Empowered or just eye candy? Pin-ups in post-Weinstein world

US model Lily Aldridge during the 2017 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show in Shanghai. Victoria's Secret has long framed its show as being about female empowerment: Women owning their sexuality, facilitating their fantasies. But by presenting women as, w
US model Lily Aldridge during the 2017 Victoria's Secret Fashion Show in Shanghai. Victoria's Secret has long framed its show as being about female empowerment: Women owning their sexuality, facilitating their fantasies. But by presenting women as, well, presents - unwrapped but with the bows still on - the show may be suggesting it is OK for others to see them the same way, too.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Are the barely clad Victoria's Secret models icons of successful women playing to their strengths or are they simply encouraging the sexual objectification of women now the subject of much public outrage?

It was a big week for women in their underwear.

Last Tuesday, the Victoria's Secret fashion show, aka "the world's biggest fashion event", aired on TV in the United States, and millions of people tuned in to watch models including Karlie Kloss, Bella Hadid and Lais Ribeiro strut down a runway in Shanghai, wearing thigh-high lace-up stiletto boots, various filmy bits of lingerie and one diamond-bedecked US$2 million (S$2.7 million) bra, many of them with gigantic wings sprouting from their shoulders.

On Friday, Love - the British magazine beloved of fashion insiders and run by stylist Katie Grand - was set to begin the online rollout of what has become its biggest event of the year: a video Advent calendar. This year's version features short films of assorted celebrity models boxing and bouncing and otherwise making muscles in varying amounts - or not - of clothing.

The videos will appear every day between Dec 1 and early January.

Last year, 1.4 billion people in 192 countries saw the Victoria's Secret show, and 84 million watched the Love videos (11 million watched Hadid's alone), according to each company.

Those figures are far and away the largest numbers of viewers who come to either brand, and among the largest numbers of viewers attached to a fashion event of any sort.

There's a clear business imperative for the undress-for-success concept. But in the current cultural climate, where powerful men are tumbling like bowling pins because of bad behaviour that has its roots in the objectification of women, what about the moral imperative? What fantasy, exactly, is all this feeding?

PERCEPTION AND RESPONSIBILITY

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein fallout and women coming forward with incredible amounts of sexual harassment cases, I have been so disappointed to hear women talk about "modesty" and "our responsibility", as if we need to, yet again, adjust to make it "easier" for the rest of the world. I'm tired of having to consider how I might be perceived by men if I wear the short skirt, or post a sexy Instagram. I want to do what I want to do.

EMILY RATAJKOWSKI, whose video - in which she drapes herself suggestively in spaghetti while wearing lacy lingerie and knit gloves - is scheduled for Day 3 of the Love calendar.

The issue of the pin-up in a post-Harvey Weinstein world is more complicated than it may first appear.

"In the wake of the Harvey fallout and women coming forward with incredible amounts of sexual harassment cases, I have been so disappointed to hear women talk about 'modesty' and 'our responsibility', as if we need to, yet again, adjust to make it 'easier' for the rest of the world," said Emily Ratajkowski, whose video - in which she drapes herself suggestively in spaghetti while wearing lacy lingerie and knit gloves - is scheduled for Day 3 of the Love calendar.

"I'm tired of having to consider how I might be perceived by men if I wear the short skirt, or post a sexy Instagram," she said. "I want to do what I want to do."

Victoria's Secret has long framed its show as being about female empowerment: Women owning their sexuality, facilitating their fantasies of being fairy princesses or, it seems, Pocahontas. (The feathered pseudo-"Native American headdress", which is actually a Finnish tufted snow hood, makes a reappearance in the show in a section entitled "Winter's Tale", paired with tribal corsetry and peep-toe boots.)

This is a familiar line. It's how Madonna promoted her book Sex, and how burlesque is often portrayed by stars like Dita Von Teese - not to mention Liz Goldwyn in her documentary and book, Pretty Things, which looked at the history of the stripper's art and her fascination with it.

And Victoria's Secret is sticking to that argument. "I know there's this other thing out there," said chief creative officer of L Brands Edward Razek, the owner of Victoria's Secret, and the executive producer of the fashion show. "But for us, this is about a power and uniqueness men can't compete with."

