Monday, December 12, 2011

Update on H&M (aka a Twitter Christmas Story)

Just a little update on my open letter H&M from a rape survivor, which has traveled farther and wider than I could possibly have imagined - i.e. to The Wall Street Journal.  Yes, that Wall Street Journal (I asked the same question at first.)

How did this happen, you ask?  

Because of my mammoth Rolodex of high-up media personalities and my clout in the fashion world?  No!  Because of one person, Nadine Lerner, aka @bluedogzdesign on Twitter.  I've never met Nadine - something I hope to rectify soon - but she sent the story to Christina Binkley, the style writer for the WSJ.

Christina wrote:

[Natalie Karneef] looks at the retailer’s commercial effort in stark terms with disturbing connotations, more as a rape-survivor-with-a-dragon-tattoo collection than cute affordable clothes aimed at style-conscious young people.
Karneef asks if the Swedish retailer  has considered how rape survivors approach the task of dressing, ever-after second-guessing their own choices of skirt length and neckline.
You can see the entire WSJY story here.                                     

Because of this, H & M sent out a public response to my letter.  It said:

We have read the open letter by Natalie Karnefwe [sic] apologize if she or anyone has been offended by the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo collection by Trish Summerville – this has not in any way been our intent.  The collection is based on and inspired by the film and character Lisbeth Salander and though we think Lisbeth is a strong woman who stands up for her ideal,  we are not trying to represent her specifically.  Our goal is to rather offer a collection that we see in today’s trend picture that will appeal to many customers.   We do not view this collection as provocative-it contains pieces that are staples in many people’s wardrobes: jeans, biker jackets and t-shirts.  It’s all about how you wear them.  We encourage our customers to find their own personal way to wear our products.

... which is pretty much the bullshit response you'd expect, but still.  People tweeted, people Facebooked, people talked.  Maybe some people will think twice before going in and dropping cash on an American flag t-shirt that looks like it's been run over by an 18-wheeler - not that that's the point.

The point is that we need to pay attention to mainstream messages about rape, and that one person - Nadine - made all the difference in this story reaching 100 people, vs. however many thousand read the WSJ website.  And who read, who picked up the story, too, asking if the Dragon Tattoo collection trivializes the experience of rape survivors.  And who read a site called The Tattooed Girl. My "resistance" was mentioned again in a new WSJ story that came out today, as the release date of the collection approaches.  (H&M's words to live by: "We don't stand behind the violence or the harshness but the look is very cool.")

This post is for Nadine, and for you.  No, we haven't changed the world.  But maybe we've changed a few minds.  

(photo of Nadine and her daughter courtesy of


  1. Really? Equating H&M's Tattoo collection with exploiting rape survivors? Really? What a load of codswallop. I don't want to diminish the impact of rape but that is exactly what you have done by postulating that H&M is exploiting rape victims through this collection. And then when I look at, I'm greeted with an image of reclining woman, legs in the air, wearing a pair of what some people would call "fuck-me" pumps. My 14-year-old daughter loves H&M and instead of giving her a $50 gift card, I'm going to bump it to $100. Don't be afraid of this kind of nonsense, H&M! Even if the WSJ publishes this tripe in an effort to cash in on some sensationalistic balderdash, we're smarter than that. Sheesh. Patrick Gelinas

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Dear Patrick Gelinas,
    Firstly, never once did I postulate that H&M is exploiting rape victims. What I said in my piece, if you actually read it, is that women should be free to wear whatever they want - including, as you so eloquently put it, "fuck-me" pumps. My point was that basing a fashion collection based on the clothing choices of a woman who has experienced abuse and rape is sending the wrong message. Hopefully your daughter is more intelligent than you.

  4. Patrick, why don't don't you show your daughter what you wrote here? I bet she would be real proud of her dear old dad.

  5. Natalie, your original story ran in today's (12/13/11) Montreal Gazette.

    Thousands more got to read your powerful and insightful piece.

