Faking it for Feminism


Generosity gets real with the artist-activists who posed as Victoria's Secret to promote sexual consent. Plus, all about their moving new project The Monument Quilt.

By Jessica Bizik

Hannah Brancato and Rebecca Nagle landed on Fast Company’s “100 Most Creative People” list in 2013 for an elaborate viral "panty prank" where they pretended to be Victoria’s Secret launching a [fake] collection of consent-themed undies bearing slogans like “No Means No” and “Ask First" via social media.  (Note: They’ve also posed as...not in...Playboy.)

Last month the MICA fiber arts alums were named two of “Five Activists to Watch”—along with Generosity Inc founder Jamie McDonald—in Baltimore magazine’s first-ever "future" themed issue

We took this opportunity to chat with the crafty movement-builders—asking them to reflect on their infamous culture-jamming experiment and share what’s new with FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, their grassroots organization that strives to reduce sexual abuse and help survivors heal.

How did the idea for the Victoria’s Secret hoax come about?
We did the prank to get new people talking about consent and avoid preaching to the choir. Basically we thought, ‘We want to have a conversation with Victoria’s Secret consumers, so let’s pretend to be Victoria’s Secret.’

The PINK Loves Consent website got more than 100,000 hits the first day and thousands of people tweeted the hashtag #loveconsent. Were you afraid of getting sued?
Thankfully, we had a very good lawyer.

How did you pick the slogans?
We contrasted Victoria’s Secret’s actual PINK product line that’s marketed toward middle-school and high-school girls. They use slogans like, ‘Sure Thing’ and ‘NO...’ in really big letters followed by ‘peeking’ in tiny letters.

Did fans feel betrayed when they realized they’d been duped?
When we did the reveal, people’s frustration wasn’t directed at us for having done the prank but more at Victoria’s Secret like, ‘Why wouldn’t you do this?’

You included minority and plus-size models in the campaign. Why was that important to you?
Feeling good about your body, no matter what size or shape it is, is really integral to the idea of consent and pleasure. We want to help re-frame what’s considered sexy, so it’s up to each individual to define what that means to them.

I bet lots of women wanted to buy the underwear!
They did, but launching a lingerie company isn’t one of our goals. So we released a DIY guide. Lots of college and community groups have started making their own underwear to raise money for consent campaigns.

Valentine's Day is a great time to revisit this project. Is it “over” for you—or do you find ways to go back to it?
If we did this project today, it would have to be totally different. Now there are actually websites where you can create your own spoof. We built ours from scratch. But the PINK Loves Consent website still gets about 100 hits a day.

Tell me about your more recent project: The Monument Quilt.
Communities across the country are engaging in this public art project by making quilt squares and hosting quilt-making workshops and public displays. We’ve had displays in 22 cities and gathered more than 1,000 survivor stories so far. The final vision is that the quilt will be displayed on the National Mall—covering a mile of the lawn with thousands of survivor stories to spell out ‘NOT ALONE.’

Images from The Monument Quilt, courtesy of FORCE [via Instagram @upsetting_rape]

Storytelling can have a profound impact on both the person who tells their story and the people who hear it.
Yes, by stitching our stories together, we are creating and demanding public space to heal. But we’re also working to forever change how Americans respond to rape. We are creating a new culture where survivors are publicly supported, rather than publicly shamed.

Your work must be incredibly emotional at times.
We stress self-care a lot and try to practice it ourselves. We also have a self-care guide on our website that our workshop facilitators—or anyone—can print out. It offers a checklist to help people evaluate how they’re feeling and offers some suggested remedies.

Note: This writer loves the idea of making a “chaos list” and will be adding it to her own self-care strategy.

Hannah, we were so pleased to see you were selected as one of this year's Open Society Institute-Baltimore community fellows. Our founder Jamie is on the OSI board.
It's a great opportunity. Rebecca and I are creating a new project called Gather Together, where 20 survivors will create a series of public events centered around healing and prevention in Baltimore. For example, we’ll be closing down North Avenue on April 9 for some type of performance or procession. [See the Facebook invite here.]

Are all 20 participants current activists or are some new to it?
They're all amazing folks who've been active in some respect. Two great examples would be Melani Douglass who created “Love on the Line” [a pop-up arts showcase held in a Baltimore laundromat] and jazz musician Ama Chandra who recently performed a show called “I Lived Dammit!” at the Creative Alliance [after a home invasion left her hospitalized for weeks]. Others have been advocates, hotline volunteers or have made an impact in other ways.

Can you offer any tips for wannabe changemakers on how to get the word out about their work? These days social media managers have to pay to "boost" nearly every Facebook post just to ensure it’s seen by their core audience. 
Sure. Go back to basic community organizing principles. We recently hosted a Survivors Town Hall where we asked every partner organization to turn out ten people. When we launched PINK Loves Consent, we started out by sending an email to 100 college students we’d connected with through other work. It creates a ripple effect.

How do you inspire people who haven’t been affected by a social issue—in this case, sexual abuse—to get involved?
Right now we live in a culture where the burden is on the survivor. It’s asking a lot of that human being to be a mouthpiece for an issue they didn’t even choose to be connected to. It just happened to them. We try to help people see that becoming part of that voice—and removing stigmas or labels for speaking out—will make our society better for everyone. 

>> To learn more about Hannah and Rebecca's work and upcoming events, visit themonumentquilt.org

p.s. To get inspired by other cool changemakers, check out WYPR's Midday interview with all ten of the new OSI-Baltimore fellows.