05/15/13

No longer Jew nor Greek, for we are all one in…Abercrombie and Fitch?

When I caught word of the recent furor over the not recent comments by the CEO of Abercrombie and Fitch and saw the social media reactions, it made me think of the well-known (and dissected) comment of the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians, which states: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Christians tout this verse as an example of the leveling of social, economic, and gender boundaries that occurs in Christianity, the liberation from differences that often cause division and strife. What is usually overlooked, however, is the even greater division that Paul’s theology creates, separating those who are “in Christ” from those who are not. The in group gets the benefits, the out group does not. It is an example, then, not of the leveling of boundaries, but their consolidation into a more concise and defensible form.

What does this have to do with A&F? Getting there. Because the more practical problem with the statement above and the sentiment behind it is that it is not followed. Divisions based on class, race, gender, wealth, and religion obviously continue to exist, whether or not we think they should. And the fact that these divisions continue to exist poses a potential problem for Christianity. For most, though, the problem is solved by its “theologization.” The amelioration of differences is either relegated to a future realm or takes place within the individual heart. It is “as if” theology; everything changes, though nothing changes. The insidiousness of this practice is that it ends up affirming the status quo. Positive struggle against unfair treatment is mitigated by the fact that it is out of our hands, something that God will take care of, or that we don’t have a problem with anyway. “The world discriminates, but I know that x group deserves equal treatment.” Thus, I can go about my day knowing that I’m not part of the problem.

Now we arrive at Mark Jeffries’s comments from a 2006 interview, to the effect that the company unashamedly targets cool and thin kids. Personally, in terms of fully exploiting the logic behind A&F’s success, I like Jeffries’s comment later in the article even more, in response to past lawsuits over discrimination in the workplace:

“I don’t think we were in any sense guilty of racism, but I think we just didn’t work hard enough as a company to create more balance and diversity. And we have, and I think that’s made us a better company. We have minority recruiters. And if you go into our stores you see great-looking kids of all races.” 

See? As long as you’re good looking, it doesn’t matter what race you are! Sound familiar? But here’s the point. The popular reaction of outrage (six years later) over Jeffries’s comments is not that he holds those views. It is that he removed the benefit of the doubt by stating his views explicitly, consequently making all of us who traffic in the same divisions (cool/un-cool, fat/skinny) confront how much these divisions contribute to our own identities, and to what extent we reinforce the same values.

So instead of acknowledging that the company has succeeded in marketing its view of the world on society, people in response say how ugly Jeffries is. Another response from a “former fat girl” calls Jeffries a bully because “Your campaign is telling our young people that it’s perfectly acceptable to exclude someone because of the size of their body.” (Scroll down to the bottom of the article and notice the covers of this author’s books for a little irony). Others suggest a boycott of Abercrombie and Fitch, as if there aren’t hundreds of other companies that employ the same tactics. If the only faux pas is being explicit about the marketing that takes place in consumer culture, the problem is not Jeffries.

Even the response video that shows one guy buying up A&F and donating it to the homeless on Skid Row is misplaced. Is the point really that everyone should have access to this clothing? That somehow the uncool, plus size, or homeless are being denied their rights by not being able to wear A&F? Or does it simply highlight the entrenched differences in economic and social well-being that those who can afford to buy popular brands would like to pretend don’t exist? This well-intentioned response only highlights the fact that we think it’s a cultural absurdity for the homeless to wear designer clothing, further reinforcing the perceived distance between us and them. We think it’s a problem and we can choose to wear something else. None of the many homeless I’ve spoken with care in the slightest about what a t-shirt says if serves its purpose and smells better than the one on their back. Who, then, is this campaign for? What is its function?

To my knowledge, I’ve never owned or worn a piece of A&F clothing. But I’ve worn clothes from Gap, Nike, Levis, and a host of other companies who have disregarded the lives of those who are outside their target market. To deny that their brand didn’t in any way influence my purchase, that the cachet of the label didn’t make me feel a bit cooler, would be a lie. That’s something I need to confront head on, not deny just because I didn’t make public comments about my views.

I understand that the seemingly untouchable and out-of-touch comments of a rich CEO seem infuriatingly ignorant, and many would like to, or think they would like to, change the game. But I think we should ask ourselves two questions. First, who are we really mad at? Is it Jeffries, who is laughing all the way to the bank, or we who are pawns in the scheme and largely unwilling to change? Second, how far would be willing to go? What views do we hold that help perpetuate this status quo? Does a Western Christian and democratic view that we are all equal bring about equality, or is it a coping mechanism to deal with the fact that society is organized around harmful forms of segregation, most of which we willingly participate in? I am certainly not saying that no response is the best response; rather, that we should make sure that the splinter in Jeffries’s eye is not obscured by the plank in our own.