  6. I have some H&M clothes. As far as mens clothing goes, they fit pretty well and they were affordable. They also don't glamorize the struggles of rape survivors. So, Patrick, buy your daughter that gift certificate. I dont think Natalie has suggested a boycott of H&M. But maybe you could show your daughter some wardrobe choices that are appropriate for her age and that make her feel comfortable and confident. Hopefully she never feels she has to wear ugly clothes out of fear for her safety. Hopefully one day companies will learn not to profit from this type of distasteful analogy. - Geoff

  7. Here, here Geoff! I have never been more depressed than the day I saw a store selling young girls' t-shirts emblazon with the slogan "Future Footballer's Wife". If I'd had a marker pen handy I'd have scrawled 'Doctor', 'Lawyer', 'Nobel Prize Winner' on some! So yes, age appropriate, comfortable and confidence building clothes sounds right to me. Which means there are definitely places and times in a woman's life when 'kitten heels' are appropriate too. Beth

  8. curious? lisbeth wore the same clothes prior to her being raped and as the novels continue she actually sheds her more hard edge fashion by taking out her piercings and dressing "softer" for lack of a better word ... so i mean what about that in relation to what you are saying it sort of contradicts it ... her style choices stem not from the attack in the book it isn't like she starts dressing that way afterwards

  9. Natalie, the only thing offensive is you and your pushy, attention seeking actions. The only thing I, a twice-over rape survivor (two unrelated occasions, two unrelated asshole men, two horribly traumatic events forever scarred on me), truly found to be offensive is you.

    Let me break it down for you. I loved the books. I loved the movies. I have been violently raped twice, both by the time I was 21. And I just bought over $300 worth of the Dragon Tattoo collection. I rarely ever spend a single dime on clothing, but this line really captured my style. I love the way they look on me. I love the way the clothes make me feel, kinda tough and bad-ass. It's just a STYLE of clothing. Grow up.Get over it.

    Listen, for your own health, find someway to get over it. It's nice to see you don't blame yourself for the terrible thing that happened to you - but don't waste your life blaming everyone else. It's just as unhealthy only you bring other people down with you.

  10. To the commenter who is a rape survivor:
    I am so, so sorry to hear what you've been through. I can't imagine the horror you must have survived, not to mention the repercussions it's caused in your life.
    I'm sorry, too, that you're experiencing my letter as a cry for attention. Going public about being a survivor of sexual violence, and all the legal proceedings that have followed, has been my way of dealing with what happened to me. I also do it because I want what happened to me to come to some good - for people to be aware that rape does happen, and to create public dialogue in a society which has a lot of skewed views about sexual violence.
    I wish you peace, strength and all the best.

  11. Hi Genevieve,
    Thank you for weighing in! I haven't read the books - I'm basing my assessment on the Swedish version of the first film, which I assume the American version follows.
    And you're right: Lisbeth wore the same clothes prior to her being raped. However, after watching the film, the impression I was left with was of a character who had been abused, raped, and who was bent on revenge - someone who's consumed with anger and very screwed up. To me, to associate this character in this film with one fashion line is saying, "Let's celebrate and wear the clothes of an angry, vendetta-carrying, raped, parentally-abused person."

  12. the clothing that lisbeth wears in the book and in both movie versions is her style before she was raped. it's who she was to begin with, not sure how H&M is out of line.

  13. i'd like to add since i read the comment that you have not read the books-i encourage you to do so- all three-lisbeth proves she is NOT to be triffled with by anyone.

  14. I'm in agreement with Genevieve. While you said you watched the Swedish films, I wonder if you watched all of them? Because while the rape scene in Tattoo is the most sexually violent of what happens to Lisbeth, it is not the only thing in her life. It even isn't the most defining thing in her life. It is not what forces her to dress the way she does. IMO she dresses the way she does because she is, and always has been, a severe introvert and uses her clothing to keep people at arm's length. While I can appreciate that the wrong message may be sent, I don't agree that it is. If you ask most fans of the books and movies to descrive Lisbeth they won't say "rape victim." They'll say hacker, intelligent, introverted, bad-ass, fearless, resourceful, sarcastic, savant. In fact I'd never describe her as a victim. She actively controls her own life - even after horrible things happen to her. And she should be celebrated as such.

