Who's offended by Victoria's Secret?

After their 'racist' use of Native Indian headdresses, Victoria's Secret is yet another fashion brand in the firing line for cultural insensitivity. But is appropriation always insulting?

Earlier this month, Victoria’s Secret was forced to issue a public apology after its annual catwalk featured a lingerie model gyrating down the runway in nothing more than her underwear, heels, and an oversized, pseudo-comedy Native American headdress.

Instant outrage followed this rather brazen attempt to use a sacred object to promote an underwear brand. Victoria’s Secret promptly issued a formal apology and removed the photograph from all marketing material.

The incident follows a chain of recent libel suits which saw a slew of fashion brands facing racism allegations for their appropriation of Native American imagery. Urban Outfitters faced legal action from the Navaho nation after printing their name on its products, Paul Frank were forced to issue a public apology after hosting a Native American themed party, and No Doubt very recently had to withdraw their latest music video after they faced a storm of offended criticism for its thematic ‘Cowboys and Indians’ clichés.

Why has this collective outrage exploded so suddenly? Although all the above examples are understandably offensive, they don’t detract from the fact that Native American heritage has long been part of the landscape of popular culture. From Clint Eastwood to Pocahontas, the American Indian image has been subsumed into mass culture - sometimes respectfully, other times much less so. The fashion industry, in particular, owes an unquantifiable debt to this visual culture, but few have yet to be offended by the legions of beaded moccasins in any high street shoe shop.

So, where do we draw the line? When, in other words, does cultural appropriation become cultural misappropriation?

It is, of course, demeaning for popular culture to arbitrarily borrow sacred symbols with no acknowledgement of their correct context. What’s interesting, however, is that the laws of political correctness differ between different art forms.

Consider the music industry – the entire history of popular music is, arguably, an extended exercise in cultural assimilation. Jazz, rap and hip-hop owe their entire existence to the elastic intermingling of alternate cultures. Paul Simon's seminal 'Graceland' album is widely considered one of the greatest records of all time for his open inclusion of South African musical traditions – albeit achieved collaboratively and inclusively, and still mired in racial controversy following Simon’s apparent boycott of anti-apartheid protests.

In our current musical climate, Damon Albarn remains a key example of how to do cultural assimilation credibly. He is currently creative co-director of Africa Express, a project seeking to foster collaboration between Western and African artists, with the intention of gaining a wider audience for the latter. The project has so far been extensively applauded for its inclusive approach and progressive sounds.

Of course, the extenuating factors are obvious. Whether cultural assimilation is seen as a tribute or an insult comes down to whether it is achieved in earnest artistic collaboration (as in Albarn) or flippant superficiality (as in Victoria’s Secret).

Nonetheless, a huge grey area is destined to loom over the issue. No Doubt were recently forced to pull their new music video following outrage at their use of Native American outfits. Its worth asking – had they sampled traditional American Indian music instead of clothing, would anyone have been as offended?

The truth is that nowadays, cultural assimilation has become so all-pervasive it’s almost unnoticeable. Popular culture has always consisted of mining, borrowing from and subverting the cultural heritage of the past. In fact, Frederic Jameson went so far as to see this as a defining factor of the postmodern age. For him, the past and its symbols no longer exist, "except as a repository of genres, styles, and codes ready for commodification”.

This has vast implications for political incorrectness - no symbol can truly be said to be culturally isolated any more. The eagle-feathered headdress which inspired such extensive outrage on the Victoria's Secret runway doesn't belong to the Native American repositry alone. It's origins date back to widespread early cultures, including Aztec warriors, early Gaelic clan chiefs and Slavic hussars. Now it’s been assimilated into contemporary culture and passed into the collective unconscious. Its original meaning is melded and mixed in a sea of new, secular meanings.

In other words, in a postmodern, post-ironic, globalised world, can anyone really be said to have ownership over their own heritage?

Model Karlie Kloss walks the runway during the Victoria's Secret 2012 Fashion Show in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

Kamila Kocialkowska is a freelance journalist based in London.

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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism