American Apparel's CEO Dov Charney has been removed by the company's board. Photo: Getty
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Dov Charney, Terry Richardson, and the misogynistic truth about hipster cool

A bizarre double standard has emerged in the fashion world, where misogyny is OK, as long as it pastiches a bygone era of kitsch female subjugation.

“Can I buy clothes from American Apparel and still be a feminist?” goes the not-so-age-old question.

I can’t help being hyper aware of just having written that sentence while wearing an oh-so-soft American Apparel t-shirt. But now that the company’s notoriously misogynistic CEO, Dov Charney, is finally being forced out by the board, maybe I can stop sweating. A little bit, at least.

While the US hipster uniform merchant shrouds itself in ethical credentials – anti-sweatshop, pro-gay – Charney is cited in multiple sexual harassment lawsuits. But those sweet “legalise gay” t-shirts are enough to make many of us, myself included, turn a blind eye to everything going on beyond the cool, minimalistic storefronts.

An advert for a new American Apparel store in Amsterdam.

This has been a bad week for some of the fashion industry’s worst kept secrets. While the charming Mr Charney’s string of alleged assaults have finally had consequences for him, another fashion stalwart is under fire, yet again. That is, of course, photographer Terry Richardson. Known for his stark, overexposed pictures of (mostly) female flesh, Richardson has been accused of sexual harassment by a number of the women he’s photographed. Sunday’s New York Magazine profile piece on Richardson propelled him right back to where he seems to belong – that is, at the forefront of a debate about the fashion industry’s treatment of women.

Charney and Richardson represent an uncomfortable truth about our current conception of coolness. The two men are emblematic of a hipster veneer that’s so often used to cover up the mistreatment of women. In the name of cool, we so often make allowances for men like these. With their 70s porn star aesthetic seems to come this notion that they’re only subjugating women ironically: we’ll carry on buying clothes from people who look like the result of Ron Jeremy humping a copy of Vice. Misogyny is OK, as long as it pastiches a bygone era of kitsch female subjugation; as long as it’s retro. These bizarre double standards are only serving to blur the lines (sorry…) between sexism and chicness.

Now that Charney is out of the picture, we may feel slightly cosier in our American Apparel hoodies. But, we mustn’t forget all of the times we ignored the women who spoke out against sexist men in the fashion industry. Admittedly, ethical shopping is increasingly difficult. High street clothing chains, in particular, are rarely out of the spotlight for everything from the use of child labour to sexist ad campaigns. If we were to boycott every brand that comes under fire for generalised nastiness, we’d be left with few affordable options. What we can do though is be wary of the culture of misogyny creeping into our notion of cool. If it looks sexist, it probably is.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

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 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism