Feminist Killjoy: Fitching the Homeless

feministkilljoy I woke up this morning to a Facebook news feed flooded with reposts for this video. It seems that Greg Karber had the idea that the best way to make Abercombie & Fitch pay for their recent fat bashing and refusal to donate damaged clothing, was to locate their clothing in a thrift store and give it to the homeless. If Abercrombie & Fitch is so concerned with their image in relation to the bodies that wear their brand, then surely the best way to get back at them is to put their branding on dirty, stinky, homeless people, right? I mean, ‘cuz… HILARIOUS, ammirite?!

Look, I get the impulse. And I get that anything that channels resources toward the disenfranchised can’t be a holistically bad thing. There’s a little room for some shades of grey here. But intersectional feminist media analysis requires that this video get a serious finger waggle and, as I’m having a certain intellectual curiosity about the sheer amount of displaced rage I get flung at me when I point out the damaging parts of ‘feel-good’ social phenomenon, I’m up for joining the ranks of the inevitable chorus of criticism targeted at this video.

Thing One: This further dehumanizes homeless people.

The subjects of this video are not in on the joke. They’re not approached for consent. They’re not re-appropriating their own stigma in service of a statement they are making themselves. They’re not pictured as multi-dimensional humans with thoughts and feelings. They’re a nameless, silent mass, individualized only long enough to be videotaped while being handed an item of clothing, and then tossed back into the fray. He mentions that some folks are suspicious or tentative in accepting the clothing. Well, how would you feel if some random stranger walked up to you on the street and thrust a pair of pants at you while someone followed him with a camera?

Further, the very crux of this joke on Abercrombie & Fitch is that their clothing will now be associated with the stigma of homelessness. This project does nothing to eradicate that stigma. It reinforces and legitimates it by relying upon it to make its point. It could be said that Karber himself doesn’t believe in that stigma and that he’s using irony to make a point about the ridiculousness of ‘cool’ as a concept. But the framing of the video makes none of that explicit, doesn’t acknowledge its exploitation of the homeless, does nothing to address its dehumanizing framing and does nothing to involve the homeless individuals in a way that grants agency and subjectivity. So, the irony argument is pretty much shot down there.

Thing Two: Race, Class, Ability and Mental Illness

Homelessness and its related stigma intersect along the lines of race, class and ability. Part of the unspoken joke here is that A&F’s branding is heavily centered around white, affluent, fit, aspirational 20-somethings. A simple google search will make that obvious. So the polar opposite of that is older, homeless, people of color — of which the video is heavily composed. With the exception of obvious disabilities or mental illness in the video, pretty much there’s your punchline. Pretty much, I’m not laughing.

Thing Three: Making fun of people who make fun of people who aren’t attractive by pointing out how unattractive they are is kind of a fail.

This is a smaller thing here, but worth mentioning. Halfway through the video, Karber points out the hypocrisy of the A&F CEO wanting to market to cool kids when he, himself, is seemingly unattractive. I’d like to point out that this is just completely not helpful.

SO listen. Grab all your Abercrombie & Fitch clothes. Donate them to a shelter. Donate other stuff, too. That part of the video isn’t such a bad thing. But understand that a real, ethical protest doesn’t throw anyone under the bus in order to achieve its goal — especially not the most disenfranchised groups among us. There are ways this kind of protest could have gone down without legitimizing stigma. Stigma could have been intentionally used to mock both A&F and the stigma itself. But to do that requires the active participation of those stigmatized and having the presentation of that protest centered around that group’s agency. Example: Fat folks could modify thrifted A&F clothing to fit our fat bodies, and/or could simply stuff ourselves inside of it and stage a public protest. Or fat folks and other groups who feel oppressed by social hierarchies of ‘coolness’ could make parody shirts and do the same. [Update: These folks are putting together an ‘Occupy A&F’ protest in the USA!] These protests are humanizing and incorporate the voice of those impacted by A&F’s policies. Any protest that does not has the potential to be damaging and exploitive.

  1. This is a thought provoking post. I was also thinking a better way to deal with A&F would be to parody their clothing, or to repurpose it. Or do a video going round inviting A&F’s target group to talk about why the brand sucks.

  2. Thank you. Beautifully said.

    I am part of a group of people that are trying to put together a movement–and a day of “protest”–in which people who are NOT the target demographic of A&F “occupy” the store, meaning we just go shop there, making the environment “unpleasant”. Some people have discussed wearing modified A&F clothes, etc. They don’t want us in their stores, which sounds to us like a great invitation. Join us!

