Selective outrage exposes hype and hypocrisy
H& M is having a bad week. The Swedish retailer whose duds turn to dust in my dryer after only a few months of wear has bigger problems than poor quality control. It has a peeved celebrity spokesperson. Scratch that: a peeved ex-celebrity spokesperson.
A few days ago, Canadian R & B singer and former H & M collaborator The Weeknd cut ties with the retailer after viewing one of the brand’s ads that he and a number of other high-profile Black celebs (LeBron James included) understandably interpreted as racist.
Why? The ad in question depicts a Black child wearing a sweatshirt that reads “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle,” the insinuation being (whether intentional or not) that Black people and primates are one and the same, a heinous belief upheld by racists throughout history.
“Woke up this morning shocked and embarrassed by this photo,” The Weeknd tweeted in response to the ad on Jan 8. “I’m deeply offended and will not be working with @hm anymore.”
Though it’s unlikely the brand (which has since apologized) intended to send a racist message, it showed remarkable ignorance and extremely poor judgment in run- ning the ad. The Weeknd, then, had every right and reason to cut ties with H & M.
But it’s interesting and worth noting that though the singer was deeply offended by the discriminatory ad, he did not at any point during his collaboration with H & M appear to be offended by the numerous allegations of labour rights violations levelled at the brand’s suppliers.
Like several fast fashion brands operating today, H & M has faced criticism from rights groups for not doing enough to ensure that the workers producing its clothing are treated fairly. Although the brand received a passing grade on Oxfam Australia’s 2016 “Naughty or Nice” list for its commitment to transparency, according to a report released in the same year by the Centre for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights, a Cambodian NGO, a number of Cambodian workers employed by the brand’s suppliers complained about low wages, poor quality of drinking water, limited access to a bathroom and witnessing coworkers faint on the job (among other things).
No single man can take on all the world’s problems, nor should he be expected to, but The Weeknd’s selective outrage is indicative of an incomplete interest in social justice shared by many celebrities in our culture. It’s an interest that manifests in big social media moments and financial donations (The Weeknd donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Black Lives Matter in 2016) but often ignores the vast inequality perpetuated by corporations. (See Kendall Jenner and Beyoncé for Pepsi, or Bella Hadid for Topshop, a brand that did not receive a passing grade on Oxfam’s Naughty or Nice test.)
And it trickles down to youth who are perhaps more equality-minded than any previous generation but who are, at the same time, arguably more brand-obsessed than any previous generation. I’m not in- nocent in this; I probably own more Nike merchandise than Michael Jordan. But I also acknowledge that it’s surreal scrolling Instagram to consume post after post in which celebrities and “influencers” rail against big bad forces — racism, environmental degradation, poverty — while often in the same breath plugging brands that actively perpetuate such things.
In her 2016 book, We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to Cover Girl, author Andi Zeisler describes the commercialization of feminism like this: “This increasingly looks not like a world that has finally emerged into a fully realized feminism, but like a world in which we are letting a glossy, feel-good feminism pull focus away from deeply entrenched forms of inequality. It’s a feminism that trades on simple themes of sisterhood and support — you-go-girl tweets and Instagram photos, cheery magazine editorials about dressing to please yourself. The fight for gender equality has transmogrified from a collective goal to a consumer brand.”
The same can be said about the fight for equality at large, a fight in which injustice is repeatedly “called out” but rarely examined. A fight where we rightly criticize a racist ad for a kid’s sweatshirt but wrongly give little thought to the person who sewed it together. Emma Teitel is a national affairs columnist.