Queer Capitalism: Sex and Politics in the Ad Campaign of Abercrombie & Fitch
One April day in 2003, I, like 400,000 others in the United States, receive my subscription of the Summer A&F Quarterly in the mail. This sales catalog for the clothier Abercrombie & Fitch is not your ordinary clothing catalog; it comes wrapped in darkened cellophane replete with a warning sticker that reads, “Due to mature content parental consent suggested for readers under eighteen.” The first 120 pages of the catalog have no clothing goods on offer. Instead, there is page after page of muscular young men and erotically-charged young women (though, interestingly, mostly men), all in various stages of undress. The catalog confuses me: am I reading a marketing catalog or pornography? My perplexity deepens a few days later, when I receive the Abercrombie & Fitch 2002 Annual Stockholder’s Report, whose cover displays a wet, shirtless guy sporting glorious pecs and a glimmering six-pack rising out of the ocean. The company is unabashedly proclaiming to its stockholders—traditionally a fairly conservative bunch—that it feels no shame in gloating about the link between sexy youth and profitability.
It all seems like such a private act: going to my locked mailbox on my piece of property to retrieve my personal items, including the catalog which I paid to subscribe to, then taking the Quarterly back to my home and paging through the images at my convenience. And yet, the A&F Quarterly has ridden on the (shirtless) backs of its buff young models into a variety of public spheres—from hundreds of stories in mass media and art publications, to highly publicized political campaigns, race-inspired lawsuits, and boycotts from both feminists and family values conservatives…Oh, and the A&F trademark can now be found at over 340 malls across America and adorns the shirts and shorts of countless high schoolers and collegiates across white, middle class America. This last very public result is precisely what Abercrombie & Fitch was banking on when it remade its image and started the sexy Quarterly back in 1997.
While many in Abercrombie’s core market of white suburbia embrace the company’s business-as-usual menagerie of youth, lily white skin, sex, and sales, others have raised voices of indignation and protest. Most recently, the racial aspect of Abercrombie’s corporate strategy has come under the harshest scrutiny. A series of civil rights organizations—including the Mexican American fund, the Asian Pacific American Legal Center and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund—filed a lawsuit in June 2003, alleging that A&F practiced discriminatory hiring, refusing in some cases to hire non-white employees for its stores and relegating others to back-room positions. The media prominently publicized the story (including an editorial in the New York Times), propagating the plaintiffs’ assertions that Abercrombie discriminates against minorities expressly in an effort to equate youthful sex appeal with whiteness.
Interestingly, however, the issue of racism hardly arises in the critiques of A&F afoot in white suburbia. Rather than the heinous discrimination of depriving real people on the basis of skin color, the topic most consuming suburban protest against Abercrombie is sex. Following in the long tradition of Comstockery (replete with its class and race biases), a coalition of parents, religious authorities, politicians, and progressive women (in this case, the National Organization of Women) has forged a solidly heteronormative critique of the A&F Quarterly. In pressing for a radical form of censorship that would terminate the A&F Quarterly’s use of a decidedly private form of promotion (a subscription-only mail order catalog), the anti-Abercrombie coalition shrouds itself in the rhetoric of protecting innocent children. Michigan’s current Democratic Governor, Jennifer Granholm, was the one who first dragged the A&F Quarterly into the mainstream political sphere back in 1999, when she—as the state’s Attorney General—organized a boycott of Abercrombie & Fitch, labeling their marketing “Playboy for kids.” Her efforts were sustained and even expanded in 2001, this time by a Republican from Illinois, Lieutenant Governor Corinne Wood. Wood’s rhetoric was even more forcefully “pro-children,” while her actions further blurred the public-private divide. Her government-funded website became the home base for StopAandF.com, the information distillery for the anti-Abercrombie coalition. Wood’s own alarmist analysis of the Quarterly was prominently displayed, leaving readers with little doubt that innocent children were being victimized by the company: “A&F is clearly attempting to glamorize indiscriminate sexual behavior that unsophisticated teenagers are not possibly equipped to weigh against the dangers of date rape, unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease.”
