May 16, 2013

We've Got Bigger Fitch to Fry: Why I'm Uncomfortable with "Fitch The Homeless"

One of the obnoxious things about memes online (and there are many) is that there is often a wave of way too many people sharing the exact same thing over and over. However, this phenomenon gives us a unique opportunity to observe the zeitgeist of a particular day, week, or month as it manifests itself on social media. So what are our social anxieties and cultural preoccupations of late? If we look to my Facebook newsfeed as an example, we'll notice that in the past week it has turned into a blur of David Foster Wallace videos, that singing four-year-old from The Ellen Show, probably some cats thrown in for good measure, and this link to a Huffington Post story entitled "Guy Gives Abercrombie & Fitch A Brand Readjustment By Giving Their Clothes to the Homeless." HuffPo's description of the situation is brief: Dude takes issue (as every good first-worlder has been) with Abercrombie & Fitch's CEO Mike Jeffries for publicly stating that his clothes are designed and marketed for "cool kids," at the express exclusion of women in particular who wear larger sizes. Cue the outrage of all the well-meaning web-wanderers you know. There has been a huge backlash, including numerous open letters to Jeffries criticizing his corporate-level bullying and endless pledges from consumers to stop patronizing A&F stores in protest of Jeffries' unsavory marketing philosophy. Now we have monsieur Greg Karber coming onto the scene with his own form of protest: give A&F clothing to the homeless as the ultimate revenge.

Before I launch into the myriad problems with Karber's scheme, let's first talk about our collective reaction to Jeffries' comments in the first place, which I believe has been extremely disproportionate to the actual level of offense. Don't get me wrong, I think the guy's a jerk, too. But when it comes to sizeism, discriminatory practices have been in place long before Jeffries opened his big mouth. There are special companies (e.g. The Foundry Big & Tall Supply Co., Lane Bryant) that cater, albeit perhaps insufficiently, to the needs of men and women whose sizes are routinely not found in the average clothing retail store. Why do such companies exist? Well, the fact of the matter is, plus-sized women (and I'm focusing on women because Jeffries and his haters have) are not at home in most of the stores at the mall. Abercrombie & Fitch only goes as high as women's jean size 12, but even easier-to-love competitors like American Eagle and H&M still only go up to size 18. Maybe I am misinformed here, but I'm guessing that means a lot of women weighing much more than 200 lbs. still don't have many options among these trendy brands. The problem here does not lie solely with Mike Jeffries. He's just especially easy to loathe.

Yes, it's despicable that A&F holds women to a higher standard of physique than men (A&F does carry larger sizes for men, though presumably only to accommodate the beefy weightlifters). Yes, it's despicable that Jeffries is promoting the backwards, super-false idea that coolness is intrinsically related to attractiveness, which in his world is intrinsically related to thinness. But why did we need him to tell us about his chauvinistic ideology when a cursory glance around an A&F store would reveal just as much? In other words, why did we wait to be outraged? And we really did wait. For those of you not paying any attention, those arrogant little quotes of his that have been floating around all week (I mean, c'mon, some of you practically have them memorized) are pulled from an interview he did with Salon in early 2006. Wait a minute, what?!?!?! That was seven years ago! That was my senior year in high school and (correct me if I'm wrong, fellow CHS alums)... hmm... nope, don't seem to remember anyone boycotting A&F for their sizeist practices back then. Obviously that doesn't make the problem any less serious or relevant today, but it does go to show that our meme-culture breeds hysteria over issues rather than fostering a true understanding of the underlying problems, to say nothing of their potential solutions.

And speaking of solutions, Greg Karber's is particularly poor. The guy isn't a revolutionary, he's just a kid who makes YouTube videos with names like "YO PIGEON," "AMAZING REAL GHOST EVP," "POOL PARTY SONG," and "I Need a Pencil (Song)." I'm thinking his next video should be, "Why I Should Have Thought Through My 'Fitch The Homeless' Scheme For Two Minutes Before Releasing It To The World." Because I think two minutes is probably the max it should take to realize the glaring problems with Karber's video. Some of you may think, Yeah, but he was just trying to be funny. And true, the first tag on HuffPo's repost of the video is "Funny Videos." But I'm not sure it matters whether we're laughing at the idea or truly considering it an efficacious way of dealing with A&F's (to say nothing of the clothing industry at large) exclusionary agenda. The point is: all of this is happening at the exploitation of the homeless. And that's not funny.

I'm not sure how else to say this because it seems so obvious to me. Rather than starting (or even ending!) this whole charade with a serious question such as, "How are we going to fix the problems of economic inequality in this country?", we wait to become inflamed about an overblown issue such as "What Some CEO Dude Said Seven Years Ago" and then try to act like champions and crusaders for our generous response: "Not only am I an activist for boycotting A&F, but I'm a philanthropist for giving those unwanted clothes to the poor!" (This already reminds me of the problematic faux self-effacement of #firstworldproblems, but that's a post for another day.) To me, "Fitch the Homeless" is basically like saying "Eff the Homeless, because all I'm willing to do for you is give you some ratty used clothes in the service of giving a jerk CEO his comeuppance. That'll show him!" In fact, that's pretty much the tagline that shows up when someone posts the HuffPo article to Facebook (and I quote): "This'll Show Abercrombie & Fitch."

... show them what? That homeless people aren't cool and oh-haha-you-didn't-want-uncool-people-wearing-your-brand? 

Seriously, show them what

Not to mention, why are we more interested in "teaching a big corporation a lesson" based on some off-handed remarks made by its CEO than on helping the poor in meaningful ways in the first place?

I am all about fighting back against the ridiculous, nigh-unto-unattainable image of beauty and coolness projected and supported by so many companies worldwide. Go ahead, boycott A&F clothes! I have never purchased any in the first place. But I also don't plan on making Mike Jeffries' resurrected interview from 2006 the linchpin of my social activism. And even if that is your thing right now, does cavalierly throwing unwanted A&F clothing at unsuspecting homeless people with real problems in the service of creating his first viral video seriously make Greg Karber a beacon of social justice? 

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure the young Karber didn't have any malicious intentions when he made his video. I'm just saying he was being kind of thoughtless. And so are we. If we use homeless people as props in our little meme-induced gimmicks, I'm not sure we are morally superior to Mike Jeffries in his use of "cool kids" as mannequins in his exclusive brand. In both cases, people become marketing tools, and that means we're doing something wrong.