Oh Anthropologie. You’ve done it again. Elected to use human beings as props.
Confession: I adore the clothes at Anthropologie: the colors, designs, elegance, and textures. Twice a year when the store has a big 80% off sale, I take my frugal soul to its clearance section and lovingly peruse.
But my appreciation of Anthropologie’s sale rack is not without a lot of internal conflict because I know the company has a huge problem: it exploits racialized and colonial historical narratives to sell its clothes. In other words, it sells “whiteness” in order to make money.
For instance, read the words of my smart fellow scholar Kim Pendleton Bolles as she analyses what Anthropologie did last year when its marketing campaign used Indian folks as background for their travelling white female models.
Ugh. That was a terribly exploitative, neocolonial campaign.
So, here I am today at the counter buying some lovely summer tops, wanting to be excited that I am giving myself this amazing treat of texture and color (I hardly ever go shopping, and usually go to Goodwill!). But right as I make my purchase, I pick up the latest magazine and my soul drops, again.
Whose on the cover? (Note: the cover photo I am referencing is not the one above—that photo above appears on page 17 in the magazine. The cover photo wouldn’t download, though, so you’ll have to click the following link.) A white female model, very pale with blonde hair, with two African American men playing music. She is having a lovely, smiley time. They seem to be there to serve up jazz just for her carefree happiness.
I want to suggest that this fashionable happy white woman is clearly meant to be the focal point of this picture. The men, in contrast, largely serve as “props” to accentuate the good time the white woman in yellow shoes and a polka dot dress is having as she enjoys their artistic labor and musical tradition.
And just to be clear: it’s not that the men in this photo aren’t gorgeous in their own right. (The website, not the printed magazine, has more gorgeous photos of these men if you scroll along to numbers 4 and 6.) But what I am pressing to investigate here is how their gorgeousness is being used by “whiteness” in the printed magazine, and particularly in this photo.
The white happy model, as it turns out, prevails as the model of all the clothes in the magazine. The men briefly appear again on page 17—well, parts of them appear, not the full people. Just half profiles. The white woman is leaning on one of their shoulders on page 17 (yes, as he is playing music); her white elbow seems to dig into his shoulder.
The men are in dark suits, placed against very dark wood. We must ask: are they in the picture largely just to accentuate the way the sunlight shimmers on her blonde hair and pale arms?
Hmm. Yep, that’s about how this has worked in US history. White, upper-class women have always propped themselves up on the labor of men of color (and women of color) in this country.
You see, there is a history in this picture—a racialized, classed, gendered narrative in US history. As I tell my students in my feminist theory classes, the task is to analyze these “cultural artifacts” for what they reveal about constructions of race, gender, and class (and we could also talk about age, sexuality, idealized body types, and ableism).
While these pictures in Anthropologie’s latest magazine are meant to look gorgeous and captivate the gaze and pocketbooks of consumers, in them is a long and violent history of white, upper-class women exploiting folks of color.
And, umm … final question: if the folks at Anthropologie wanted to celebrate Preservation Hall as the website says, why not choose an African American female model? Why the insertion of this white woman into a historical setting that is known for the musical contributions of black folk? And what’s that insertion of the white woman really about? I am not saying a white woman can’t enjoy or celebrate jazz; I am just sayin’ there are questions to be asked here. (And feminist theory helps us ask them.) Enjoyment, consumption, and exploitation can be quite problematically intertwined.
Kimberly B. George is an innovator of online feminist theory classes. She’s also a writer, and a soon-to-be postgraduate associate in Gender Equality at Yale University.
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