Even the more progressive NOW relies on heterosexual assumptions when attacking Abercrombie & Fitch, claiming that its opposition stems from the damage done to girls’ and young women’s body image when exposed to the buxom female models adorning the pages of the Quarterly. The NOW representatives gallingly fail to acknowledge the peculiar gender inversion at work in the Quarterly, however. After all, it’s young men’s bodies most prominently on display in the catalog, not women’s. NOW’s critique would be more compelling if they were gender-blind in their assertions about harm being done to body image; some men, after all, are just as vulnerable as women to body hang-ups, body dysmorphia and eating disorders. Yet, for NOW to acknowledge the male self-esteem crisis seems to require too much reworking of the MacKinnon-Dworkin orthodoxy on pornography and a retreat from the gender essentialism found in the organization’s very name (after all, pornography is a “women’s issue”). And so, the peculiar truth about the A&F Quarterly goes unspoken, even by alleged advocates for social change in gender relations.
Were critics like Granholm and NOW being totally forthright, they would admit that the Quarterly was most akin to Playgirl…except that the Abercrombie aesthetic seems to appeal as much to men as it does to women. In reality, however, such moments of honesty are few and far between in the anti-Abercrombie camp. Columnist William F. Buckley perhaps comes closest among this group to addressing the real issue at stake here, even while coyly skirting it: Abercrombie’s marketing is, “oddly aimed more at the pulchritude of the male than the female form. Very odd in a men's clothing store.” Very odd, indeed. And might I add, in the face of Mr. Buckley’s calculated obfuscation, downright queer as well.
Indeed, the A&F Quarterly is ultimately a crucial moment of queer mainstreaming, for the catalog, even as it remains lily white and celebrates nearly-aristocratic class privilege, is a mainstream mass-media event that upsets traditional gender hierarchies in ways that confuse, enrage…and titillate. At the centerpiece of the A&F aesthetic is the stripped-down, jockish young male, who at times is placed in compromised positions that beg to be (mis)read as vulnerable and soft—in other words, homosexual. Abercrombie & Fitch knows well that it has placed its aesthetic (and, by extension, its products) right along this fault line in America’s culture war. And it has profited handsomely from the energy generated by these two bodies (traditional and progressive) rubbing together. It has made money both from the raw hedonistic allure of its marketing and from the negative publicity of the anti-Abercrombie alliance, which has tabooized A&F enough to convince their own suburban children and neighbors that the label embodies rebellion in addition to chic.
The corporation has in fact become masterful at asserting its own wholesomeness, while refusing to back down in the face of the anti-Abercrombie hysteria. Abercrombie spokesman Hampton Carney has defended the A&F Quarterly as “the Norman Rockwell of 2001, wholesome images of kids having the time of their lives.” And when pressed about the questionable content of the Quarterly, he coyly places his company’s product squarely on the porous boundary between straight and gay that his enemies are reluctant to countenance. He notes, for example, that, “there’s nothing in [the Quarterly] you don’t see on any public beach in Miami.” But his response only begs the questions: Which Miami beach?, or Which part of a Miami beach? The gay one? The straight one? Even in the national imagination, the idea of a Miami beach is a muddled, polymorphously perverse sort of thing, as much the homeland of Anita Bryant’s moralistic homophobia as it is the home of Versace and the Birdcage…as much the domain of men’s men as it is those men interested in men.
So what to make of this risqué manifestation of queerness in the malls of suburbia, on the new Main Street of American capitalism? What is the progeny of this strange miscegenation of queerness and capitalism? For those of us who advocate a queer politics, our gut instincts likely make us highly skeptical already; for us, queerness implies a deeper project of deconstruction beyond hetero-homo and male-female to the very underpinnings of the capitalist economic order. As we shall see, the example of Abercrombie & Fitch in many ways confirms this suspicion, as the harnessing of queerness and capitalism in the ad campaign only serves to reinforce the harsh divisions in American society between races and classes. Along the way, however, there is potentially much to learn from the Abercrombie phenomenon, even possibly to appreciate about the aesthetic. After all, the alluring portrayal of the fall of the hetero-homo binary in the A&F Quarterly seems at face value a significant queering of the status quo, a move that—if well received by Abercrombie’s target audience of white middle class youth—could signal a modest, yet undeniable movement away from homophobia and heteronormativity. Thus, I turn first to Abercrombie’s alluring progressive potential, before finishing on a far more cautionary note.
