Last year, undergarment retailer Victoria’s Secret was in crisis. Sales were down, stores were closing, and activists—having accused the company of everything from transphobia to deforestation—had badly damaged the brand. Executives huddled together and designed an ambitious turnaround plan: they would spin off the company into a separate entity, denounce previous leadership as racist and misogynistic, and adopt a new marketing strategy that would focus on “diversity, equity, and inclusion” instead of physical beauty.
The change at the company was significant. All the men on the board of directors, with the exception of CEO Martin Waters, were replaced by women. The Victoria’s Secret Angels—women like Heidi Klum, Gisele Bündchen, and Tyra Banks—were out. A new group of women, called the VS Collective, was in. The new models were chosen on political, rather than aesthetic, grounds. The group included the soccer player and “LGBTQIA+ activist” Megan Rapinoe, plus-size model and “body advocate” Paloma Elsesser, and transgender swimsuit model Valentina Sampaio, who was born a biological male. Executives crafted a narrative of explicit political activism: Elsesser promised to “change the world” and expand the company’s product lines to XXXXXL size, Sampaio pledged to use her new position to “raise our vibration and catalyze positive change,” and “equality advocate” Amanda de Cadenet said that the point was not to sell underwear but to “shift culture.”
The new marketing strategy is constructed on a fashionable ideology and a strict taboo. The ideology is “intersectionality”: traditional beauty standards are dismissed as patriarchal, racist, sexist, ableist, and sizeist; models must instead represent the constellation of oppressed identities. The VS Collective does this with panache. During the launch of the marketing campaign, Rapinoe explicitly condemned the company’s past, calling it a “patriarchal, sexist” institution that was “really harmful” to women.
To atone for that sin, the VS Collective offers not only condemnation but transcendence of the old order. The company presented the new spokeswomen not only as representatives of their intersectional identities—the original lineup included an African refugee, a pink-haired lesbian, an obese biracial woman, and a male-to-female transsexual—but as social-justice activists committed to “systemic change.” The press release announcing the campaign describes one member as a “pay equity crusader,” another as a “mental wellness supporter,” and all as leaders in a movement to cure female cancer and “save the lives of millions of women around the world.”
The political ideology that underpins the Victoria’s Secret campaign is enforced by a corresponding taboo. It would be a ghastly faux pas to point out that some of the women in the VS Collective are, to put it delicately, not as beautiful as their predecessors. To the contrary, the public must affirm Rapinoe and Elsesser as at least equally beautiful as the outdated and oppressive standards embodied by Heidi Klum and Tyra Banks. One cannot point out, either, that the Collective’s social-justice activism is mostly a self-serving scam. Rapinoe’s work as a “pay equity crusader” was, in reality, a cash grab for herself and her teammates; women’s soccer leagues generate a fraction of the revenues of their male counterparts. The centimillionaire Priyanka Chopra Jonas, another Collective member presented as a women’s advocate, recently had her first child via surrogate, not because of fertility issues but because it interfered with her busy schedule; such uses of surrogacy exploit poor women rather than empower them. The self-bestowed titles of the other women, such as “body advocate” and “mental wellness supporter,” are completely vapid, requiring little more than a hashtag and a few Instagram posts.
The deeper political significance of the Victoria’s Secret campaign is that it uses politics to redirect attention from its business practices. A substantive critique of the corporation might focus on its culture of materialism or labor conditions in its factories. By contrast, it costs nothing for Victoria’s Secret to denounce itself as racist and sexist; in fact, it serves to establish the company’s own credibility as a “leading advocate for women.” In truth, the campaign is a form of fake transgression that silently entrenches the elite status of its practitioners, who masquerade as avatars of the oppressed, while driving consumer sales for a global corporation. Even worse, the campaign requires the public to engage in a series of lies about beauty, health, femininity, and politics.
The question is how the market will respond. For years, conservatives have argued that the forces of free enterprise would lead “woke capital” to self-destruct. That position is looking less persuasive as time passes, with Fortune 100 companies lining up behind social-justice messaging and critical race theory-style training programs. On the other hand, the financial numbers for Victoria’s Secret suggest that intersectionality might not provide a successful foundation for underwear sales. The company’s stock has declined 32 percent since its peak immediately after the reorganization last year. The company recently forecasted declining sales numbers and, in a survey conducted by Bank of America, 23 percent of women said that they liked Victoria’s Secret less than they did pre-Covid, compared with 13 percent who said they liked it more. Executives have even tried to blame poor financial performance on the war in Ukraine, which doesn’t suggest confidence.
By itself, Victoria’s Secret is insignificant. It hardly matters whether the undergarment manufacturer fails or succeeds. But as a symbol, the company provides insight into the political culture of America’s multinational corporations, which exert an enormous influence over public life. One should hope that the company’s recent gambit fails—and that intersectionality proves to be as much of a disaster for American business as it has already proved to be for American culture.
Photo by Alexander Sayganov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images