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Moni Basu, CNN


CNN) - Joz Wang doesn't buy things at Victoria's Secret - overpriced, she says, though she occasionally strolls through the store known for racy lingerie sported on runways and in catalogs by sexy, sultry models.

But even if she could spare the money, Wang, founder of an influential Asian-American blog, might be tempted to stay away from Victoria's Secret for the moment. At least until she gets an answer to what the clothing company was thinking when it launched its recent "Go East" collection.

One particular number in the collection - the "Sexy Little Geisha" - raised eyebrows, especially from the Asian-American community. Many found it offensive and accused Victoria's Secret of exploiting sexual stereotypes of Asian women.

You can't find the image of "Sexy Little Geisha" on the Victoria's Secret website anymore. Apparently, it and the entire "Go East" line vanished after the online firestorm.

But several blogs posted the catalog picture of a voluptuous blonde model in a sheer mesh teddy with cutouts and strategically placed Asian floral patterns.

Wang could see why the getup was called racist.

It was, after all, a hyper-representation of the geisha girl with chopsticks in her hair and fan in hand. Seriously, asked Wang. Chopsticks in the bedroom? It could make a great costume for Halloween or perhaps even a bad porn movie, she thought. But as lingerie?

"Part of me says: maybe they’re just clueless," said Wang, a co-editor of the blog 8Asians.

She said Victoria's Secret has not used Asian models very much - in their catalogs or on their runways. So, its plausible that they just didn't know.

"Then there’s another part of me that’s more cynical – this is a sexy little controversy to get people intentionally riled up."

Others were less generous.

The blog Racialicious decried some of the catalog descriptions, calling the “Sexy Little Geisha” a perversion of its reference.

Racalicious contributor Nina Jacinto wrote:

"When someone creates a collection like this, making inauthentic references to 'Eastern culture' (whatever that means) with hints of red or a fan accessory or floral designs, it reinforces a narrative that says that all Asian cultures – and their women – are exotic, far away but easy to access. It’s a narrative that says the culture can be completely stripped of its realness in order to fulfill our fantasies of a safe and non-threatening, mysterious East.

"But when a company takes it one step further by developing a story about how the clothes can offer a sort of escape using explicit sexualized and exploitive language, it takes the whole thing to another level. It’s a troubling attempt to sidestep authentic representation and humanization of a culture and opt instead for racialized fetishizing against Asian women."

The fury started, apparently, with a post on the blog Angry Asian Man.

"Have you seen Victoria's Secret's new Go East line of lingerie? Yup. Asian-inspired. With "touches of eastern delight," whatever the hell that means.

"This one above's probably the worst of the bunch, called Sexy Little Geisha. Seriously. And it's not even Halloween yet. Yaaaay, hooray for exotic orientalist b--t."

Angry Asian Man's Facebook page acquired a collection of comments:

Devika Srivastava wrote: "Exoticism, the ultimate insult. Dummies."

Tressa Berman wrote: "The new Orientalism a la mode."

The story was also picked up by Bust, a women's pop culture magazine.

The Bust reporter said she rushed over to the Victoria's Secret website only to discover that the "Sexy Little Geisha," and the “Go East” Collection had vanished.

"Excited by the possibility that all “Go East” merchandise had been collected from Victoria’s Secret stores and warehouses under cover of night and burned in a ritualistic fire to banish the racism and exploitation, I looked up their press contact. Of course, the press office didn’t confirm my fantasy version of what had happened, and instead suggested that the product had sold out. (I had asked specifically about the “Sexy Little Geisha,” the piece in the collection that seemed to piss people off the most.) However, when pressed, they couldn’t confirm that the piece had, in fact, sold out. Nor could they explain why an error message comes up on the website even for a general search of the phrase “go east.”

Bust pointed out that there wasn't necessarily anything wrong with a clothing company incorporating Japanese patterns.

"That in itself isn’t racism, it’s globalization," Bust said.

But, "considering the complicated history of geishas, repurposing the 'look' for a major corporation to sell as role-playing lingerie seems a bit tasteless," it said.

The Frisky, another women-centric website, agreed.

"Again, 'Sexy Little Geisha' is part of a 'Go East' line, which, again, is not in-and-of-itself racist. This particular execution just makes me, well, want to execute myself," The Frisky writer said.

Asian women have long been typecast in Western society. Think the Dragon Lady, the China Doll.

Nor is it the first time a retailer has come under fire for stereotyping Asians.

In 2002, an Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt featured two Chinese laundry workers with conical hats and the phrase: "Wong Brothers Laundry Service: Two Wongs Can Make It White." Another shirt image showed a smiling Buddha and read "Buddha Bash: Get Your Buddha on the Floor."

Abercrombie & Fitch said it never intended to offend anyone. They just wanted to add a bit of humor.

Problem was that Asians were not smiling. The retailer yanked the controversial T-shirts off store racks after the Organization of Chinese Americans called them racially insensitive.

Urban Outfitters encountered the same opposition when it issued its line of  "Everybody Loves..." shirts. As in "Everyone Loves an Asian Girl." There were Jewish, Catholic, Latin and others, too.

Everyone, however, didn't love Urban Outfitters.

Navajo Nation sues Urban Outfitters for alleged trademark infringement

The buzz is greater now, said Wang, because lots of people are using social media and websites to rail against Victoria's Secret.

"I think this has caught fire, especially with Asian American women, who are having to overcome exotic stereotypes."

Asian-American women have had to find their own sexual identities outside of the stereotypes. It did not sit well to see "something that was so overtly Orientalist and exploitational," Wang said.

Victoria's Secret's silence on the matter has probably helped fan the flames. A CNN call to a company publicist was not returned Wednesday.

Wang found it interesting that the Victoria's Secret model wearing the "Sexy Little Geisha" was not Asian, but white. A few years ago, the company drew fire for a fashion show segment in which black models wore body paint and African-themed wraps.

Cornell University's Minh-Ha Pham, an academic whose research focuses on the convergences of race, gender, fashion and social media, said it was significant that the model was obviously white.

The image was a version of racial drag that has a long history in the United States, said Pham, curator of the blog Of Another Fashion. "Playing Oriental" can be traced back to 1900s Vaudeville stages, where playing out fantasies of racial exoticism (as a way of dealing with racial anxieties) was a wildly popular cultural activity.

"That Victoria's Secret produced such a line based on racial drag makes a kind of sense in that lingerie is so much about fantasy and fetish," Pham said. "Playing Oriental is clearly a part of that wheelhouse."

Pham found Victoria's Secret not to be very fashion-forward.

"I mean, is there anything worse than a stale fetish?" asked Pham. "This has been my gripe about racial provocations in fashion. They're often so boring."

What struck Wang when she looked at the photo was that it so went against Victoria's Secret's brand of modern clothes for modern women. It was so, well, 30 years ago.

For the time being anyway, Victoria's Secret is not a brand that speaks to Wang. After "Sexy Little Geisha," she is hardly alone.

Source :

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