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Why the death of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is an important cultural moment

Why the death of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is an important cultural moment
[Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images]

Congratulations, consumers of taste. You did it. You killed the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.

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The onetime television staple, which debuted in 1995 and usually airs in November, will not take place this year, according to Stuart Burgdoerfer, CFO of the brand’s parent company, L Brands, who announced the news in an earnings call yesterday. The cancellation follows steadily declining ratings and attempts to “rethink” the show’s image for younger consumers who saw it as outdated.

The fashion show was never the most tasteful affair, and it always made some segment of the population uncomfortable. I mean, think about it: it involved women parading on stage in Victoria’s Secret most risqué bras and panties. In reality, it wasn’t that different from the kind of show you might see at a strip club. But in a clever sleight of hand, Victoria’s Secret managed to give the show a sheen of respectability, and at its peak, it was a highly anticipated prime-time television extravaganza.

How did they do it? Well, they hired some of the world’s best-known supermodels, including Tyra Banks, Naomi Campbell, Heidi Klum, and Gisele Bündchen, which effectively served to give the show the aura of a “high fashion” event, despite the fact that underwear the models wore was clearly meant to titillate rather than highlight good design. Then, in another moment of marketing genius, Victoria’s Secret rebranded its models as “angels” and outfitted them with wings. This was an effort to make the show seem less seedy and to shed associations with, say, the porn industry.

And here’s the thing: For decades, the strategy worked, and millions of everyday Americans tuned into the show. At its peak, in 2012, 12.4 million people watched it. Victoria’s Secret effectively turned a strip show into mainstream entertainment, much like Sunday night football. But all that changed in the wake of the #MeToo movement. In 2016, 6.7 million people tuned in. But the next year, when the first #MeToo stories broke, that figure had gone down to five million. By 2018, only 3.3 million people were watching.

As countless media reports exposed men like Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, and Jeffrey Epstein who sexually harassed or raped women, it was impossible not to wonder about what kind of culture facilitated this kind of abuse. And the Victoria’s Secret fashion show was part of the problem, premised on the idea that models are objects of sexual gratification. It was easy to see the parallels between the show and the behavior of predatory men who treated women as objects of sexual pleasure. In more granular terms, Victoria’s Secret facilitated the actual abuse of models. Epstein was a close adviser to Leslie Wexner, the CEO of L Brands, which owns Victoria’s Secret, and reportedly lured would-be models into compromising situations by saying he could get them into the show.

The death of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show represents an important cultural moment. Consumers are signaling that they’re not interested in being complicit with the objectification of women by supporting brands like Victoria’s Secret. They’re no longer tuning in to the show, and just as tellingly, they’re choosing not to buy products from the brand. Sales at Victoria’s Secret stores have dropped by 7% this quarter, representing the sixth consecutive quarter of declining sales. And L Brands stock has fallen 39% this year, closing at a 10-year low.

It’s the end of an era. And many consumers are undoubted thinking good riddance.

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