‘Callout culture’ is literally what it sounds like. A culture that is structured around mass criticism, usually of famous people or events. While callout culture is in no way new – Shakespeare cemented it as an art form – it has proliferated recently with the growth of vocal social media communities.
Many social analysts see this as a problematic trend, one that too easily morphs into cyber harassment and online witch-hunts.
However, it can also be a force for the good. It has merged with many transgressive social movements, such as the body positivity, anti-racism, and pro-diversity communities, that are prevalent online.
And with free speech becoming increasingly diminished in both the traditional media and politics, perhaps callout culture is the weapon the people need. Used well against deserving targets, it can be the democratic alternative the people are lacking.
It has already proved its worth. Take Victoria’s Secret, a retailer that has been historically criticised for its sexism and lack of diversity. Continuing the controversy, the most recent scandal came after the last televised catwalk. As usual, it was a shameless parade of homogenous beauty standards. Thin, (mostly) white, young models, placed in a dizzying mix of infantilising and sexualising outfits. It’s a capitalist utopia, combining entertainment with unrealistic beauty standards to ensure the audience feels insecure yet inspired enough to buy the garish garments.
The restrictive beauty standards that these shows display have been criticised, virtually since day one. But the Victoria’s Secret PR team intensified the hatred by defending their choice of not including any trans or plus-size models, as not fitting into the ‘fantasy’ the show creates. Implying, in essence, that trans and plus-size people are not worthy of being part of this, that they are undesirable to the extreme that if they were included it would reveal the show for the mundanity it is.
And the people did not take it well – not at all. The comments were insensitive, hurtful and disrespectful. But, in an economic sense, they were also very stupid. VS has been losing business rapidly with the entrance of transgressive, inclusive competitors, such as Fenty. To directly undermine inclusivity – what is selling and popular in mass culture today – was the stupidest thing the company could have done. And whilst the store has been losing capital for years, change only came with this scandal – precisely because of the public outcry it garnered.
Due to the huge amount of complaints and public comments, the CEO – Jan Singer – announced her resignation at the start of last week. And we could discuss the gender dynamic of this, which is certainly notable. A female CEA had to resign due to the comments made by her male colleague, Chief Marketing Officer Ed Razek. This is notable but, sadly, symptomatic of the sexist politics of business.
But we should celebrate this for the success it was, despite its gendered nature. It shows how dynamic and effective the public voice can be. Maybe this represents the less malicious side of callout culture. If targeted at huge conglomerates instead of individuals, callout culture can be used for democratic purposes. The people can wield their consumer voice to change the companies they are dissatisfied with. Maybe this signals a change. Maybe Victoria’s Secret is that capitalism is more dependent on the consumers than we thought.