    • Love it, Robin! Best of luck with your endeavor!

    • Note: I updated the blog to include your link.

  3. Thanks Stacy, for the thoughtful critique! I had a similar reaction when I saw this on Facebook.

  4. much like your breakdown, i see some of your points. this guy never said it was a protest; that is being projected upon him. this is a project that he took 2 1/2 minutes to describe so he didn’t lose an impatient audience. he may have tried to talk with a few people (or many) and it went poorly, so he opted to merely show distribution. i spent an entire late night talking with a homeless guy we bought food for: he was offered a job by a new friend that night if he showed up the next day. he didn’t follow through, sadly. i’m not saying this guy could not have done more, i am saying don’t impose responsibility that he did not attempt to take on. if you knew of/saw video of him chuckling at the dumb homeless that would be one thing. he shouldn’t be suggested for public office, nor should he be a public sacrifice for getting clothing for homeless people at the expense of those who expressly deny the opportunity for them to have them. i hope you’ve posted on A & F’s site about their wasteful elitism.

    • Matt — he’s actually attempting to actively organize a protest — Check out the hashtag (#fitchthehomeless) — and the language is framing it as a movement to re-brand Abercrombie and Fitch by inviting global participation. So I’m not thrusting anything at him, really. I understand not wanting to put pressure/heap criticism on people who are attempting to do something good, but it’s also important I think to remain critical of how specific aims are achieved. Just like I invite criticism when I post a blog like this, anyone who posts a video or a blog or starts a protest is opening themselves up for public critique. I have to take it. So does he. And yes, there are some things I can’t know about what went on behind the scenes of the video but based on the reactions of the people shown (confused looks, literal recoiling in some instances) I have no choice but to assume that he either staged it and the confusion/recoiling was intentional (in which case I wonder what purpose it serves?) or that it was not staged and folks were approached without consent. In either case, it deserves some analysis. I’m not saying he’s a bad guy, I’m not saying this was a holistically bad idea – I’m just saying there’s room for improvement on the ethical front.

  5. I appreciate your commentary but have to vehemently disagree. I understand what you’re saying, but some of the points, at least for me, miss the point. All I saw in this video was a guy who said to himself “It is ridiculous that this company would rather burn clothes than give them to folks who need them, so i’m going to spend my own money, and give that brands clothes to them.”

    He wasn’t trying to make a statement on homelessness, that’s a whole different frame and a whole different effort. He wasn’t trying to change the stigma of homelessness, he was distributing clothing to homeless people, from a company that didn’t want those people to wear their clothes. Are you not allowed to involve a homeless person in a discourse without solving all of their problems?

    I just don’t see how the homeless people that received free clothing were “hurt” by any of this. The guy isn’t making money, he’s making a point. And I’m willing to bet if you asked the people in this video how they feel about what he was doing, a good chunk would probably express gratitude.

    • I appreciate your point and the respectful way in which you frame them, but my opinion is unchanged. The entire thing is titled “Abercrombie & Fitch Gets a Brand Readjustment” — so the focus here isn’t on helping the homeless or addressing wasteful business practices, it’s shifting the public perspective in relation to the brand of Abercrombie & Fitch. That is his expressed intent. And this aim is to make A&F “The world’s number one brand of homeless apparel.” Those are the final words of the video. His intent is to negatively impact the branding of A&F by having it associated not with ‘cool’ affluent youth but with disenfranchised homeless people. And yes, he wasn’t attempting to change the stigma attached to homelessness, I agree with that. That wasn’t his original goal. However, his actions capitalize upon it and that, to me, is problematic.

  6. This blog says what I thought it would say. I didn’t look at the video. I just thought donating clothes to the homeless while sticking it to A&F would be a good idea, but as someone who has to shop in thrift stores and has been a couple of steps away from homeless (living out of my car and couch surfing with friends after my divorce), I imagined doing this with the full participation of the homeless folks in question. I was disappointed, but not surprised, that it came across as the homeless people being the punch line instead of being in on the joke. I hope protesters take this message to heart.

  7. Hi Stacy,

    Thanks for posting this article. I’m very happy to see that there are still people thinking out there and can view things from more than one angle—read as ‘self-interest’ and the cultural phenomenon of “I’m right and you’re wrong, so neener neener.” It will be difficult, as a society, for us to progress with so many engaged in such things. I sure hope your words have some lasting impact.

