An image from American Apparel’s “New & Now: Men” site.
Just like yesterday, I have on my mind today another post inspired by something I read on Colorlines (what can I say? Even on the days I don’t read Colorlines for myself, I see a number of friends’ facebook posts pointing me to their great articles). On May 21, Jorge Rivas contributed a brief but pointed critique of American Apparel’s use of a ‘California Farmer’ as a fashion accessory. This particular ad campaign, from June 2011, features Robin, a USC student, posed alongside Raul, a Mexican immigrant. Here’s one of the images used as an example in the article:
As Rivas explains:
There is something that feels off in the ad that stars Raul and Robin. Both subjects look uncomfortable with each other and as a result both subjects look like props. . . . [S]omething feels off with the ad. Maybe it would have been better if they had taken both subjects in to the studio and shot them behind a plain backdrop like American Apparel does with most ads and included a caption about agricultural workers and how they’re paid so little that chances are they can’t even afford a plain $18 American Apparel t-shirt.
I share in Rivas’ discomfort with the image and am glad to see him point out that as a California “farmer,” Raul very likely doesn’t have the money to spend on the overpriced clothing he’s been called on to model. In fact, it’s ironic because in the first paragraph of the text that accompanies the images of Raul and Robin, American Apparel pats itself on the back for “celebrating” California’s diversity and for not resorting to sweatshop practices:
I want to add to Rivas’ critique by also pointing out how thinly “diversity” is represented in the images, as we can see if we continue on to read the second paragraph. What stands out to me first is the disparate descriptions of Robin and Raul. In addition to her student status, we get a snapshot of “Cali girl” Robin’s hobbies and personal tastes, which include “bon fires and hot dogs.” So not only is this girl athletic (pole vaulting!), but she’s also got quite a bit of free time on her hands to pursue such fun activities like singing and hanging out on the beach. By contrast, what do we learn of “Cowboy” Raul? As mentioned, he’s an immigrant from Mexico who rose from picking strawberries in the fields to a job preparing seeds and . . .that’s all. What are his “bon fires and hot dogs”? We’ll never know, because apparently he has no hobbies to pursue or favorite foods to eat in his leisure time. American Apparel defines him only through his labor status and menial jobs.
The company gratuitously describes Raul and Robin as an “unlikely pair.” Why do I say their choice of words is gratuitous? First, because they don’t need to say that the two are unlikely compared to their other male/female model pairings, which usually look like this:
Interestingly, these two models stand near to but apart from each other, equals in modeling the clothes. In the previous image, however, Robin has her hands wrapped around Raul’s biceps, as if to say, “Hey, this is my Mexican!”
Another reason why the description of Robin and Raul as “unlikely” is gratuitous: American Apparel clearly intends for the models’ skin color to function as a short-hand for their different lifestyles and socioeconomic status. The company’s formulation is simplistic and lazy: White skin means education and leisure, an assumption of US birth, and a someone with unique tastes. By contrast, brown skin signifies a lack of education and low labor status, recent immigration to the US, and no distinguishing traits.
It’s such stupid logic. There’s no reason why Robin isn’t the working class immigrant, maybe even one of the 40% of visa overstayers who are Canadian, English or Australian in origin (FYI I do have a citation for this statistic…I will find it and link asap). And there’s no reason why Raul can’t be an immigrant, former farmworker and a USC student. However, the ad is predicated on our inability to see such statements as true.
In my view, Raul is there as an accessory, as shock value. In the online catalogue for the clothes he models, we can see that he was a one-time fluke, as American Apparel prefers instead its regular, skinny-boy models:
These guys must all be USC students, too. They probably also enjoy bonfires. By contrast, the Mexicans selected for the ads sit, muscular and unamused, in the back of a pickup, which looks to be parked in a field (see the image at the top of the post). Again, contrast that image with the “matching” models above, standing in front of a domestic, landscaped backdrop.
Finally, Robin and Raul are a supposedly an unlikely match because we are supposed to be unable to imagine the context that would ever bring them into each other’s spheres. I mean, just look: they’re photographed against a plain, white cinderblock wall, devoid of context. I imagine there is supposed to be the shock value of Raul’s brown skin; we are meant to ask ourselves, “How would someone who looks like Robin would ever want to be–and lay her hands on–someone who looks like Raul?” Maybe we are supposed to infer a backstory in which Robin, seeking revenge on her overbearing, rich father, giggles, “Just wait ’til Dad sees me making out with Raul! He’ll be so pissed!” (much like burnout Judd Nelson proposes to prom queen Molly Ringwald at the end of The Breakfast Club.)
The lame moves American Apparel has to make in order represent interracial/inter-ethnic relationships calls to my mind the movie Spanglish. In this film, in order to make audiences believe that Adam Sandler’s character would be attracted to a Mexican housekeeper–named Flor Moreno, or “Brown Flower”…come on, folks, really?!–they had to cast someone like Spanish actor Paz Vega:
And I’m sorry, but for all her beauty, Vega does not exactly represent the majority of hard-working Latinas who keep those Cali girls’ homes so immaculate and clean, the very women Ramiro Gomez celebrates in his artwork:
Ramiro Gomez, “Nancy and Carmelita’s Luxurious Lifestyle” (11 April 2012)
What do you think, folks? What other aspects of mainstreams view of race, socioeconomics and education can you identify in the Robin/Raul images? What do you make of American Apparel identifying Raul as a “cowboy”? I’m interested to hear your thoughts…