American Apparel: Where Fashion Meets Paedophilia

A Semiotic Analysis

American Apparel, and its founder Dov Charney, are no strangers to controversy. Its advertisements during the early 2000s were shot and produced in-house by Charney himself, with models plucked from amongst employees or strangers simply snatched off the street. Charney’s advertisements garnered a fair amount of criticism throughout this period, with a number of his campaigns banned and removed in Britain under allegations of sexualising underage girls. In comparison, Charney and his sexually explicit advertising tactics were lauded for their candid and raw style, featuring untouched and natural-looking models, leading to the company being named ‘Marketer of the Year’ at the first-ever Las Angeles Fashion Awards in 2005.

Yet, while others may have hailed a move away from traditionally photoshopped ethereal models as ‘empowerment’, the underlying story of Charney’s sexual allegations and taste for young women points towards more sinister motives of this unique form of advertising­­ — one that is steeped in predatory behaviour, power imbalances and the sexualisation of underage girls. Charney does not just engage in the sexualisation of girls; he contributes to it by producing material­­ which perpetuates the Lolita myth of the innocent girl who is precociously seductive to the male audience. Roland Barthes (1957) provides that we can disseminate myths by analysing an image’s denotative and connotative signs. To create the paradox of the Lolita myth in this image, where sexuality, seduction and the innocence of young girls co-exist, we are required to look at multiple problematic elements through the male gaze.

First, the linguistic message used in bold font against the white backdrop of the picture uses a font style commonly associated with American Apparel. Therefore, an audience who is already familiar with its branding would know that, somehow, this image is an advertisement for clothing. However, the word ‘Bubblelicious’ relies on a pre-existing referent system that directs the reader to associate the word with something that is ‘delicious’, which connotates that the subject is to be consumed for pleasure. That subject, in this instance, is the girl who lays on the bed with her back arched and her gluteus maximus poised directly below the word. The placement of the linguistic messaging and the positioning of the model directs the audience to associate thoughts of consumption with her body in a provocatively sexual nature. In this image, the transference of value is from the implied word of ‘delicious’ to the model. She is not a person; she is an object to be consumed for pleasure.

“The Lolita myth only exists in the sphere of the male gaze where the trope of older powerful men dating younger vulnerable women continues to be socially acceptable; but when stripped back of its disguise, it is revealed to be an ideology that is rooted in paedophilia and predatory behaviour.”

The second connotation in the linguistic message is ‘Bubble’, which can be paired with the pink bubble gum the model is blowing. Bubble gum on its own carries limited value; however, Williamson’s theory of representation which provides for a currency of signs, allows us to link the use of bubble gum with the other signifiers in this image which hint at the sexual intention of the image. The use of white throughout the image, a colour traditionally associated with virginity and purity, is featured on the model’s skin-tight tank-top and bleeds into the backdrop of rumpled bedsheets. At the same time, her messy hair and make-up free face is a look that is familiar to anyone who is sexually active. Both elements contribute to the use of bubble gum as a powerful connotation of playfulness, youth, virginity and sexuality. However, there are external referent systems that link bubble gum and the idea of youth with sexuality. Charney’s use of bubble gum in this image mimics a promotional photo of the 1997 film adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita featuring Dominque Swain as the 14-year-old protagonist wearing a mini baby-blue playsuit and blowing pink bubble gum. Meanwhile; the bubble which the model blows and appears to be on the verge of popping links to a more insidious concept of virginity being ‘popped’ by conquesting men — a gross myth that has long been associated with the incorrect assumption that the tearing of the hymen occurs only during an act of sexual intercourse.

When intertwined, these connotations of virginity and youth promote the ideology of the Lolita myth depicted in this image, which perpetuates the problematic idea that adolescent girls are willing participants in their own sexualisation and engage in behaviours of ‘seducing’ mature-aged men, while also providing the alluring power imbalance of innocence and sexual inexperience. The Lolita myth only exists in the sphere of the male gaze where the trope of older powerful men dating younger vulnerable women continues to be socially acceptable; but when stripped back of its disguise, it is revealed to be an ideology that is rooted in paedophilia and predatory behaviour.

Colour has played an interesting role in this image, as the use of white which dominates the image, causes the model’s bare skin, the brief glimpse of her underwear and the thigh-high socks to pop out of the image. The use of baby blue in the socks provides an additional element of innocence and youth to the subject. In contrast, the thigh-high element invokes a sense of sexuality as thigh-high clothing items are usually associated with stockings and garter belts, both pieces of clothing traditionally worn by sexually experienced women. It attempts to form an objective correlative of the model’s sexuality to the socks­­ — which are the item for sale­­ — but instead creates an overwhelming sense of sexuality. If the intention of the advertisement is to sell socks, it has ultimately failed.

American Apparel and, in effect, Charney has displayed a complete incompetence of understanding the company’s target audience and has further disregarded the outcome that its images have on women. If this ad is targeted towards women, it has failed on all accounts to hold women in a respectful light. As a woman, when I look at this advertisement, I feel nothing but a sense of uncomfortable disgust. Charney’s advertisements continued in its paedophilic nature for a decade before it was announced that the company was entering into bankruptcy. At that point, Charney was swiftly removed by the company’s board. The company has since bounced back with a new all-female marketing team at the helm, who has successfully re-branded its advertisements to move away from the problematic male gaze it was so well known for and towards a more ethical female-friendly marketing approach.

Barthes, Roland. “From Mythologies (1957)”. In A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, (Sydney NSW, Allen & Unwin, 1992) 14–20.

Daily News. “Most controversial ads of all time”. NYDailyNews.com, 9 March 2014 < https://web.archive.org/web/20140309022958/https:/www.nydailynews.com/life-style/controversial-ads-time-gallery-1.1714547>. Accessed 22 September 2021.

Cerrone, Grace. “LA Fashion Awards”. LASplash.com, 16 July 2005 < http://www.lasplash.com/publish/cat_index_Style_and_Fashion/LA_Fashion_Awards_2005.php>. Accessed 22 September 2021.

Palmeri, Christopher. “Living on the edge of American Apparel.” Business Week, 27 June 2005 <https://web.archive.org/web/20080324164632/http:/businessweek.com/magazine/content/05_26/b3939108_mz017.htm>. Accessed 22 September 2021.

Williamson, Judith. “Decoding Advertisements”. A Currency of Signs, (Marion Boyars, 1978) 31–72.

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Laura E Fox

LLB (Hons) and BA (Gender Studies and Philosophy) student. A collection of academic essays.