Why we should relish the death of the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show

Cloaked in faux-feminism and masquerading as "girl power", the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show never stopped being a buffet for the male gaze.

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As a kid growing up in a small town in Ohio, there were few major cultural events that captured everyone’s attention. People would gather every February to watch the Superbowl, the Monday after the Oscars would be spent talking about winners and losers, and presidential debates and inaugurations would be watched and commented on once you were old enough to understand them. But one of the biggest, most memorable events, which took place every December, was also the one that teenage boys most savoured the opportunity to talk about; making the annual proud announcement that they would spend their Saturday piled into someone's basement with other teenage boys, pounding some root beer, inhaling Cheetos, and gawking at the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. 

The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show began in 1995, initially as a promotional tool ahead of Victoria’s Secret’s parent company, L Brands, going public on the stock market. But it took only a few years for it to become a global phenomenon. It ran every year aside from 2004 (when the show instead went on a “grassroots” tour around America), drew in live audiences of millions, and became the height of achievement for supermodels: walking down the world’s most-watched runway. The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show permeated every corner of America and, for decades, was the subject of annual salivation for men of all ages.

I speak in the past tense because on Friday, Victoria’s Secret confirmed what had long been rumoured: the fashion show was ending in order to take the brand in a new direction. “Going forward,” said Les Wexner, the 82-year-old CEO of L Brands, who is currently under scrutiny over his links to Jeffrey Epstein, in a memo to employees on Friday, “we don’t believe network television is the right fit”. He said that Victoria’s Secret would instead focus on “exciting and dynamic content and a new kind of event – delivered to our customers on platforms that she’s glued to ... and in ways that will push the boundaries of fashion in the global digital age”.

Now, this statement isn’t entirely misleading. Having the same major marketing strategy pre- and post-Instagram is bad business, and a live fashion show with a half-time pop star performance feels particularly of the Noughties. But what this memo skirts around is the mammoth weight of modern discourse, under which the show had long been buckling, and the fact that if the show went on any longer, it would finally crack. 

The show had one painful problem that you likely don’t need spelling out: it was, despite masquerading as a homage to “girl power” and female self-love, perhaps the least feminist event one could fathom. I wrote last November about how the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show was struggling to be woke. To describe its attempts to become racially and physically diverse as half-hearted would be generous, and its models remained overwhelmingly white, stick thin, and were barred from answering questions about feminism. Last year’s show came under fire when then-marketing director Ed Razek said that he didn’t want the show to have “plus-size” women or “transsexuals” because “the show is a fantasy”. And even beyond the terrible optics, the show was suffering from dwindling viewership. As one person in the NS office joked, “the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is for people who haven’t discovered you can get porn on the internet” – an increasingly small demographic. 

Despite all of this, the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show was undeniably iconic – but increasingly for the reasons that clashed violently with the brand's faux-feminist aims. Until the bitter end, it continued to relish in feeding the male gaze and making millions of women feel shitty about themselves. As a teenager, I desperately wanted to get my hands on an uncomfortable PINK bra and the matching underwear (which rode up so bad it’s a miracle I didn’t get a UTI). Even at 12-years-old – 12-years-old! – I thought that wearing sweatpants with the Victoria’s Secret brand plastered across the butt was the height of coolness, and convincing my mom to let me get panties in the five-for-$25 deal felt like my life’s greatest battle.

At the same age, boys at my school were approaching girls at school to make wanking jokes about VS models who were ten years their senior, and would boast of gathering in sweaty living rooms to watch – and presumably to get erections in unison. This was a part of what made Victoria’s Secret permeate even suburban Ohio; it gave permission for young girls to gain value from being rampantly, unabashedly sexualised. Watching Taylor Swift and Karlie Kloss hold hands in diamond-encrusted lingerie and shout “feminism!” wasn’t going to make it feel any less soulless. 

We shouldn’t be overly gleeful about the death of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show – the company will continue to cloak itself in the language of female empowerment while appearing in 13-year-olds Instagram stories to tell them their tits are too small. When I was that 13-year-old, desperately trying to get my hands on some PINK merch, I wasn’t solely influenced by the effects of the fashion show, but the entire full-court press of messaging from a lingerie brand that thought “why not also target children?” 

But even with the continuation of its other insidious marketing practices, the cancellation of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is a win. And the relief of young girls spared their male peers’ comments for years to come will soon be palpable. 

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.