Femen, Radical Unveiling, and American Apparel’s “Made in Bangladesh” Advertising Campaign

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? 

Dov Charney, CEO of American Apparel

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 site of the Rana Plaza building collapse outside Dhaka in April 2013

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.

62 year old model in American Apparel advertisement campaign

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. 

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15 thoughts on “Femen, Radical Unveiling, and American Apparel’s “Made in Bangladesh” Advertising Campaign

  1. The moment she decided to be on that ad, she decided to be objectified. Whether she would have been fully dressed or completely naked, she would still be objectified. What I’m trying to say is, some people may desire to be objectified every now and then, that does not leave them as people who should always be treated as merely an object. This advert and every advert uses subjects which are open to be objectified : men, women, children and so on.
    For Maks, perhaps she wanted to prove that being from Bangladesh and a muslim family, she was easily able to bare her body, without fear, while holding a perfectly respectable social standing. Women in Bangladesh would not survive such an act. Empowerment of women is not limited to modest ones, its for all women. If Maks is expressing herself as sexual (which isn’t the message i got, just giving a scenario for those who may have), then she is within her right to do so. Every human being has the right to be sexual and to express that sexuality. Jumping to conclusions like Maks is oppressed by a corporate giant is not right; unless heard from Maks herself, drawing any such conclusions would be oppression towards Maks.
    In you article, you have not included the very first line on the ad, it says ‘Meet Maks. She is a merchandiser who has been with American Apparel since 2010.’ i find it very interesting how you didn’t include that.
    Maks told the Daily Mail “I was fully comfortable with the photo shoot and went with it”. Adding, “We should all be able to freely express ourselves no matter where we come from. I fully support the message of the ad. I love and embrace all cultures and religions. I am choosing to be creative and expressing myself freely.”
    Im sure the only people angered by this ad will have been the angry muslims and Bangladeshis, which i think is what this ad is trying to prove. People born into a specific religion and country are not limited to just that. That is what womens lib should work for and feminists should fight for.

    • Nazia – I am neither Bangladeshi nor muslim but I still find this ad appalling. It angers me deeply and makes me ashamed of being a Westerner. Sorry – I’m with Raad on this one…

      • Thanks Ken. I think of it in the same context as other human rights issues, such as child marriage and child labour. Just because children in developing nations are complicit in their own exploitation does not validate either child marriage or labor, and it’s a shame that because it comes to a woman’s body, in this case, and corporate gain, with what was unmistakably an act of rendering her voice meaningless (only to be made meaningful by the tabloids, note that), we are willing to dismiss it. Sexual expression at its worst.

      • Agreed. 100%. I’ve tweeted this post and hope several of my feminist friends working in Bangladesh will pick up on it. I’d not heard of the campaign before and I’m appalled just how low people can get.

  2. Nazia,

    Some fair points of note, and I admit I had not seen the Daily Mail interview until right now (I don’t make it a point to glean news from tabloids, but see how the sleaziness of the previous gesture by American Apparel ensures the response for the medium of expression should be equally thus).

    However, I didn’t “jump to conclusions,” regarding her objectification by a corporate giant- I was making the point that her agency and voice was being rendered meaningless, and follows in a tradition of spectacle worship which suggests that economic gain supercedes ethical representations of women. I neither care for the nudity, nor would have been bothered by it, had I not seen the accompanying message.

    Also, I shortened the message from American Apparel in order to glean for content (a tact I’m sure you have seen many others do, so that point is irrelevant). I don’t think it took away from the quality of the content at all, nor that it was breached.

    Lastly, just because someone might not possess the necessary acumen to identify how they fall within the rubric of self-objectification within the history of feminism, does not mean that their objectification is any less relevant, or that it is irrelevant to the discourse of how nations are situated within the global context.

    Peace.

  3. This post left me deeply disturbed and confirms much of my worst fears about how the West is reacting to Bangladesh post-Rana Plaza. The fact is, much of the garment industry IS about slave labour for women and this is a symptom of the corruption and male-centric nature of the culture. But what clearly isn’t coming through is the West’s accountability for much, if not all, of this. The Garment industry is fuelled by the greed of the West and both Bangladesh AND the West need to change their views, goals and ways of treating fellow human beings. It’s not one or the other – both have a role to play in change.

    This advertising campaign makes it clear that the West views Bangladesh with disdain, taking a holier-than-thou stance and completely missing the large plank in its own eye. This is just what I saw happening from day one after the disaster.

    I don’t understand why this hasn’t happened with the chocolate industry. For many years now, groups have campaigned against companies like Cadbury to stop using child slavery in African countries to produce their cheap chocolate. In the end, the companies have taken notice and conditions are improving for those involved in actual chocolate production. To my knowledge though, no one has suggested removing the industry from Africa nor suggested that there is anything inherently wrong with any of the countries involved or their culture.