A&F Queers the Mall: The Transgressive Potential of Capitalism
When queer theorists Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner look for ways to undermine the stranglehold of heteronormativity in America—in which the American Dream comes in only one shape and size: heterosexual love, marriage and family—they look to sexual fantasy as the catalyst for dismantling this hegemony. After all, each person potentially possesses sexual fantasies and desires that pull that person in myriad ways: towards both monogamy and “promiscuity”, towards the private realm of the domestic bedroom and the public realm, towards both heterosexuality and homosexuality—and even points beyond. As Berlant notes, “While the fantasies associated with intimacy usually end up occupying the space of convention, in practice the drive toward it is a kind of wild thing that is not necessarily organized that way, or any way.” By paying attention to these non-normative fantasies, the assumption is that the American Dream can be queered. Indeed, the social space of white middle class America could become a more negotiable and creative realm, filled with new institutions of family, like the non-kinship families many of us gays and lesbians call home; and new meanings of sex, like “safe sex” between men or penetrative sex between women.
Admittedly, the aesthetic of the A&F Quarterly is a long way from the radical queer public fantasies advocated by Berlant and Warner. And it surely operates in a very different social landscape than New York’s Christopher Street piers, the locus, at least in years past, of multi-racial, transgendered, and multi-class sexual interactions. The A&F Quarterly clearly is operating on the opposite side of class- and race-inscribed borders of propriety that govern sexual behavior, mainly in the white middle class heartland of upscale suburban malls. While this mainstream location makes the Quarterly inherently less provocative in its representations of queerness, its infusion into the typically heterosexual suburban landscape makes it in some ways all the more startling…as an agent provocateur of sexual non-normativity where it typically has been zoned and censored out of sight.
A fascinating prospect is that the Quarterly’s “soft jock” gay aesthetic (virile, yet passively welcoming overtures from men and women of equal strength), if it truly has an appeal for straight men, could advance gender relations beyond anywhere that the 1960s or the feminist and gay rights movements have ever been able to secure through verbal discourse. Men have been told to behave, to soften up, to leave their socially-conditioned aggressivity at the bedroom door. Women, in turn, have been indoctrinated to stiffen up, empower themselves, and see themselves as the man’s equal. And yet, the visual accompaniment of an erotic fantasy space that shows such transformed social relations as virile and enticing has been decidedly absent from the mass media public sphere, policed at times by the very same feminists giving the empowering speeches and writing the revolutionary prose. With the lack of such a sexually arousing fantasy space, popular conceptions of a post-feminist, post-Stonewall world are of a flaccid, cold, asexual realm dominated by commands of “hands off!” and “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
It says much that the promotion of such a project cannot rely on the support either of certain feminist activists like NOW or of ostensibly pro-woman and pro-gay politicians (as both Governor Granholm and ex-Lieutenant Governor Wood claim to be). These groups in fact completely ignore the potentially novel power relations in the Quarterly’s aesthetic, and instead raise unsubstantiated fears of children falling prey to rape, pregnancy, and STDs. Meanwhile, in the confusing nexus of alliances in the battle against heteronormativity, the CEO and stockholders of corporations like Abercrombie & Fitch could in fact be more reliable counterparts. Indeed, Abercrombie’s corporate response to such attacks eerily parallel responses of queer radical sex proponents such as Berlant and Warner. In defending the Quarterly against the claim that it promotes casual sex, CEO Michael Jeffries refutes such labels as “casual” or “promiscuous” sex, suggesting that such dismissive labels unfairly belittle the intimacy that is created in less structured sexual encounters. Unquestionably, there are echoes of Berlant and Warner in their writings about so-called “promiscuous” sex, as they press for allowing, “such relations to count as intimate, to be not empty release or transgression but a common language of self-cultivation, shared knowledge, and the exchange of inwardness.”
Youth→Youth Market: Capitalism Trumps the Queer
Increasingly, younger men, even if they identify as straight, tend to enjoy and embrace same-sex innuendo, finding homoerotic imagery to be a mark of coolness—something “very young, very sexy,” in the words of Sam Shahid, designer of the A&F Quarterly. In this way, Abercrombie has much in common with the larger gay vogue that is currently the rage in mass media: in addition to being the continual object of oppression at the hands of mainstream America, gays are also more positively portrayed as the avant garde of cool—better looking, more talented, and more fun-loving than straights. Indeed, the whole premise of the recent TV hit Queer Eye for the Straight Guy is that the “Fab Five” possess and exude cosmopolitan wisdom in a way that helpless, hipless straight guys never could.
