Made in Bangladesh: Advertising’s Exploitation of the “Other”

Blog Post 2

Meet Maks.

She is a merchandiser who has been with American Apparel since 2010. Born in Dhaka, the capitol of Bangladesh, Maks vividly remembers attending mosque as a child alongside her conservative Muslim parents. At age four, her family made a life changing move to Marina del Ray, California. Although she suddenly found herself a world away from Dhaka, she continued following her parent’s religious tradition and sustained her Islamic faith throughout her childhood. Upon entering high school, Maks began to feel the need to forge her own identity and ultimately distanced herself from Islamic traditions. A woman continuously in search of new creative outlets, Maks unreservedly embraced this photo shoot.

She has found some elements of Southern California culture to be immediately appealing, but she is striving to explore what lies beyond the city’s superficial pleasures. She doesn’t feel the need to identify herself as American or Bangladeshi and is not content to fit her life into anyone else’s conventional narrative. That’s what makes her essential to the mosaic that is Los Angeles, and unequivocally, a distinct figure in the ever expanding American Apparel family. Maks was photographed in the high Waist Jean, a garment manufactured by 23 skilled American workers in Downtown Los Angeles, all of whom are paid a fair wage and have access to basic benefits such as healthcare.

Made in USA – Sweatshop Free

Operated by Dov Charney

American Apparel

 

Starting with the image itself: “Made in Bangladesh” sprawled across a brown woman’s hyper-sexualized nude body. The lettering “Made in Bangladesh” mimics the “Made in <insert country in the Global South>” found on most clothing tags. A simple phrase, but one that invokes a complex global economic system. American Apparel intentionally attempts to conjure an image of a sweatshop in the Global South to emphasize through contrast their fair, “sweatshop free” labor practices.

But what does it mean when this phrase, symbolic of an oppressive global economy, is sprawled across a woman’s body– a brown, hypersexualized woman’s body? “Made in Bangladesh” labels her body as a commodity. The advertisement invokes the “imperialist nostalgia” which bell hooks describes as “reenacting and reritualizing in different ways the imperialist, colonizing journey as narrative fantasy of power and desire, for seduction by the Other” (1992, 25).  The advertisement produces power and desire through the large black letters that act as a censor bar for the model’s nudity. This censorship simultaneously produces a sense of sexual desire for and establishes power over that which is censored (seduction by the Other). The model’s otherness is emphasized in the bold, black letters that locate the model’s birthplace in Bangladesh.

bell hooks claims,

“The desire to make contact with those bodies deemed Other…establishes a contemporary narrative where the suffering imposed by structures of domination on those designated Other is deflected by an emphasis on seduction and longing where the desire is not to make the Other over in one’s image but to become the Other” (1992, 25).

In this advertisement, American Apparel presents a seductive Other woman who they believe their customers will desire to become. American Apparel promotes the neoliberal idea that one can attain through consumption that which is desirable. bell hooks continues, claiming the “difference the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other” (1992, 31). By presenting the Other as a desired object, the advertisement erases the suffering imposed in Bangladesh sweat shops by the capitalist structures of domination. It also erases the suffering imposed on brown people in the United States by racial structures of domination.

However, how do we acknowledge Maks’s agency in constructing her own image? American Apparel attempts to highlight Maks’ agency by sharing her story of “forg[ing] her own identity,” defining herself outside the “conventional narrative,” and “unreservedly embracing this photo shoot.” The advertisement links empowerment to individual consumption of American Apparel. Her nude body promotes second-wave feminism’s empowerment through sexual liberation. This sexual liberation, the advertisement suggests, is achieved through the purchase of American Apparel jeans. Ironically however, the advertisement actually erases Maks agency by denying her a voice, and instead speaking for and about her.

In addition, themes of empowerment are subtly framed against the backdrop of a Muslim identity. In the words of the advertisement, “Maks began to feel the need to forge her own identity and ultimately distanced herself from Islamic traditions. A woman continuously in search of new creative outlets, Maks unreservedly embraced this photo shoot.” The brazenness of Maks’s nudity inherently reifies Islam as an oppressive religion to women. American Apparel’s constructs her narrative within a particular neoliberal framework of self-expression and self-determination. In Pham’s words,  “fashion emblematizes and enacts multiple neoliberal freedoms, including the freedom to consume and… the freedoms of self-expression and self-determination” (2011, 386).

Ultimately, American Apparel adopts a corporates strategy of feminist consumerism, which involves exploiting “feminist themes of empowerment to market products” and
“consumerism’s focus on individual consumption as a primary source of identity, affirmation, and social change” (Jha 2016, 25). American Apparel attempts to convince the consumer that through personal consumption, one can not only “spice up” their individual identity, but produce larger social change by empowering women, supporting fair labor practices, and promoting messages of multiculturalism in L.A.’s “mosaic” society.

Works Cited

hooks, bell. “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” In Black Looks: Race and Representation, 21-39. Boston, MA: South End Press, 1992.

Jha, Meeta Rani. The global beauty industry: colorism, racism, and the national body. London: New York, NY, 2016.

Pham, Minh‐Ha T. “The Right to Fashion in the Age of Terrorism.” 36, no. 2 (2011): 385-410.

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2 thoughts on “Made in Bangladesh: Advertising’s Exploitation of the “Other”

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  1. jorleee, I really enjoyed the point you brought up about how “the advertisement erases the suffering imposed in Bangladesh sweat shops by the capitalist structures of domination” which ultimately leads to neoliberal views of consumption and liberation. This advertisement portrays Bangladesh as an oppressive country, as American Apparel tells of Mask “transformed life” in America. Once a girl who went to mosque with her “conservative Muslim parents”, Mask now models for American Apparel and feels liberated by not fit[ting] her life into anyone else’s conventional narrative”. It is by this individuality, read neocolonial, that spurs on the myth that is, the “greatness” of America, its ideas and lastly, American Apparel. Furthermore, it was interesting to see American Apparel portray Los Angeles, the heart of the entertainment industry, as an oasis from the rest of America. The “mosaic that is Los Angeles” plays to theme that LA is a sanctuary for all and where all should aspire to live. This phrase also evokes the “melting pot of cultures” that America once prided itself on. However, LA is as segregated as ever and still experiences racism and violence everyday. This essentializing of LA then erases not only the suffering that is imposed in Bangladesh sweat shops, but also the racism and Islamophobia that persists in America.

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  2. Reading this post made me think of one of our most recent readings, “Generation E.A.: Ethnically Ambiguous” by Ruth La Ferla, which talks about how it is a youth- marketing trend to use ethnically ambiguous faces. Although this New York Times article is from 2003, it is still relevant today because we still see brands like American Apparel and Zara using models that look ethnically ambiguous. Brands see these models as exotic, as if they transcend race and class. In a way, there is an exotification of their looks because they do not fit under the mold of what we typically think of as faces of America: blond hair and blue eyes. The exotification of these models leads to a curiosity for the Other. These brands, as the original poster wrote about American Apparel, presents “a seductive Other woman who they believe their customers will desire to become” (jorleee). This not only erases the suffering in Bangladesh sweat shops like the original poster stated, but it also paints the model as a commodity, something to be desired, something to attain.

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