Sumner Burstyn on the Second Circle of Hell


POV By Sumner Burstyn

Dantes-InfernoIN DANTE’S INFERNO, the second circle of hell is lust. It’s where Dante and Virgil discover lusters in perpetual punishment by strong winds that prevent peace and rest.

That was around 1314. In 2015 the wind is from a machine and the second circle of hell is Victoria’s Secret.

There, everything is come-on and insinuation, intimation and allusion. The walls are adorned with airbrushed images of innocence defiled. There are more angel wings than a junior school nativity play, the mannequins wear miniscule slashes of stretch lace and the entire store is drenched in enough lurid pink to make you hate the color for life.

It’s about as far from subtly and the arts of seduction as you can get. And yet if the companies share price and quarterly earnings are anything to go by Victoria’s Secret is huge. If nothing else the brand is a genius of marketing.

It takes genuine female desire and twists it into a parody of desire dressed up in cheap lace, feathers and sequins. It takes the innocent fairies and princesses of childhood and morphs them into sexy dress-ups for young adults. Then it feeds this twisted idea to its target market packaged as consequence-free, as empowerment, as feminism even.

And in doing so it catches young women in a matrix of societal messages around consent. Victoria’s Secret does not make a secret of this. After all its panties have slogans like ‘Sure Thing’ and ‘Feeling Lucky?’

Artists Rebecca Nagle and Hannah Brancato think the brand teeters on the edge of rape culture. They created a parody line of underwear with slogans like ‘No means No’ and ‘Ask First’.

In an article for The Baltimore Sun they said they wanted to disrupt the silence that surrounds sexual violence and call attention to the images that validate and perpetuate the culture of rape. Nagle says it is problematic to have those messages placed over a vagina. Both women work to raise awareness about “rape culture,” images, language, laws and everyday phenomena that they say validate and perpetuate rape.

You would think Victoria’s Secret would support such a stance. But they were so unhappy with the parody they threatened the artists with legal action and had their website shut down.

In reality Victoria’s Secret is the siren call of corporate, industrial sex, as if our bodies, our very lives are outlet malls for all that is cheap and gaudy. It is not about women at all. It’s not about empowerment or feminism or even about feeling sexy. It is about the belief that we must play the male order game to be desired. It is about teaching our young women to contextualize and validate themselves through the male gaze, the male experience and the male appetite.

If we were truly empowered, if it was really about our sexual desire and our sexual equality we’d be shopping at Victor’s Secret, ogling airbrushed images of men and buying fluffy jock straps. And if that very idea makes you want to barf then its time to look at whose game our young women are playing when they pull on a sexy thong emblazoned with ‘I Dare You.’