A few days ago, a video started making the Facebook rounds. Mark Jeffries, CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch, made a statement about his target demographic, saying “we go after the attractive all-American kid” and that “a lot of people don’t belong in our clothes.” In response, a video was made to show Jeffries just what people think about his exclusionary and incendiary remarks.
This video has gone viral, and the first time I saw it, I knew it made me uneasy. I couldn’t tell why right away, but I’ve had a couple of days to mull it over. In that time, a couple of the feminist blogs, websites, and thinkers I follow, have shared the video with positive comments and kudos to its creator, Greg Karber. But really, all this project has done is to reinforce the very notions Jeffries himself espouses; it even goes a step further to include yet another group in the discrimination round-up.
The video is in response to Jeffries’ comments about the way certain people look, and how he thinks people should look. This is the very notion the video works to denounce. Yet, right away, the video attacks Jeffries for his appearance. The message here is suddenly not that it is wrong to judge people based on their size, sartorial choices, or any other physical attribute, but merely posits the “those who live in a glass house” rhetorical tool, changing the message to a less-than-inspiring, “Don’t call people ugly if you are ugly, too.” Because Jeffries does not conform to Karber’s standards for attractive men, he is offered up for ridicule as well.
I would like to tell Greg Karber, and all the feminists I see reposting this that it does not change the conversation. It only works to justify the rhetoric you are critiquing. That is a confusing message at best, and at worst, it helps to keep in place the structural forces that create people (and, subsequently, companies) like Jeffries. Feminism (or whatever “-ism” or moral compass from which you work) should be about change, and not working within problematic paradigms. I’m not talking about working inside the system for change. That works when you’re trying to change institutions in a tangible way. When one is seeking to change the ways in which we have conversations, one has to change the conversation. This video acts in tandem with it, engages, and then–oh then. Oh dear.
Perhaps the most egregious part of this video is the punch line–the homeless. Or, the men, women, and children; the mothers, daughters, husbands, fathers, sons; the human beings who, for some reason, do not have adequate or dependable shelter at this time. Does that help paint a broader picture of the “punch line”? Karber goes to thrift stores and buys up all the Abercrombie & FItch he can find. Jokingly, he says that he asked the cashier for “the douche bag section” and lo and behold, there was A&F. After buying the clothing, he heads to Skid Row in LA to hand out the various items. Take that, Jeffries. You didn’t want overweight people wearing your shirts? Now the HOMELESS have ‘em! Hardy har har.
Karber was somehow incensed enough to make a video in defense of all the people Jeffries excludes from his clothing line. Yet, he is perfectly comfortable using another group of people as pawns. Yet again, Karber acts in lock-step with Jeffries. Jeffries sets up that thin people are attractive/overweight people are ugly as a binary; Karber sets it up as if we all have an implicit, common knowledge that the ultimate dichotomy is attractive people vs. people who have to sleep on the streets.
The people receiving the “douche bag clothes” are not in on this plan with him. They did not all go to the thrift store together, nor were they invited for lunch or coffee, over which they would discuss this social issue, and then opt in, volunteering their current plight for the greater good. Karber uses their vulnerable position on the street for his gains. He is not seen explaining the job to the homeless people, but rather just hands out the clothes; a hip white guy with a camera in Skid Row. Did these people sign releases to be included in the video, and shown all over the internet? I doubt it. How do you tell someone, “You see, it’s funny because you don’t have a home”? While speaking up for those Jeffries paints as one large mass of overweight, unattractive people, Karber uses another group of people to prove his point, and seems to think of them as the monolithic “THE HOMELESS.” Not Ruth, a former factory worker who lost her job and now lives on the street. Not Ed, a veteran who needs his medications. They are just The Homeless. Obviously unattractive, obviously a group without an agency we might need to respect, and for use in media to deliver the goods.
We will keep hearing from people like Jeffries if we keep using his language. There is an almost laughably obvious connection here with Lorde’s powerful 1984 essay, “The Master’s Tools Will not Dismantle the Master’s House.” If we’re going to build new ways of seeing the world, we have to work with better tools.
Written by Mary-Margaret Sweeney
Mary-Margaret Sweeney is a graduate student in Loyola University Chicago’s School of Social Work. She is still figuring out her path as a social worker, but social issues of interest to her are sexual health and education, women’s issues (equal pay, childcare, reproductive rights, and domestic violence specifically), gentrification, environmentalism (especially in the urban setting), and the politics of poverty. She is also a freelance writer of journalistic and creative non-fiction work. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.