Sunday, 23 August 2009

Black models as 'Wild Things'

So, we all know there are myriad reasons why the fashion industry is terrible for women (and I say this as a Vogue reader who wrote 1000 words on what to wear to 2008 Christmas parties). It makes us feel bad or not being sample sized, for not having enough money to buy designer or keep up season to season. But one of the things that has really struck me over the last few years of being a fashion junkie, is that it is often blatantly racist. I'm referring to the lack of black faces in magazines but also to the way black model are exotisised and fetishised when they do grace the pages.

I was going through a pretty heavy obsession with Stefano Pilati's YSL Autumn/Winter 2008 collection when I found this quote from the man himself on black models:

“To me, it is a matter of proportions and the bodies I choose. My fit model was a black model. When I wanted to translate what I put on her, it was a disaster. It would need 13 times more work in the atelier to modify it to put on a more Caucasian anatomy. Sometimes, it’s not your choice. You can’t find “black models” that are beautiful and with the right proportions. I prefer them with lean proportions with no big hips.”

Wow. This is the current creative director of Yves Saint Laurent, a label who were among the first to regularly use black models in their catwalk shows. So we're supposed to accept this as an explanation? That black women never have both beauty and the 'right proportions'? I call bullshit. If Pilati can't make his clothes fit, that's his problem. He can't blame ALL BLACK WOMEN for his shortcomings. Models are considered to be the most beautiful of all women. If black women aren't represented in the industry, it's tantamount to saying they are not the right kind of beauty.

And if a black woman does make it into the big time as a model, she can expect to be treated pretty much as a novelty. A sexy, exotic novelty. I writing about this now because of this. What a surprise, the fashion industry's chosen black woman cavorting with animals in Africa. The spread is even called 'Wild Things', implying that Campbell is 'wild' like the animals that she's photographed with. All woman have suffered from this idea that women are close to nature and somehow more earthy and elemental than men, but black woman are constantly portrayed in this way. Photographs of black models are often far more sexual than those of their white counterparts, they are naked far more often. It seems to me that the fashion industry views black women as wild and sexual and white women as beautiful and ethereal.

It's interesting then that Naomi Campbell appeared naked on the cover of i-D magazine with Stefano Pilati last year. She hasn't shied away from calling the industry out on its prejudices saying,
“Women of colour are not a trend. That’s the bottom line. It’s a pity that people don’t always appreciate black beauty. In some instances, black models are being sidelined by major modeling agencies.” (

The pictures of her, naked and pressed up against Pilati fit in perfectly with the way that black models are sidelined. The things is, it is hard for black models, even those as famous as Campbell, to be constantly addressing issues around racism. What they say would no doubt be distorted by the media, and often the problems are so complex that they would never been given a platform to express them. They are expected to be spokeswomen where white models never are. There's certainly an argument to be made that if black models turned down these jobs, the industry would have to change. This isn't necessarily the case though, and in such a precarious and fickle industry, it would be easy for photographers and editors to simply replace models who refused shoots. Far more problematic though than Campbell appearing in this shoot, is Pilati's involvement. Does he really think that embracing a naked black women absolves him of racism?

Campaigning for representation of women of all ethnic backgrounds in magazines is important. What may be more important is ensuring that the industry does not get away with vile, racist stereotypes when they do decide to use black models.

(The quotes from Pilato and Campbell come from

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Filament magazine and the female gaze.

'Filament' is a new magazine for women which describes itself as, "72 quarterly pages of intelligent thought and beautiful men". It doesn't run articles on fashion or cosmetics and prides itself on publishing high quality, intelligent features as well as pictures of hot boys not wearing very much. Sounds AWESOME.

I love the fact that they have done their research rather than just going along with the notion that women don't find visual stimulus exciting. They found that women really wanted erotica, and that the images they wanted to see were not the same as the ones common in gay porn. They found that women wanted:

* men who are not muscle-bound
* men with more feminine face shapes
* men with attractive faces
* images that show the subject’s character and the environment he is in.

The problem is, they also found that women wanted more than just semi-nudity. They were asking to see fully naked men with erections. OK, fair enough, walk into any newsagent in the land and you'll find the female equivalent of this. Up above Cosmo, Heat, Vogue and Grazia you'll probably come face to face with a women on a magazine cover with breasts bigger than your head, grabbing at herself 'passionately'. Except their printers said they were concerned about causing offense to "the women's/religious sectors". So women are going to be offended by erections but not page three girls, religious groups are going to be more upset by a boner than a female crotch-shot? Oh, please. This is almost certainly another attempt to deny female sexuality, and to 'protect' men from it.

I'm sure that many people will disagree with me, but I tend to agree with Kristina Lloyd and Mathilde Madden at The Guardian when they say,

"But there's nothing inherently sexist about depicting nudity. It's sexist when only women are deemed to signify the erotic; it's sexist when eroticised images of women are so normalised and widespread that women stand to be viewed first and foremost as sex objects – their value inextricably linked to their sexual desirability. The sexism is in the inequality."

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a fan of the porn industry and I have a special well of hatred reserved especially for lads mags. The thing is, I don't think that all sexual images are necessarily exploitative or degrading. Nudity and sexuality shouldn't be frowned upon, after all, do feminists want to be on the same side as people who have denied female sexuality for eons? It's the industry that often deserves our scorn. 'Filament' say they are dedicated to ensuring that the men who model for them are treated fairly. Models have the right to withdraw their images and the team have even turned models away when they feel that working for 'Filament' may not be a good career move for them.

I'm willing to bet that a lot of lads mags editors would say a similar thing. The problem there is that it ignores the fact that many young women are growing up now believing that their only worth lies in their sexuality. Women's ability to really choose any involvement in the sex industry is often more problematic than it is for men because of intense societal pressures. Even women's magazines constantly impress upon women the importance of 'pleasing your man'. Women's sexuality is dictated to us by the mainstream press which defines it as passive and willing to please but never demanding. In other words, in a classically post-feminist marketable way.

I think a publication that acknowledges female desire and caters for it, as well as promoting positive body images and providing intelligent comment should be applauded. It worries me that there seems to be two main camps on porn and female sexuality: the 'all sexualised images are wrong/women don't want to look at cock' camp, which is inhabited by some feminists as well as religious and right-wing folk and the 'women are really nothing but a pair of tits and should act as such' camp inhabited by the editors of lads mags and the lads themselves. Neither positions are realistic or helpful. Although I think lads mags are beyond reform (due to the blatant misogyny of the articles that goes along with the images), I'm happy to see more women behind the camera in porn and erotica.