It is a truth universally acknowledged that when teenage girls and anything remotely sexual are mentioned in the same sentence, there is bound to be controversy. People were already in a froth about the aggressive sexualization of teenage coeds in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, and now Victoria’s Secret has inadvertently stirred the pot, with Chief Financial Officer Stuart Burgdoerfer admitting that the company markets to teenagers. "When somebody's 15 or 16 years old," he said, "they want to be older, and they want to be cool like the girl in college, and that's part of the magic of what we do at Pink," the company's brand for younger women.
The company has since officially stated that Pink is a "brand for college-aged women," but the Victoria’s Secret line has been openly targeting a younger crowd of female consumers for more than a decade. So the outrage that has greeted Burgoerfer's comments is somewhat surprising. In addition to an online petition asking Victoria’s Secret to "stop sexualizing teens," people have taken to Victoria’s Secret’s Facebook page to suggest the company is part of the "irresponsible culture" that led to the Steubenville rape case.
Many parents are enraged because they feel Victoria's Secret is exploiting their daughters at their most vulnerable age, writes Dr. Christine Carter of UC Berkeley at The Huffington Post. "Bright Young Things," the company's campaign targeting teenagers, teaches them that "slutty is status" and that "boys should objectify girls," says Carter. There’s also the host of body image issues that comes from watching "supermodels in high heels, little girl costumes, and bubble gum underwear on stage with Justin Bieber," a reference to the Victoria’s Secret fashion show in 2012. Carter wants parents’ "righteous anger to go viral," and for them to fight back with boycotts. "As parents, we can protect [children] by not letting them watch commercials and by not letting them shop in (or, frankly, even near) stores like Victoria's Secret."
Hold on, writes Amanda Marcotte at Slate. It's ridiculous to suggest that, "absent the seductive power of a Victoria’s Secret ad over the adolescent mind, high school girls would have reacted with delight when Mom insisted on buying four-packs of Hello Kitty underwear,” says Marcotte. Let’s stop blaming Victoria’s Secret for the fact that teenage girls want to feel sexy. Moreover, the arguments about protecting our daughters' supposed innocence echo the antiquated sentiment that sex "would be the ruin of a generation of girls." Parents and critics need a reality check, says Marcotte, noting the average American has sex by 17 and seven out of ten are sexually active by 19. Teenagers "need this time to experiment" and "there’s no harm giving teenagers a little freedom to do the growing up they need to do."
Tracy Clark-Flory at Salon agrees that we can’t pile hate on Victoria’s Secret for marketing to younger teenagers, but the company's defenders may be missing a larger point. The company and its branding are symptoms, not a cause of, "the way our culture fetishizes youth." Teenage female consumers pick up on that, with or without the help of Victoria’s Secret. "As long as women are celebrated as things, teen girls will celebrate being things," writes Clark-Flory. "That is a problem bigger than Victoria’s Secret is tacky."
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- Ted Cruz is the new Sarah Palin
- Watch out, China — America is working on dogfighting drones
- How liberals are unwittingly paving the way for the legalization of adult incest
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- How the Simpsons/Family Guy crossover revealed the worst of both shows
- Libertarianism's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea
- Bill O'Reilly and Stephen Colbert are accidentally having a serious debate on ISIS
- Why you probably don't have Ebola — even if you shook hands with America's 'patient zero'
Subscribe to the Week