We live in the age of visuals and with increasing communication through social media, images and advertising have become a moving feat in our lives. It is, therefore, no surprise that advertisers want to employ images that shock, images that stand out and images that sell. But the most recent American Apparel campaign ‘Made in Bangladesh’ threw me a little.
The advertisement features a model of Bangladeshi descent; she is topless with the words ‘Made in Bangladesh’ across her breasts. I guess I could have dismissed the image as another one of American Apparel’s Lolita themed desperation for getting noticed but there was something in it that made me pause and think.
The model, Maks, was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh and moved to America with her parents aged four. We are told by American Apparel, “Upon entering high school, Maks began to feel the need to forge her own identity and ultimately distanced herself from Islamic traditions.” Now, I don’t follow the tenets of Islam and don’t have a big issue with representations of the female body from a religious point of view. But that remains my personal stance. What I do believe in is respecting those who do believe in Islam even if I consider the faith’s teachings to be debatable and don’t agree with the collective cultural sensitivity of that culture.
As the Rana plaza factory collapsed upon workers in Bangladesh last year, jarring images of human depravity appeared. The optimist in me thought this has hit rock bottom, something is going to snap. But as media watered down the story, international platforms failed to pass any sanctions and economic summits avoided debating the issue, the news finished its life span and disappeared from our collective conscience.
The incident involved retail giants profiting from the vulnerability of others and yet a year down the line, with American Apparel’s ‘Made in Bangladesh’ advertisement, we’re not talking about that, instead we’re talking about Islam. The ad campaign, by being deliberately provocative and controversial, is a convenient distraction. American Apparel knows that in the post 9/11 world, being a Muslim is a very bruised emotion which remains a link in the self-perpetuating cycle of global emotional and social violence.
The image of a topless migrant US/Bengali young woman, with text to explain her distancing herself from Islam, leaves me and many other viewers with just one opinion – American Apparel is exploiting and employing titillation of the female body to dumb down a cause that needs intellectual vigour to be pushed through for debate.
American Apparel might claim that by using the topless image of a migrant Bengali woman, they were drawing attention to their own ethical production practices and to the appalling working conditions of sweatshop workers in Bangladesh, but we are yet to see any signs of that debate emerging out of this controversy.