  15. Hi Lydia,

    Thank you! I do plan to read the books, especially after all this.

    And yes, I acknowledge that this is the style of clothing she wore before she was raped. To me, it's the cumulative impact of the character in the film, not the specific chronology of what happened to her and when.

    At the end of the original (Swedish) film, the impression that you’re left with of a character, who has been abused, who’s been raped by a man, who is bent on revenge – who is consumed with anger and very fucked up. To me, to specifically associate this character in this film with one fashion line is to celebrate this character, who is angry, carries a vendetta, and was raped and abused.

    You also see, from her character, that she's not able to form relationships with men, or really with anyone.

    Thanks for your comments.

  16. Hi Leah,

    Thanks for your comments.

    I'd like to say, first, that I never referred to Lisbeth as a victim. My intention was to have people think about who Lisbeth is - and what she's gone through to be that person - before celebrating her. Clearly you've done this, and I'm glad to hear it.

    I didn't watch all of the films. But as the American film is based on the first Swedish film, and the clothing line is inspired by that, I felt it was important to recall that in that story, Lisbeth is herself going after a serial rapist and killer of women. I feel that sexual assault and gender violence is the strongest undercurrent of the film. I don't think it's the sole reason for the way she dresses, but the impression I was left with after seeing the film is that this is a film that is about abuse, rape and revenge, and this is a line of clothing associated with the film. It's also important to remember that the story was inspired from the author's witnessing of a gang rape.

    Thank you, again, for your comments and thoughts.

  17. I think what Lydia, Leah, and Genevieve are missing here is that Lisbeth was raised in an environment where she saw her mother brutally abused by a man...this abuse included rape...and this, no doubt, did affect the way Lisbeth dressed, wishing to keep the world away and never to reveal her inner character. The original title of "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is "Män som hatar kvinnor"...this translates from Swedish in English to "Men Who Hate Women" and as we know from both the novel and the movie, Lisbeth sets fire to the man who abused her is clear that this history of abuse is a huge part of what drives her in everything she does. Personally, Natalie, I think you are on to something here. I'm glad you were brave enough to share your feelings on the H & M line and what you felt were its implications. It most definitely gave me something to think about. Thank you for that! And please don't let this experience stop you from sharing your perspective on things...yes, there will be some who disagree, many vehemently so...but there will be just as many who will stop to meditate over your words just as I have. Blessings to you!

  18. Thank you for this insight - and for your excellent point. One of the most important things about this story IS the original title.

    And thanks for your encouragement!

  19. Dear Natalie,
    As a rape victim myself (20 years ago this year), I can sympathize with your feelings on this. However, I don't agree. Because Lizbeth Salander chose to wear this style does nothing to reflect her sexually violent past. Personally, I know many people who choose to dress this way for the sake of doing it. I believe you are reading far too much into H&M's choice of clothing line. If anything, I think you would be far more disturbed by the barely there bikini's and high-heel pumps in our childrens' clothing sizes. Personally I don't want to see my 5 year old dressing like she's 18. I don't want to see 18 year-olds dressing like they are ready to swing around a pole! However, you attack a clothing line that at least covers up a girl's (or woman's) greatest assets without leaving one's thoughts open to imagination. H&M's clothing line is almost non-gender. Leave it alone.

  20. Poor Patrick Gelinas & his daughty

  21. David: Dear Nadine, However the adds etc. struck you is valid for you and that is what matters most here. I am sorry there is not more empathy for you. The $ motivated responns of H&M is typical of the materialistic and brutal side of our culture. Me first!