If you had to bet which brand of undies the Aussie girl next door wears, what would you put your money on? Her undies have to be cute, practical and unselfconscious, like she is. She’s nubile and rosy-cheeked in a way that invites lust while simultaneously disclaiming any knowledge of it – and her undies have to match.
Oh, right. Of course. Bonds.
Bonds has used this archetype in marketing for years, maybe more than any other brand. Its models, Aussie girls to the core, are smiling, not pouting; bouncing, not writhing; playful, not seductive. Paragons of wholesome white femininity. Miranda Kerr, not Iggy Azalea.
Except the newest face of Bonds is … Iggy Azalea.
Azalea’s claim to be the next official Aussie girl next door is a thin one. She grew up in Mullumbimby but moved to Los Angeles at 16 because she “never liked” the Australian hip-hop and rap scene.
And her relationship with her birth country would be the ultimate example of the cultural cringe if she hadn’t gone one step further and simply renounced the entire nation in favour of the US.
For her fans, many of them in the US, her Australianness is secondary to her whiteness, which she uses to enact black culture in pursuit of mainstream palatability.
She’s all of the noise and none of the street cred, the latest artist to take advantage of uncoded white neutrality to turn hip-hop, an art form with specific historical and political meanings, into something bland and non-threatening. This formula has worked as well for her in Australia as it has in the US.
She’ll shift units, even though her obnoxious racial politics and refusal of Australian identity make her about as far removed from Bonds’ usual girl next door, who is carefree, innocent and apolitical as you can get.
Again, a comparison with Miranda Kerr is instructive. Although she also lives in LA, Kerr maintains a purposeful respect for the Aussie-girl-come-good narrative, which insulates her from criticism.
She poses in Qantas cockpits and does shoots for David Jones on the beaches of Broome. She understands that to take advantage of the lucre that comes from being a “home-grown beauty,” she has to pay her tithe to the nation.
Maybe Azalea has proven this requirement no longer applies. If she can occupy an advertising niche defined entirely by one white Australian stereotype, while refusing to defer to it in the slightest, maybe the cultural cachet of the Aussie girl next door is dead.
Back in 2009, Bonds was trying to widen the range of bodies permitted to enact the bouncy-accessible-cute formula. At the same time, the brand was was sandbagging its status as the cute underwear of choice for regular gals by making their ads more racially diverse.
These ads were a kind of progress – a concession to the inclusive demands of modern liberal feminism, which sees the realms of marketing and entertainment as of the utmost importance, because they are sites from which representational equality will trickle down.
From this perspective, the death of the Aussie girl next door at Iggy Azalea’s hands isn’t a tragedy for the archetype, or for Bonds.
But is it a step back from the “inclusive” Bonds of 2009? Not quite. It’s simply a sign that we shouldn’t rely on business to create the progressive norms we want to see reflected in the rest of society, because what they choose to represent will always be dictated by the market.
Back in 2009 the Bonds branded needed to depict racial diversity. In the future sexual minorities, gender parity or disability might be the best way to market underwear, and that’s what they’ll depict.
Assessing this as the result of moral concern on the part of image creators is hopelessly naive. Bonds’ racial sensitivities haven’t backslid since their 2009 commercials because they never had any in the first place; you can’t anthropomorphise a brand.
They will always do whatever they think will sell more undies. If the constructed people and worlds they’re using to sell undies appear superficially liberal or tolerant, it’s a reaction to their customers’ changing tastes.
At no stage do Bonds, or companies like them, truly challenge the status quo. If Azalea alienates their consumers, they’ll get rid of her and use someone different.
Iggy Azalea is an obvious departure from their usual aesthetic and that choice might even have positive angles if you’re looking for them: I’ve heard her speak and rap, loudly, on multiple occasions, which, regardless of the content of her speech, could be read as a challenge. After all, the silent girl next door’s internal life is entirely in the imagination of those observing her.
But this sort of analysis leads to endless weighings of representation and impact, totally unmoored from the material differences between classes of people for which identity politics is supposed to be a remedy.
None of this is to say that pop culture is an empty or arbitrary focus of critical attention. Just that Azalea’s new job is a reminder that in order to have political potential, responses to pop culture must see it for what it is: reactive, rather than transforming.