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.