Meanwhile, those young men whose fantasies run the gamut between and beyond simply gay and straight would find even more that appeals about the Quarterly’s imagery, subtly queer as it is. Noting that today’s adolescents and young adult men, “seem less inclined to find themselves at a young age, gay or straight,” Tyler Brule, another collaborator on the A&F Quarterly, cites the increasingly tenuous status of the hetero-homo binary. Indeed, more and more, a tertiary sexual identity space is congealing in society, one that embraces neither straightness nor gayness, and gets identified instead by names such as “metrosexual” or simply just “youth.”
Youth, after all, is the space in Freudian theory where polymorphous perversity, the original infantile state in which all zones of the body are erogenous and all forms of touch erotic, still potentially holds sway over the individual. It is also a space deemed so vulnerable by traditional parents and politicians that all exposure to non-normatives like homosexuality are taboo, for fear that the child is susceptible of herself emulating what she sees. Youth, then, at least in theory, is a queer space that caters to a legitimate yearning within people (both young and old) for a neutral sort of elsewhere, apart from the bogus binary that constitutes straights and gays. Likewise, it represents a yearning to combine the best of both worlds, allowing for the retention of dignity that the straight world enjoys, while embracing the coolness and transgression that the gay world symbolizes.
Yet, what happens to this queer idealism when it is harnessed to the mechanisms of a marketing campaign, such as in the case of the A&F Quarterly? Suddenly, youth, the queer space, becomes youth market, a space with far less transgressive appeal. The transcendent desires at work in the queerness of youth now get utilized for a much more base motive: to fetishize commodities. In the process, the very hard work of queer world-making is replaced with a false promise: instead of finding political ways to meld the dignity of straightness with the transgression of queerness, members of the youth market are encouraged to seek redress through consumption. Rather than exposing themselves to the potential abnegation of their privileged status, or some sort democratic extension of privilege to all members of society, the youth market is told to embrace their exclusive status through aggressively elitist consumption patterns that further entrench the divisions between society’s haves and have-nots. Indeed, Abercrombie CEO Michael Jeffries describes the brand as “aspirational,” a type of product that is supposed to be popular especially among society’s most successful—and therefore more difficult to attain (and more pricey) than its competitors.
In the face of such a cruel reality, I now feel compelled to throw my support in the Abercrombie political melee behind Governor Jennifer Granholm. It seems after all that she was actually correct in condemning the Quarterly as “Playboy for kids”…at least in one key way she surely did not intend herself. Simply stated, like the publication Playboy, the A&F Quarterly just isn’t queer enough, especially along class and race lines. Laura Kipnis, in her study Bound and Gagged, points out the limitations of Playboy as a subversive fantasy space, especially compared to that of Larry Flynt’s Hustler. Whereas Playboy titillates by catering to existing bourgeois conventions of beauty, Flynt seeks to arouse his readers while also challenging their middle class aesthetics and notions of propriety. Clearly, for Flynt and Kipnis, true arousal comes from surrendering dominant notions of the ideal; it involves surrender on the part of those who enjoy status in society. While the A&F Quarterly does challenge its middle class audience to open up its notions of manliness, it never does so in the equally crucial realms of race or class.
Keeping its queer fantasy space lily white and quasi-aristocratic, Abercrombie reassures its middle class audience that it can titillate within the already prescribed bourgeois expectations of beauty and success. As such, the A&F Quarterly serves only to reinforce the big “white lie” prevalent amongst America’s well-to-do: that the democratization of dignity and wealth can occur without the loss of existing elitist privilege. Thus, it hardly comes as a surprise that the only social “minority” with any prospect of enfranchisement in A&F’s fantasy space are gays and lesbians. Yet, clearly such an invitation is on offer only to those gays who have always, already been present within the confines of bourgeois respectability: white, middle class, gender-conforming gays just as willing as straights to aspire to exclusion along class and race lines. Meanwhile blacks, Latinos, and Asians are segregated out of the Quarterly’s queer utopia—and excluded as well, it seems, from actual employment with Abercrombie & Fitch.
Phil Tiemeyer is a PhD Candidate at the University of Texas at Austin.