A few weeks ago it was reported by numerous sources that Cameron Diaz had made a serious political fashion faux pas in Peru. Diaz was photographed carrying a bag which sported the Maoist slogan “Serve the People” in Chinese while visiting Machu Picchu; this happened to be offensive to a number of Peruvians, who remembered the Maoist Shining Path insurgency which killed approximately 70,000 people in the 80s and 90s (see photos here). While Diaz has publicly apologized for her poor choice and most people are willing to write it off as simply another “dumb actress” demonstrating her good-natured idiocy, there’s actually a lot to unpack here.
First, there’s the confluence of fashion and politics. While we don’t usually ascribe political statements to our clothing, there are certain cases when fashion causes considerable controversy; the scandal caused by the dress of this year’s Mexican Miss Universe contestant is a great example. While one side defended the choice for the sake of fashion and a certain image of Mexico, others found it to contain incredibly offensive messages. The fact is, everything we buy and wear signifies something about us and contributes to our performance of class, race, gender, or any number of things. More often than not, our fashion decisions have a history and signification that we can’t comprehend (see this clip from The Devil Wears Prada). The potentially violent or controversial connotations of fashion are heightened because clothing, as we wear it, tells a story about our bodies. It shows or hides our form, reveals or conceals our skin. And unfortunately, it often sends messages we do not intend.
A few weeks ago, for instance, I was in a bar in Estonia which happened to be filled with rowdy male English soccer fans. I had bought a cute top just that day and had naturally decided to wear it out that night with my friends. As soon as I walked into that place, however, I became incredibly conscious of the gazes from the older men around me. I realized I was being unabashedly oogled and harassed because my clothing was sending a message about my gender and sexual availability/vulnerability that I had in no way intended. Of course, this is not an unfamiliar story; it exists in media products of all kinds and can be found in nearly every woman’s experience (much to our chagrin- see the films War Zone and Hey…Shorty).
In the case of celebrity, male or female, public scrutiny at an incredibly high level is to be expected. Their lives are photographed, analyzed, and offered to millions/billions of people for approval or disapproval. I don’t want to let Diaz off the hook for her mistake; certainly, her choice was in poor taste and offended a number of people, not to mention an entire culture, and it is her responsibility to consider what messages her clothing sends. However, it seems a little too easy to tear her down for a choice that many of us, admittedly, would make. What worries me especially is the way that some have used this snafu to accuse Diaz of evil Communist sympathies or criticize her for other reasons. Over at The Free Republic blog, for example, Diaz is slammed for being unattractive without makeup and a “hollywood has been trying to get attention” while other user comments rant on everything from PETA to hippies, Hillary Clinton, Che t-shirts, and the Macy’s logo. Somewhere along the line, talking about the deaths of Shining Path takes a backseat to a vague notion of some perceived Hollywood liberal (Jewish?) communist conspiracy . . .
Ironically, however, this whole incident should say more about the capitalistic, touristic way celebrities (and Westerners in general) approach travel in other parts of the world than any Communist tendencies they harbor. Diaz bought the offending bag a souvenir in China, and caused the controversy while vacationing in Peru. Truth be told, if she had taken that bag to the streets of the United States, not too many people would have been the wiser. And we wouldn’t be talking about Peru or the Shining Path insurgency at all. Sadly, it took a celebrity’s unintended political statement abroad to make that incident even a blip on the radar screen of our pop culture.