Illustration by Claire Merchlinsky
This article appears in our 2016 Fall issue, Kids These Days. Subscribe today!
In 2015, Lena Dunham, along with a bevy of other Hollywood actresses du jour, signed a petition against an Amnesty International proposal seeking to decriminalize sex work. On Twitter, she referred her fans to an article by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in which he championed the work of antitrafficking advocate Somaly Mam, who was later accused of fabricating her stories of victimhood.
Kristof, Mam, and the Amnesty proposal all make appearances in Anne Elizabeth Moore’s Threadbare: Clothes, Sex, and Trafficking. The book, which is illustrated by members of the Ladydrawers Comics Collective, is a deep journalistic dive into where our “fast fashion” comes from, and at whose expense. Throughout Threadbare, one is constantly struck by the interconnectedness between the garment industry, sex work, and what seems like a global quest to keep women in poverty. (For example, Moore uncovers that Kristof’s documentary, Half the Sky, was partially funded by the Nike Foundation “to keep the garment industry active.”)
Threadbare is an ambitious, eye-opening, muckraking investigation. Moore, a journalist, comics anthologist, and Fulbright scholar, originally started the report as a monthly online comics series for Truthout. In the book, she examines every aspect of apparel production and fast fashion, from modeling and retail to Foreign-Trade Zones (FTZs) and antitrafficking nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). One in seven women worldwide work in the garment industry, “the entity that most deserves to be taken to task for the global gender wage gap,” Moore writes. The book may keep you from ever wanting to shop for clothes again—even at Goodwill, which was recently accused of exploiting a Fair Labor Standards provision.
Moore organizes the material into four lively, illustrated chapters, each centered on different regions: the United States, Austria, Cambodia, and the rest of the world. In the first chapter, Moore interviews a model and brings us to stores and companies like H&M and Inditex (two of the main purveyors of fast fashion). The comic The Business of Thrift by Julia Gfrörer is drawn in great detail but has tiny, almost illegible lettering (it was probably originally shared online, where it would have been easier to read). We learn about the effects of the garment industry on the environment, and are given a clear picture of FTZs thanks to drawings by Melissa Mendes. Chapter 2 brings us to Austria, where we learn of its once-robust textile industry and the cultural shifts that caused its decline.
The pace picks up in the second half of the book. The “Cambodia” and “The World” chapters address sex work and trafficking directly, including an exploration into what constitutes trafficking, a term that is often shrouded by confusion and moral agendas.
In “Cambodia,” Moore witnesses the “deep influence the apparel industry holds over organizations that seek to respond to human trafficking.” She visits an anti-trafficking NGO, which offers incredibly low wages and factory-like conditions. This NGO touts itself as one of the first groups to work with trans sex workers, but it consistently misgenders its clients, revealing a profound lack of understanding and empathy for the very population it claims to serve. Ellen Lindner’s drawings examine the concept of a living wage in the garment industry globally; for example, garment workers in China earn about 36 percent of a living wage, and in Cambodia, they earn 19 percent. The Grey Area, boldly and skillfully drawn by Leela Corman, brings the point home as it examines the blurry definition of trafficking and the abuse of trans rights.
“So anti-trafficking NGOs are not only confused about what ‘trafficking’ is,” Moore writes, “they’re also confused about their own clients’ preferred pronouns…Can we really trust them to provide reliable data on who they’re ‘rescuing’ and from what?”
Our final stop is “The World,” which Moore explains is shorthand for “how international policies created in the U.S. operate on the ground throughout the world, and then are repatriated and used to suppress women domestically.” In this chapter, she further investigates the nature of anti-trafficking NGOs. Corman returns, drawing The Somaly Problem, a section about Somaly Mam and her role in creating a “culture of permanent victimhood,” wherein NGOs “save” sex workers by putting them to work in the garment industry. But this “only perpetuates entrenched, gender-based poverty for generations.” The intricate strip Serpent Libertine, drawn by Delia Jean, introduces the eponymous sex worker and organizer, who calls human trafficking the latest moral panic. The term “trafficking,” she says, wasn’t even used in the late ’90s when she started as a sex worker.
“The more the trafficking language is used the more of a serious problem it sounds like, the more funding that’s going to be available,” Libertine says. The comic also mentions the pressure imposed on sex workers to reframe the narrative of sex work, to admit to being a “victim” who needs to be rescued.
Overall, Threadbare is a great introduction to a complex, multilayered topic. Moore’s passion and intrepidness are evident in her writing and research. The illustrations, when accompanied with large enough lettering, help lighten and elucidate what could otherwise be extremely dense reading material. Every consumer should read this report, including Dunham and her celebrity squad. Then, maybe they’ll think twice before they buy that cute top at H&M or sign that next petition.