Panty Politics: Consumer Activism and Commodity Politics
In the annals of consumer activism, last week’s protest of Eurasian Economic Commission regulations may not seem especially momentous. Consumer movements have often been at the heart of consequential political moments: Nonimportation Agreements and the Boston Tea Party rejected state control of one of the American colonies’ most prized commodities; antebellum free labor stores lobbied for purchasing goods that were not produced by captive labor; and “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns by African Americans made consumer space a battleground for civil rights from the 1920’s onward. Last week that activist heritage was revisited by women gathered in Moscow, Kazakhstan, and Belarus to protest a Eurasian Economic Commission ban against the sale of underwear containing less than 6% cotton, which eliminates all lace lingerie. Thirty Kazakh women in Almaty were sent to jail while wearing panties on their head and chanting “freedom to panties.”
This may have somewhat different historical consequence than the Greensboro sit-ins, but it is symptomatic of the political meaningfulness invested in prosaic commodities and the way such things fuel contemporary political consciousness and activism. Things have always been moralized and politicized, but Jean-Christophe Agnew argues that in the second quarter of the 20th century Americans’ politics began to be articulated in consumption; Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America argues that American rights are measured by access to consumer goods despite the persistence of longstanding class, racist, and gendered barriers to such access. It is one thing to argue that a material thing like lingerie is politicized; it is another to suggest that our public political practice springs from consumption, that we articulate our rights and the state’s obligations in response to our material desires and consumer experiences.
On July 1st the Eurasian Economic Commission regulations will ban the sale of perhaps 90% of all lingerie sold in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. The regulations profess to ensure moisture absorption in a Russian underwear trade worth more than four billion dollars annually, and by one account about 80% of lingerie marketed in Russia is foreign-produced. Wary observers suggest that the commission’s trade regulations are part of Vladimir Putin’s effort to incorporate post-Soviet neighbors in a political and consumer union; taken alone, lace panties are trivial, and most Western media reported this simply as resistance to state control of underwear sales. In a broader picture, though, as blogger Dina Baidildayeva has reported, such policies are part of a Russian state effort to re-integrate countries like the Ukraine, which is resisting Russian domination in the ongoing Euromaidan riots.
Lingerie may have some distinctions from other goods in their literal public invisibility, with their symbolism intimately linked to the personal imagination of self and sexuality. Lingerie often reflects adherence to prevailing notions of femininity, class, and beauty, but the meanings of underwear are expressed as soliloquies rather than public theater. Christian Jantzen, Per Østergaard, and Carla M. Sucena Vieira define women’s intimate apparel as “both a symbol and a tool of identity” expressing a publicly condoned sense of femininity even as it provides a mechanism to imagine desirability, sexuality, and pleasure. Once derided as an instrument of patriarchal discipline, lingerie is today coded in much of the world as a “feminine” consumer reserve in a society that remains “masculine” in character.
In a global economy it is not especially surprising to find comparable material patterns across market divisions; yet lingerie reveals the comparable desires expressed across cultural and nationalist lines, particularly the imagination of ones’ own desirability. The Russian business magazine Lingerie and Tights found that Russia’s 17 million middle-class women spent an average of 234 € ($324 US) on lingerie each year, well beyond the 90 € average in Europe (Russia’s 30 million women classed as poor spent an annual average of 44.5 € [$61 US]). Moscow alone has over 10,000 retail outlets marketing intimate apparel, including many pricy boutiques.
The increasingly inevitable reach of consumption into the former Soviet Union makes advertising executive Bruce Barton‘s post-war view of the Soviet Union seem quite prescient; in the wake of World War II, the ad executive and two-term Republican Representative suggested that the way to defeat communism was to “give every Russian a copy of the latest Sears-Roebuck Catalogue and the address of the nearest Sears-Roebuck outlet.” In 1949 Barton’s cocky propaganda proposal moved Robert C. Ruark to re-examine the Sears catalog, and Ruark concluded that “the untold wealth of America is not hoarded in its banks, forests, and mines. Much of it lies, acquiescent, in the Sears catalog, just panting for the peasants to rip out the handy order blank and mail it in, satisfaction guaranteed.”
The Russian crowds had their political consciousness charged by a state assault on their otherwise personal and largely unexpressed material desires, dubbing their protest “Panties for the President.” The activism defending lace lingerie was a politics formulated in the marketplace and fueled by an otherwise commonplace commodity, and the protesters may be part of a movement that will see the synthetic underwear code quietly overturned. Nevertheless, we might question the transformations wrought by those concrete consequences: if synthetic panties are once more for sale in tony Moscow shops, has that protest led to any significant change, or has it perhaps amplified the reach of the marketplace? Consumer politics can truly advocate for sweeping structural changes that reach beyond consumer space: for instance, the “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaign was focused on securing employment for African Americans, not simply on capturing a toehold for Black shoppers. The promise of a continued supply of intimates in Russia may not necessarily change inequalities in the former Soviet Union; it may reproduce existing inequalities or even amplify them; but it might also be part of a movement that dramatically challenges Russia’s reach beyond Moscow and not simply into the lingerie drawer.
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Many of the Western media images came from Dina Baidildayeva’s coverage of the protests on her Twitter feed
Underwear cap and protesting girl images from Dina Baidildayeva
Underwear protest image from BBC
Almaty (Kazakhstan) protest image from vlast.kz