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.

@ms_kamila_k

 

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear