Victoria’s Secret models call #TimesUp on sexual harassment; is fashion industry's #MeToo reckoning here?

Victoria’s Secret came under the media glare when over 100 models signed an open letter asking that the company do more to protect its models from sexual harassment, after allegations came up against several of their photographers abusing their models, and of other shocking cases of sexual assault, rape and sex trafficking.

Manjima Bhattacharjya September 01, 2019 09:42:35 IST
Victoria’s Secret models call #TimesUp on sexual harassment; is fashion industry's #MeToo reckoning here?
  • Victoria’s Secret came under the media glare when over 100 models signed an open letter asking that the company do more to protect its models from sexual harassment, after allegations came up against several of their photographers abusing their models, and of other shocking cases of sexual assault, rape and sex trafficking.

  • The controversy is also around the owner of the company Lex Wexner’s close relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, who died recently in custody on sex trafficking charges.

  • Investigative reports say Epstein claimed to be a modelling scout for Victoria’s secret, and several of his crimes were carried out under the guise of auditions for the lingerie brand.

'Curious Fashion' is a monthly column by feminist researcher, writer and activist Manjima Bhattacharjya. Read more from the series here.

***

Wherever I’ve gone over the last year after the publication of my book Mannequin: Working Women in India’s Glamour Industry (on the lives of women working at models in India) — whether it’s been literature festivals, book launches, or just panels in other events — I have been asked why women in the modelling industry have not “come out” or done enough for the #MeToo movement.

‘Questions’ usually start by people mansplaining to me how (they’ve heard) the casting couch is real, even in the modelling industry and more broadly how (they’ve heard) women in general do “anything” for work. I try to respond rationally, but it is hard when people already believe the stereotype. Since the #MeToo avalanche shook the media industry globally and in India, the question is now framed more in the context of sexual harassment at the workplace (in which women are victims) rather than the “casting couch” (in which women are positioned as manipulating a system for their gains). And this is an important shift in lens.

But what continues to bother me, is that the question is asked as if confronting the abuser is an easy option for the women models, and it is their failing that they have not been able to do so.

It implies that women models don’t make accusations because the system works for them — they benefit from the silence. I think we’ve all realised over the last year that the silence has, on the contrary, resulted in trauma, guilt, deep wounds that have cost people their mental health. Silence on sexual harassment only benefits the perpetrators.

Women in the Indian modelling industry have not come out en masse against sexual harassment for the regular reasons that apply to any other industry: questions of power of the abuser, the precarity of the work situation they will find themselves in, the loss of reputation, the tag of being a ‘trouble-maker’. Everything one wants to avoid. They’re also not organised into unions (although experiments have taken place in the past) or other collectives through which they can have a platform to demand their rights as workers or as human beings.

Victorias Secret models call TimesUp on sexual harassment is fashion industrys MeToo reckoning here

Fashion giant Victoria’s Secret came under the media glare when over 100 models signed an open letter asking that the company do more to protect its models from sexual harassment. REUTERS

Additionally, women models face a sort of double stigma than women in other kinds of work. What do I mean by double stigma? A regular girl might get asked what she did to “ask for it”, but when the girl is a model, it is already assumed she must have “done something” to provoke it because of the stereotypes associated with the occupation. For models, victim blaming is massively amplified, which becomes a barrier to speaking about their experiences of abuse within the industry.

In my research, I found instead that models in India experimented with informal ways to deal with sexual harassment at the workplace. Managing the situation and getting the hell out of there was the most common, as was sharing the incidents with their close friends and warning them. Women in the media industry around the world have used this strategy, we now know, a strategy that the #MeToo movement gave a term to — “whisper networks”!

But this month has been surprising for some new developments in the fashion industry on sexual harassment. The brand Victoria’s Secret came under the media glare when over 100 models signed an open letter asking that the company do more to protect its models from sexual harassment, after allegations came up against several of their photographers abusing their models, and of other shocking cases of sexual assault, rape and sex trafficking. Another controversy was around the owner of the company Lex Wexner’s close relationship with Jeffrey Epstein, who died recently in custody on sex trafficking charges. Investigative reports say Epstein claimed to be a modelling scout for Victoria’s secret, and many of his crimes were carried out under the guise of “auditions” for the lingerie brand.

This time, these allegations aren’t just an annoying fly that can be swatted away. They’ve dealt a body blow to the company’s reputation, and to its business. The company may not have a show this year — the show that is its crowning glory, and raison d’etre.

The 100 models along with Model Alliance, a new US-based collective for models, write poignantly in the letter, “These stories are gut-wrenching and hit close to home for many of us who have encountered these kinds of abuses that are too often tolerated in our industry. We stand with the courageous women who have come forward and shared their stories, despite fears of retaliation or harm to their careers. It breaks our heart to keep hearing these stories. It is time for RESPECT.”

Why is this move significant? First, Victoria’s Secret is one of those landmark gigs for an international model. Although a lingerie show is controversial for other reasons, the “angel wings” that a Victoria’s Secret model gets, make her fly up the career ladder. Even models who’ve been Angels and are big names have joined the protest. So, when something like this happens to a fashion industry giant, it’s a showstopper. It’s the Harvey Weinstein of the fashion world, the domino that might make the whole structure fall.

Second, this is the most organised we have seen the international modelling sorority, usually divided by the precarity of their jobs. The creation of the organisation Model Alliance is significant, although it is located only in the US at the moment, and has no presence in other parts of the world.

Third, the letter has brought up an important question. Is the onus only on the women to address sexual harassment at the workplace? The letter frames the conversation in such a way that everyone is responsible for creating a safe workplace, and makes the employers accountable rather than the women. The RESPECT programme of Model Alliance offers an accessible and trustworthy complaints mechanism,  an enforceable Code of Conduct for the fashion industry, with “mandatory consequences for brands, modelling agencies, photographers, and other” who violate the terms of the Code. This reframes the terms of conversation to seeing modelling as work, models as workers and the fashion industry as a workplace.

It remains to be seen how Indian models can leverage this global shift and reach out and join forces. But the letter is a big, bold, neon sign that things are changing, by striking at a culture of silence and tolerance that the fashion industry has been sitting on for too long.

Manjima Bhattacharjya is the author of Mannequin: Working Women in India's Glamour Industry (Zubaan, 2018)

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