In the annals of awful but mystifyingly popular TV rituals, the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show had no match. It just happened, there was an annual splutter of hyperactive coverage and then it returned the following year. An invented tradition, it was watched and written about by people who should be ashamed of themselves.
Well, now it’s dead. Dead as doornails. For 16 years, the wretched thing aired in CBS in late November or early December and more recently it was back on ABC, which should also be ashamed of itself. People stopped watching, you see. In fairness, the audience wasn’t reduced to zero. About 3.3 million viewers in the United States watched it last year. When the comically inept TV concoction – an infomercial with a broadcaster picking up the costs – started airing in 2001, it had 12.7 million viewers.
We are witness to a cultural disruption moment. Me, I’d like to think there’s something to relish in the announcement of the cancellation coming on the same day that Fiona Hill, the former U.S. National Security Council official and consummate authority figure, lectured a bunch of mostly male politicians about the uses of “fictional narratives.”
Also, for good measure, the announcement comes in the same week that the repulsive Prince Andrew was withdrawn from circulation by his mom, the Queen. As The New York Times has reported, the head of the lingerie company’s corporate owner had close personal and financial ties to Jeffrey Epstein.
The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show always peddled a fictional narrative. One that framed the holidays as a time for women to purchase ludicrously skimpy and uncomfortable underwear and get upholstered in other items that included a lot of padding and gel. This tawdry fiction was peddled on a TV special by universally tall, thin models traipsing up and down a runway with absurdly large wings attached to their backs.
This spectacle would have been comical had it not been both tacky and dangerous. One long-time Victoria’s Secret model, Adriana Lima, told the Daily Telegraph in 2011 that for nine days before the show, she would drink only protein shakes, with absolutely “no solids” in her diet. She even cut down on her intake of water. Last year, a writer in The Guardian accurately referred to the annual show as “this circus of competitive anorexia.”
We are better than that now as a society. While the company’s corporate owner, L Brands Inc., has said it intends to “evolve the marketing of Victoria’s Secret,” there was a social-media backlash when the company’s head of marketing said it would not include transgender or plus-sized models because Victoria’s Secret was selling “a fantasy,” something larger is going on. The rise of athletic wear makes Victoria’s Secret apparel look particularly ridiculous, an anomaly in a shifting, inevitable reframing of body image and strength.
Besides, about 50 of the company’s stores closed in the U.S. this year and about 30 last year. You could argue this is all about a shift to online shopping, yet it seems more plausible that the company is simply out of date, out of touch and obsolescent.
It had a curious history on TV, though. The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Special first aired in 2001 on ABC. A flurry of complaints went to the Federal Communications Commission about its alleged “indecency,” and the National Organization for Women called the special a “soft-core porn infomercial.” Burned by the controversy, the Disney-owned ABC dropped the show. CBS picked it up and ran it until last year. That’s when ABC returned as the broadcaster.
Although ratings had been in steady decline, ABC was interested in one thing only – the audience for the special, it turned out, was now mostly young women aged 18-24. With a lineup of series such as Grey’s Anatomy mainly aimed at that audience, ABC was looking to please that demographic. It didn’t exactly work out. The 2018 special on ABC had two million fewer viewers than the 2017 special on CBS.
It’s impossible to ask all those young women viewers why they lost interest. But we can try to extrapolate. Perhaps a cultural shift changed the experience of watching it from mildly embarrassing to toxic. Perhaps the women realized that the Victoria’s Secret marketing claim, that its products and TV specials were “empowering,” was the insultingly cynical conception it always was. Perhaps in a time of #MeToo and #TimesUp, the tawdriness became suddenly explicit.
It would be unwise for me, a male critic, to speculate further. But I’ll say this: At a time when the idea of “cancel culture” is part of the zeitgeist, this annual TV fandango was literally cancelled. Good. One more fictional narrative debunked.