing “Maks,” whose claim to fame hinges on a complete overhaul of her roots as a disenfranchised Muslim and marginalized female of Bangladeshi origin, never once speaks in this advertisement. There is no first person narration whatsoever, which should already be an obvious clue to how Maks is objectified by the campaign, and thus succumbs to oppression, her personal voice rendered useless to her story by the words in front of us.
Maks is “Made in Bangladesh,” after all, even though American Apparel is ostensibly American. With this appropriation of Maks by an “American” company, we, the audience have been given the permission to privately revel at her compelling body, indulging in the exhibitionist ideology which derives its transgressive power from a cultural context defined by puritanical values (CF: a “pornucopia” of examples: prostitute-prosecuting state governor Eliot “John” Spitzer, weiner-tweeting candidate Weiner, Miley Cyrus’s artistic antics, and the Kardashian-led sex tape as press release phenomena).
The bold letters “Made in Bangladesh” are the finalizing and totalizing clincher to an advertisement rife with suggestions. Regardless, If Maks’ bare body speaks as that of an American, then the question then becomes, what exactly is American, and how does “American” assimilation define the contours of the hegemony of what is conceivably American?
The advertisement poses a very specific answer: An American girl is the kind who would have a spread that says, “Made in America,” but even the halfway house of hyphenated identities that come with the prefixes of “Asian,” “Latino” or “African” before American are not even allowed to her. She is simply, irrevocably, “Made in Bangladesh, suggesting that for Maks, the only choice of embracing her overarching sexuality and modernity is by going in the nude, embracing a hyper-sexualized idealization of “America,” in the process.
There is no middle ground, and there is no other American to the one Maks is seen as. Maks is glibly “modernized,” by her undressing in order to convey the message of a convoluted egalitarianism. Because Maks is made visible from the oppressive invisible veils of Islam, it is only through her undressing, that she can embrace what it means to be American, whilst forever marked by her Bangladeshi identity as something that must be overcome.
Punctuated with “Made in Bangladesh” semi-obscuring her bare and attractive upper torso, American Apparel’s assumption is we no longer need her stating her own words to define her.
The narrative fig-leaf of Mak’s participation and agency is equally moot, since she inhabits a role and space in which even her act of “radical” baring is banal, by virtue of its commercial contextualization (compare with the brave self-expression of Tunisia’s Amina Tyler, who did not benefit in any way from her radical protest against veiling custom, and her break with the Femen organization itself, for its perceived trading in Islamophobia).
The “Made in Bangladesh” advertisement is grand rhetoric in the form of titillating spectacle: the dialectic between Mak’s brown Bangladeshi body and her émigré-Ameican liberation, the movement form the images of poor and destitute Bangladeshi girls seen during the aftermath of the Rana Plaza tragedy is now “sexified” and replaced by an alluring women.
The healthy lushness of evocative America is on display for us with Maks, with a neat resolution of the global multicultural identity to which all should presumably aspire, if not celebrate.
What are the use of one’s own voice, we are left to wonder, when the bare body “speaks” for itself? But as a universal argument, the rhetoric falls short.
What is the message this image sends to a nation of 161 million, on the other side of the planet far away from American realities? Should we assume that Bangladeshis are not part of the audience, since there are (at present) no American Apparel stores in the malls of Dhaka?
If Maks’ body speaks for her as a Bangladeshi, which it certainly is attempting to, the response becomes one similarly fragmented. For the liberal Muslim female Bangladeshs, with no personal concept of feeling either “repressed” by Islam, or the need to feel identified solely by religion to the point of allowing irresponsible statements about one’s identity, one is left to wonder, does Maks rejoice in how she has assisted in stripping an entire nation of a voice, or is her victimization so absolutely complete, that she is incapable of articulating on print?
On the other hand, in a nation fast to react and slow to think, bifurcations between Bangladesh as primarily a Muslim country, or that of a South Asian country, will indubitably decide the reactions. As a Muslim country, the reaction would presumably follow on the precedent by the Jamaat extremists, who insisted on banning Youtube for several months in 2012 and 2013, as a result of a transgression made on depicting the life of Islam’s founder Muhammad. Violence will increase on the streets, and in a country where the socio-political elite find at least 26 election related deaths to be a number on a newspaper byline as late as 2014, will do little to stop thugs priming for a fight and a new target.
If the American Apparel advertisement’s rhetoric hinges on co-opting such potential for a “Muslim response,” the trifecta of social, political, and economic repercussions for the already damaged reputation of the “Made in Bangladesh” logo are tremendous.
Unpacking all this is an exercise in balance. Taking the feminist route would anger the extreme feminists, taking the religious route would anger the non-religious kinds, whilst the socio-political route affords no solace to those who are unsettled by the dichotomies produced by the all-embracive and exclusionary logics of global capitalism.
The underlying trouble that Maks poses, is precisely in the celebration of her own oppression by a corporate giant, and is thus in some ways no better off than some of her Bangladeshi sisters working in garment factories- it’s just more sanitized and acceptable, because it has occurred in the States, where freedom of expression rules above all.
The reputation management tactics adopted in the past year by corporate conglomerates and giants looking to brokerage a fair working environment package with the BGMEA (Bangladesh’s governing body for garments) are wreaked with doubts about a country whose political leaders are committed to nothing but rampant corruption. In the international media, it is widely underreported that political leaders had staged a nationwide shutdown on the inauspicious day that resulted in the Rana Plaza tragedy, causing many garments owners to illegally seek subcontractors to work for them in the first place, in order to meet international deadlines and retain clients.
Almost a year after 1057 lost their lives in the largest factory building collapse in the recorded history of human civilization, the “Made in Bangladesh” label is being further manipulated with an agenda that is separate from a constructive effort to secure better working conditions for Bangladesh’s garments workers.
The suggestion from American Apparel to Bangladesh is this: “you can’t handle your own,” so we’ll handle them for you. i.e., your labor standards, and also your women.
This political-economic discourse aligns perfectly with the associated cultural and commercial criticism driving the narrative hook of Maks’ breasts, and how they appear before us. Certainly, American Apparel advertisements attempt to maintain a controversial edge on feminism with recent portrayals of over-age models and public displays of pubic hair, but even for the most liberal amongst us, Maks is a failure and product of the same misogynistic rhetoric that her image is trying to explode.
This act of unveiling has achieved one thing well: reconfirmation of one of the exploitative sexist spectacle, in which opposing commercial rivals are indistinct, and unified in their profit from the beauty and power of the Bangladeshi female body.
About the author(s): Raad Rahman is a freelance human rights communications consultant who has over six years of international work experience with organizations such as UNICEF, the International Center for Transitional Justice, and the Asia Society. She was recognized as an emerging leader by Harvard’s Kennedy School in late 2013. You can follow her on @rad_rahman. These opinions are her own, and are not the reflection of any institutionalized endorsements of any kind.