Victoria’s Secret Does It Again: When Racism Meets Fashion

By Guest Contributor Nina Jacinto

In case you missed it, Victoria’s Secret recently launched a new lingerie collection. Entitled “Go East,” it’s the kind of overt racism masked behind claims of inspired fashion and exploring sexual fantasy that makes my skin crawl.

From the website: “Your ticket to an exotic adventure: a sexy mesh teddy with flirty cutouts and Eastern-inspired florals. Sexy little fantasies, there’s one for every sexy you.” The collection varies in its level of exoticism. The “Sexy Little Geisha” is a perversion of its reference, featuring a sultry white model donned in lingerie, chopsticks in her hair, fan in her hand. Other items in the collection include red sleepwear and nightgowns with cherry blossoms. I might have glossed over some of these pieces entirely–except the catalog descriptions had me reeling. “Indulge in touches of Eastern delight.” Translation: “Buying these clothes can help you experience the Exotic East and all the sexual fantasies that come along with it, without all the messy racial politics!”

When someone creates a collection like this, making inauthentic references to “Eastern culture” (whatever that means) with hints of red or a fan accessory or floral designs, it reinforces a narrative that says that all Asian cultures–and their women–are exotic, far away but easy to access. It’s a narrative that says the culture can be completely stripped of its realness in order to fulfill our fantasies of a safe and non-threatening, mysterious East.

But when a company takes it one step further by developing a story about how the clothes can offer a sort of escape using explicit sexualized and exploitive language, it takes the whole thing to another level. It’s a troubling attempt to sidestep authentic representation and humanization of a culture and opt instead for racialized fetishizing against Asian women.

There’s a long-standing trend to represent Asian women as hypersexualized objects of fantasy, so it’s telling that none of the models wearing the “Go East” collection appear to be Asian. Perhaps this is a way for the company to distance itself from accusations of racism, given the backlash of previous campaigns such as “Wild Thing,” a fashion show segment in which black models wore “tribal” body paint and African-themed wraps. In the case of “Go East,” Victoria’s Secret is avoiding a stereotype by removing Asian women from the picture while still capitalizing on it. The lack of Asian women here simply exposes the deep-rooted nature of the Orientalist narrative, one that trades real humanness for access to culture. Besides, it can only feel sexy and exotic if it’s on an “American” body–without the feeling of accessing something foreign or forbidden, there can be no fantasy.

I’m not trying to deny that people have their own unique sexual desires and sources of pleasure. But like all things, sex and sexuality don’t live in a bubble. They intersect with our historical and cultural contexts. Donning a “sexy Geisha” outfit to get the ball rolling in the bedroom remains offensive because it confirms a paradigm in which Asian people and their culture can be modified and sexualized and appropriated for the benefit of the West. This particular kind of racism has existed for a long time, and we’re far from moving beyond it.

Nina Jacinto is a blogger and the Development Manager at Forward Together. She loves the internet, bargain shopping, and a really good cup of tea.