    Best, T

  8. I hear what you’re saying in this blog, and I don’t disagree with your conclusions if I accept your assumptions. That said, I do not accept your assumptions and thus respectfully disagree. His video is obviously super edited down to fit within the U.S. attention span window. His point is a re-branding of A&F, yes. His efforts (potentially) affect A&F, not the homeless.

    Take a minute to think about donating clothes to people who are homeless. Why are you doing it? People donate and volunteer for all sorts of reasons, many of which others of us would find annoying if we knew it – assuaging the feeling of privileged guilt, trying to buy one’s way into heaven, whatever. It’s often not altruistic and it’s often egocentric.

    Now think about being homeless and receiving a shirt. Are you terribly concerned about the motivation of the person who gave you the shirt? Doubt it. So I’m thinking the homeless people are not directly harmed by the endeavor. Someone handing them a shirt for an unknown reasons probably didn’t bother anyone.

    And that’s assuming he said nothing other than what was stuffed into a three minute video. Okay, so what about being indirectly harmed, by perpetuated stigmas about homeless people?

    The whole point is that the CEO of A&F is an a&&, and considers people who are not skinny, young, and attractive to his standards to be suitable customers. That is the laughable part; that is the focus of the social response.

    Fifty years ago, bus companies considered people who were not white to not be suitable to sit in the front of the bus. What if a white person invited a black person to sit with her in the front of a bus fifty years ago? Re-branding the racist bus company’s seating plan, or some such. Better yet, white person bought the bus token to do so. I see two outcomes: benefit to the marginalized person, and public statement against The Man who said that marginalized person didn’t belong there.

    Sometimes we need to just let good things be good things. Tear everything up and we’re left returning to apathy. Killjoy indeed.

    • Hi Erika – I respectfully continue to disagree.

      “His point is a re-branding of A&F, yes. His efforts (potentially) affect A&F, not the homeless.”

      Right. And his attempt to do so relies on the stigma of homelessness to negatively impact the brand’s identity. It’s exploitative.

      As I’ve said before, there’s room for grey area on this. The will to donate directly to the homeless is a lovely one. And individual homeless folks are not directly harmed by being handed clothing. However, the stigma of homelessness is not minimized, it’s legitimized. I view this as an attempt to shame A&F and the way that the shaming happens is by associating the brand with homelessness.

      There are always going to be multiple ways to read/analyze any given piece of media and that will always create disagreement. However, I fervently disagree with your last point. We don’t need to simply let good things be good things because sometimes the *way* in which goals are achieved ultimately has unintended negative repercussions. For example: The gay marriage debate seeks legitimacy for same sex couples through the state and in doing so, mainstream gay and lesbian activists unintentionally reinforce the dyadic, nuclear family construct and distance themselves from others whose relationships become therefore even more illegitimate as a result — polyamory, kinksters, those who would form families around non-sexual unions, etc. Is gay marriage a ‘good thing’? By many accounts yes. But in taking that at face value and silencing dissent, more radical critiques of the institution of marriage itself and the function it serves in society are muted. There is nothing gained by forcing everything to be black and white — either Good or Bad. Lots of things are a mix of both and it’s OK to acknowledge that. And if my post reads as wholly negative (which was not its intent, as I stated in the very beginning) then consider the overt criticality of it merely an attempt to raise the volume of dissent against the tide of positivity.

    • But this isn’t charity. You’re not giving homeless people essentials; instead, you’re giving them clothes that YOU WON’T EVEN WEAR NOW because it’s socially irresponsible. How then is this any less exclusionary than the CEOs original comments?

  9. Great article. If I owned any A&F garb I would take a marker and write “NOT COOL” across the front, and wear it proudly. Whether someone thought it was referring to A&F or to me (being not cool), they’d be right on both counts. But in either case I would be a willing, active participant in the display,

  10. Thank you so much for writing this thoughtful article. I thought the same thing when I saw this video. I don’t think people reposting this fitchthehomeless are necessarily bad, but it’s amazing to me that more people don’t clearly see what is WRONG with the tactic employed in this video. You are absolutely right. So many dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb people in it his world. Greg Karber seems like a smart enough guy to realize what is wrong with the way he did this video and made this point. The time is NOW for him to stop riding this wave and come out and address this legitimate criticism. He should be ashamed.

  11. THANK YOU.

    Still thinking about this years later.
    Glad to read this now. <3

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