Ironic cynicism is the hammer in many a comedian’s tool belt. This tool is something actress Lena Dunham uses with fervor, but it’s not always as effective as she intends to be.
In making fun of herself, Dunham really mocks those who degrade and objectify her. But this medium can also be misconstrued, potentially turning her unique method of empowerment into one of self-degradation. And that’s precisely what happened in her collaboration with fashion company Revolve in September, when they developed a campaign that was meant to support body positivity and feminism by playing off of familiar shaming comments on the internet.
Revolve is a billion-dollar fashion company frequented mainly by trendy women in their mid-20s who aren’t afraid to take a daring approach to style. The company was founded by two men, Michael Mente and Mike Karanikolas, with no initial celebrity endorsements, classifying the company as a self-made, moneymaking trendsetter. Nowadays, however, it has closely associated its brand with digital influencers.
Many influencers in the modern age actively make an effort to spread a positive message with their growing platforms, and by supporting them and integrating their perspectives into fashion, Revolve itself has the potential to spread a positive and empowering message.
For this goal of spreading body positivity, Revolve chose to work with Lena Dunham, a self-proclaimed feminist who has been compellingly honest throughout her career. This decision to produce empowering and socially conscious clothing is in itself a very worthwhile venture. But by using irony and sarcasm through nonverbal and mass media communication, Revolve has accidentally normalized the issues and stereotypes it was originally trying to dismantle.
Take, for example, the titular sweater from the new line, which was at the center of all the backlash. The light-gray “Paloma Sweatshirt” retailing at $168 reads, “Being fat is not beautiful, it’s an excuse.” First and foremost, the sweater is worn by a thin, white model, masking the original intended irony of the sweater. As a fashion company, Revolve should know the power of displaying statements like these to and on young women. It not only physically reminds us of the consistent criticism faced by women on social media every day; it also internalizes it. The irony behind this specific sweatshirt is completely lost when it is put into a mass-marketed context. It is not nuanced anymore — it is simply offensive.
Those who believe “fat is not beautiful” and that “it is an excuse” now have the ability to buy these sweaters in bulk and counter the very movement Revolve and Lena Dunham intended to create.
As Dunham stated in an Instagram post, the campaign’s quotations come from “prominent women who have experienced internet trolling and abuse.” Although the campaign was meant to serve as solidarity in the face of perpetual online bullying, this sweatshirt and other pieces, such as the one that says “Slut feminist nightmare,” standardize the use of potential trigger words. In an ideal world, words like these would lose their negative implications and be reclaimed as simple usages of speech. But at the moment, their association and use can not only be offensive but uncomfortable to bystanders, and the phrasing lacks the self-awareness the campaign was supposed to have.
In a way, Revolve’s campaign fuels the fire of internet hatred by showing the haters that influencers actually read their comments and, furthermore, gives free rein to other degraders to use similar language. The campaign doesn’t stand for an end to fat-shaming or derogatory anti-feminism, but rather gives unwarranted attention to the negativity. It’s worth noting that, as a company founded by two men, Revolve shouldn’t have ventured into creating this line based on experimental feminist comedy to begin with. There is a history of gender inequality and sexist struggle that backs words such as “slut” and “fat” when they are used in this context — a history that is uniquely understood by women. In this sense, Karanikolas and Mente lack the authority to tackle this line with genuine understanding.
In response to backlash, Revolve canceled any sales of the products and donated $20,000 to Girls Write Now, the same group that was originally supposed to receive the proceeds from the campaign. The company also issued an apology statement on its own social media. Dunham followed suit, taking to Instagram with a post proclaiming that in all upcoming television appearances, she would only be wearing “brands that cater to ALL women.”
It’s important that both Dunham and Revolve understand the consequences of their actions and the consequences of ironic and sarcastic approaches to sensitive topics. This sort of comedic allure on an individual scale can be both moving and insightful. But sarcastic irony is not implicit when it is not spoken. The tonality and intent are erased. All that is left are hurtful words. In Revolve’s case, what’s left of this campaign are the very same hurtful words that made the company want to help spark a movement in the first place.
Samantha Banchik covers fashion. Contact her at [email protected].