Long-time backstage photographer of the Victoria's Secret show Russell James, whose new book, Backstage Secrets, was just released, said much the same: "These women own their look, they have the voice, they have the power." And, said Razek: "They are the most beautiful, physically fit women on the planet. You can't get a supermodel to do anything they don't want to do."

If you accept this argument, it can just seem a bit odd that, judging by the show, what they want to do is play the part of a highly decorative soft-core siren for a day. Which may be why Razek tempered his remarks by acknowledging that "there's always the risk of blowback. Taylor Swift said it best: 'Haters gonna hate'."

If Victoria's Secret is rejecting any complicity for helping promulgate certain retrograde ideas about women's bodies, however, Love has - to a certain extent - tried to grapple with the problem.

"It would be dumb not to think about it," Grand said. "We're probably in the most heightened time in fashion I've ever known, and it feels very much like the eye of the storm." The Advent calendar has been ramping up since its introduction as a "laugh" in 2011. Last year, the director Hype Williams got involved, and it became, Grand said, "a lot sexier".

This year, a different creative consultant initially came on board: Lena Dunham.

"She said she thought it was liberating and wanted to get involved," recalled Grand, who said that Dunham (who was recently castigated for defending a male colleague after he was accused of rape, and who later apologised) contacted her about being part of the Advent. They had not known each other beforehand. "I thought it was a pretty smart way to take it somewhere else," Grand said.

Dunham did not end up becoming as involved as they had planned because of illness, according to Grand, and has since distanced herself from the project. Grand said her stars largely chose their own scenarios. Kendall Jenner wanted to be Rocky, so she is shadowboxing in grey sweats and a sports bra. At one point, Dunham had the idea that she would direct Gigi Hadid as a stand-up comedian doing a sketch while totally naked, but they couldn't make their schedules align, according to Grand, and Phil Poynter had to take over. That changed their plans.

"It was one thing for Gigi to be naked in front of Lena, and another thing entirely to ask Gigi to be totally naked in front of Phil Poynter," Grand said. So Hadid ended up playing volleyball and kick-boxing in a sports bra, thigh-length leggings and lots of smoky eye make-up.

Some of the videos, like one with Jourdan Dunn in a red high-cut bikini, over-the-knee boots and a satin baseball jacket, oiled up and wielding an aluminium bat, or Ashley Graham crouching to pull a tyre down a city street in a sports bikini, cleavage in your face, are eye-rollingly raunchy. But others - Kloss playing basketball in gym shorts, knee socks and a cut-off muscle tee - are less overtly sexualised.

Either way, they all come accessorised with irony and end with the words "Stay strong". The result can seem a little confused, toggling between classic frat boy suggestiveness and confidence-through-sweat. But for that reason, they also reflect the confusion about what exactly these projects should represent right now.

Because, even if you accept the argument that the women involved enter into both experiences with eyes wide open and alacrity in their hearts; even if it is true that the self-aware and collaborative subtleties in Love set it apart, and that, according to Victoria's Secret, two out of three people watching its show are women, those involved don't control external perception, or even ensure anyone will get their message.

There is a reason Pirelli has veered away from nudity and towards a different kind of celebratory storytelling in its famous calendar. "This is something I've battled with personally and publicly," Ratajkowski said. "I've had men comment on sexy images of me online and say, 'This is empowering to you? Ha! I just masturbated to it so hope you feel good about yourself!' I guess that's the way people can react, which ironically serves my point. "I don't care about your reaction or what you do with my expression of self. In fact, it has nothing to do with you at all, and that's the point, which is why it feels good.

"Ultimately, if a woman wants to wear a burqa or nothing at all, it's great - if it's what she wants and feels good about."

But if it's a product made for public consumption, which the Victoria's Secret show and the Love Advent calendar are, people's reactions are certainly part of the point. And by presenting women as, well, presents - unwrapped but with the bows still on - both the show and the calendar may be suggesting it is OK for others to see them the same way, too.

"All men and women need to think about everything that happened and whether there is anything we can do better," said James, the photographer, who noted that there is a "fine balance between exploitation and empowerment". Debate as we might, we still don't know exactly where it is.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 03, 2017, with the headline 'Empowered or just eye candy? Pin-ups in post-Weinstein world'. Print Edition | Subscribe