In the midst of a revenue death spiral, a withering public debate over its lack of diversity and the resignation of the brand’s CEO of lingerie, the annual Victoria’s Secret fashion show was broadcast Sunday night with its usual array of long-legged models, bedazzled bras and celestial wings. The cast of models ranged from Adriana Lima, walking her final runway for the brand, to newer faces such as Winnie Harlow and Instagram powerhouses Kendall Jenner and the Hadids, both Bella and Gigi. Everyone was in top form — the female equivalents of Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man come to life.
The executives at Victoria’s Secret may have found the perfect way to silence the many critics of its annual fashion show — by proving that it means absolutely nothing in the landscape of television entertainment. The models are still homogeneous in body type. They are still treated like show ponies. But the one-hour TV special was such a nonevent of excruciating cliches and non-sexiness that it’s not worth a cultural renovation. It’s a teardown. Or we could all just get out of the way and let it rot until it falls down on its own.
How mightily the producers tried to argue that the show was still a major event. They flew Lima in a helicopter over Manhattan to squeal as the top of the Empire State Building was lit up with pink lights in honor of the brand — as if the lighting of the tower was something rare and momentous when, in fact, the skyscraper’s lights are in constant illuminated rotation through the color wheel. In other behind-the-scenes videos, the models squeal when hearing they’ve booked the Victoria’s Secret show. They squeal when they see their costumes. Everything is empowering — including, presumably, squealing.
Confidence and self-actualization come to each of us in different ways. For some, it may well be nestled in a pair of psychedelic leggings, a cropped top and a pair of four-inch heels worn and strutted to the sound of a cheering crowd. A woman might feel like some kind of Amazon warrior after having CrossFit her way to a 12-pack of abs; she may delight in bragging about those abs by wearing a string bikini and gladiator stilettos before a live audience. In another behind-the-scenes video, which could actually have been longer because it was the most interesting bit of the production, viewers learn how hard the models worked to prepare for the show: the pulls-ups, the squats, the box jumps. Let us applaud those abs, the sculpted legs, the tight derrieres. After all, who has not eyed the lady at the gym with legs of a cross-country runner and quietly asked for her secret. She gives you an elaborate recipe of cardio and protein shakes, and you know in your heart the real answer is “genes.” But you add a few more sumo squats to your circuit because, well, you never know.
Yes, the Victoria’s Secret fashion show is a fantasy about a particular kind of body, and a good percentage of the culture is now offended by this, calling that fantasy corrosive, discriminatory and simply outdated. The outrage ramped up even more this year after Ed Razek, the company’s head of marketing, said in an interview in Vogue that it would be off-brand to include plus-size and transgender models. Critics called for a boycott. They accused Razek of being out-of-touch and sexist. Razek apologized for his comments. But the casting didn’t change.
You’d think Victoria’s Secret would have made sure this show was exciting and captivating — a sort of good-faith argument in favor of its stubborn commitment to marketing-as-usual. Instead, executives produced a show in which the models paraded down the runway like dusty showgirls blowing kisses and drawing hearts in the air, with one model practically indistinguishable from another. The performers (Halsey, who Instagrammed her regret at participating, Rita Ora, Shawn Mendes, etc.) were the center of attention, but they couldn’t really cut loose onstage because they were hemmed in by a steady stream of high-fiving models wearing outlandish underwear — underwear that was not particularly sexy, sophisticated or cool. No matter how many pairs of wings, crescent moons and multicolored parachutes are on the runway, Victoria’s Secret is still selling bras and panties. And they are a mess.
If the show is all about empowered models, why not identify them by name when they appear onstage? Or is anonymity part of the fantasy? If some of these women can attract millions of Instagram followers just by posting selfies from elevators, imagine the thrill Victoria’s Secret might be able to gin up if it really made the show about connecting with these women — not in some earnest, substantial way, of course, but in a gleefully superficial, faux-intimate, social media-enhanced way that would be perfect for television.
It may be that the company was so focused on defending its casting against those who call it anachronistic that it forgot that the whole argument becomes moot if the show is so boring that it’s unwatchable. Greater diversity would be welcome, but it can’t save Victoria’s Secret from its own self-destruction.