American Apparel is a pretty slow moving target, I know, but I’m fascinated by this strange advertisement on the back of my Onion (You’ll note, I’ve placed an onion in the top right corner):
It is, of course, exploitative and stupid; the only possible answer to “Why ‘Afrika’ with a K?” would have to be “Why not?” But the thing about American Apparel ads is that calling them sexist or racist or whatever is sort of beside the point, like accusing Borat of giving Kazakhstanians a bad name. This is not to defend the people at AA—if you were going to defend them, you should talk about their labor practices—but just to note that what’s going on here isn’t so simple as that. Like their standard faux-pornographic advertisements, this one features a non-professional model (attractive, but not “modelly”) and there’s something slightly cheap about it all, but a carefully contrived cheapness, as if the effort is not so much to be pornographic as to play at being pornographic. In other words, ads like these ones feel like they’re inhabiting a realm somewhere between nostalgia and irony, somewhere between a deferred and denied desire to dominate and a mocking engagement with a thing it can’t quite accept.
Normally, of course, AA ads reserve their fascination for the exploitative misogyny of pornography, as if announcing itself for what it is allows it to escape the consequences of what it is, the pomo alibi par excellence. But this one blends its misogyny with a certain self-mocking ethno-nostalgia, slipping in the fact the employee is Dutch to remind you that a white person wearing “Afrika” colors is a certain kind of poseur, and eschewing all the cool Africa safari imagery in favor of the Zebra. I mean, seriously, “Zebra” prints? Lame, lame, lame. Like AA’s more run of the mill game of playing at pornographer, there’s something bizarrely interesting about the fact that they’d prefer to play at bad dress-up colonialist chic than do actual straight-faced colonialist chic.