    Yet in a similar situation in Bangladesh (and India, Pakistan etc) the attitude couldn’t be further from the truth. “We did nothing wrong,” the West shouts, “it’s these stupid Bangladeshis with their backward ways.” Only a Bangladeshi woman who will dismiss her honourable faith, bare her breasts for all and allow the company to speak on her behalf is worthy of any credit. She is the future for all Bangladeshi women now – be like her, reject your moral heritage, enter the corporate and global machine and replace one kind of master for another. They miss that it isn’t Islam which damns her but the mistreatment by men – and she has simply swapped one form of subservience for another.
    What a joke – or it would be, if it wasn’t so destructive and played with the lives of thousands who have done nothing wrong themselves but try to make a small but honest living.

    • Ken, this is fantastic, and I can’t agree more. Well said “She’s been swapped for one subservience to another” but just because the second “appears” to be modern, none of us are supposed to be riled by it. If we get riled, our response is situated as the angry Bangladeshi, when it is anything but, for liberal audiences.

      • Exactly – and I especially get annoyed when anyone plays the ‘country card’. If Bangladeshis tell me I don’t understand because I’m not Bangladeshi/Muslim/a woman or whatever I get just as cross as here the ‘angry Bangladeshi’ excuse. People should look at what we all say and judge by our words and arguments rather than dismissing any of us by assuming a prior bias which nullifies our view – it doesn’t!

  4. Wow, intense response. I’ll check out your piece. I don’t like to situate any analysis I do within the paradigm of race, but I do see where you’re coming from.

  5. Thanks Raad, I think most of us don’t like to do it, but in the particular case of FEMEN it has come across very strongly from the FEMEN protestors, so I am counter-using the argument. On my several posts related to the problems with this form of protest for women rights in Muslims countries, I have been sent several messages stating my religion is sick, and patriarchal and other interesting attributes. Also I will request you to kindly remove my earlier comment because it is quite a shocker and I dont wish to be of any disrespect to you and create any issue at your blog. Thanks, in solidarity. S

    • Of course, as you wish. I left it on for discussion’s sake, but you may be right. I don’t use either religion or race as a lens to analyze, although I do see the uses for it. I will delete the original comment per your request, but I do appreciate the feedback, and am looking forward to reading your work. It’s an important topic about which much can be said, and I do see the underlying race based values placed on Femen.

      Thanks very much for your comment, it’s given me much to think about, particularly in terms of a topic which it appears we’re both clearly very fascinated with.

  6. Thanks a lot, yes I actually feel it served its purpose of opening the lens of “race” within the FEMEN debate. I appreciate your cooperation, please feel absolutely free to read my previous stuff and also I’l be bringing some more. I came to this realizations after observing the protest “Muslim women get naked, better naked than the burqa” led by Ms.Inna’s group. It made me think that race is certainly involved, because why not support not-so-prevailed sisters with other suggestions, like education, choice in partner, mobility etc.
    Also I have had some conversations with pro-FEMEN supporters whose opinion on the Muslim protestors including Amina, Alia al-Mah and others was like “finally some Muslim women are getting naked, there is still some hope of liberation in Iranians, Tunisians, finally they accepted how terrible is Islam and so on.” One was so funny, Saadia, you are already a controversial Muslim woman, time to also join them. (insulting/belittling my women rights stances, and being plain offensive)
    I have found a racist rhetoric in almost all these statements. What do you think?

    • I would say it’s more of a religious stance than a racist one, but it does seem to fall within the rhetoric of the “white men’s burden.” I am a very liberal agnostic at best, but find that even my liberalism is challenged by some of this essentializing rhetoric, which is generally employed by those leading the femen movement. The underlying problem to me seems that there is not enough of an acceptance of a form of feminist rhetoric that does not embrace individual choices and co-existing ideologies. It’s as though religion is used as the crux to signify “backward” behaviour, without really addressing that it’s the shortsightedness and incapability of looking beyond how baring it all can sometimes just be an act of rebellion, or an endorsement of corporate social irresponsibility, instead of actually addressing the root of the matter- that not all women’s struggles can be reduced to a single rhetoric and logic.

      It’s really sad that someone would say being controversial means that you would have to bare it all, and I’m so sorry you’ve had such an experience. It showcases, really, how pathetic some tenets of this femen movement really is.

      • I agree with you totally and yes I also think its more religious than racist but these outcomes made me think.
        Thanks so much also for saying what was on my mind too, that most western doctrines reject religions, so while it does not come as a surprise that Islam too comes under fire as it should rightly so, the expression of critiquing religion however remains downright offensive and full of hate. This does not help no-one and creates the us versus them sides within feminism that I feel exist even in feminism imagery and doctrine. Isulting people, beliefs doesn’t get us anywhere, as you might see I fiercly critique customs, religious issues as well the Pakistani mentality of being stuck in dark ages but I can’t downright pin point people, books etc with rudeness.
        I don’t really let it get to me, I’ve realized am made of sterner stuff and while I work and travel in Europe, Americans with foreigners I make sure they get a proper redponse from my side on any such stuff that they feel to say! :-p

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