Post by: Nilufer Arsala
Post by: Nilufer Arsala
Retailer H&M has received some decidedly negative scrutiny recently for using computer generated models on their website. As reported on mashable.com the retailer came under fire for superimposing real models heads onto computer generated bodies to showcase a range of collections on it’s retail site. To the unsuspecting viewer nothing is amiss, however if one looks closely it becomes evident that all of the models have perfectly identical body types. Key word being: “perfect.” The retailer has incurred the ire of many who view the casting of virtual models as setting an unrealistic standard for women to live up to.
This H&M boondoggle puts me in mind of the 2002 film Simone. Simone tells the story of a beleaguered film producer, played superbly with frazzled panache by Al Pacino, who, fed up with the antics of spoiled Hollywood starlets, creates a computer generated actress who proves to be a little too good at her job – and in short order takes over his entire life. The story is a funny, albeit slightly disturbing, modern day, emerging media Frankenstein – and a cautionary tale for brands. However, we’ll touch on that later. Here’s a clip:
H&M asserts that the fake models make it easier for their customers to focus on the clothes rather than on the models wearing the clothes. Per H&M spokesperson Hacan Andersson, “The result is strange to look at, but the message is clear: buy our clothes, not our models.”
Though the retailer’s strategy was particularly ill advised I’m not sure I read any deliberately dubious intentions. Frankly it strikes me as a rather sophomoric attempt at cost cutting. I am concerned however, with the side effects of this practice. Does the use of fake models set up an unrealistic expectation of perfection among women? Or does it legitimize an expectation that already exists? Contemporary human fashion models most often do not present a realistic representation of the average female body. Not even close. However the employment of computer generated models, whereby an advertiser can literally code whatever model body measurements they like, literally says to ordinary humans, model or otherwise, “You’re not good enough.” I find this particularly troubling and more than a little misogynistic.
Indeed, what does this say for the company’s regard for women, it’s primary customer base? Not only is the company legitimizing an unrealistic aesthetic, they are literally dehumanizing half of the world’s population. Placing a real model’s disembodied head onto a fake, computer generated body, a body that is exactly identical to several other fake bodies sporting real heads, is just…offensive. Terribly so.
Additionally, I find the practice of designing all women’s bodies identical immensely troublesome in itself. If the idealized collective male fantasy is a world where women are literally interchangeable then we as a society are in trouble indeed. Real women’s bodies aren’t identical. Even supermodels figures have variations. While I do suppose it would make it easier on clothing manufacturers if they only had to make clothing in one size, the idea of a world populated with bodily identical women is frankly disturbing.
It is time for retailers and advertisers to realize that the images that they disseminate are more far more than just advertisements for goods. Indeed they are cultural artifacts in the truest sense of the term. Contemporary advertisements are inevitably informed with the aesthetic sensibility of the context within which they appear. As much as they promote they also reflect. Perhaps unwittingly, they reflect cultural norms, mores, desires and expectations. They are imbued with meaning far beyond the intentions of the photographer or the commissioning brand. Accordingly they wield a tremendous power that extends far beyond just selling attire. Indeed I contend that images unconsciously promote the idealized self. Now it should be a little more evident why the employment of idealized computer generated, nay computer manipulated, models is a spectaularly bad idea.
Of course I am not suggesting that the masses of the ad viewing public are mindless drones literally powerless to defend our virgin eyes from the whims and caprice of evil brands. Far from it, in fact. The brands, though often misguided, aren’t evil, and the layer of cultural encoding that results from advertisements is complex and nuanced. No one can state with certainty that any advertisement has a direct effect on consumer behavior. It is the cumulative and collective effects, effects that indeed have nothing to do with short term consumer behavior, or merchandise sales, that I am referring to here. The negative effects of cultural artifacts like the H&M fake model images are far more subtle – and ubiquitious – for both for the viewer and the producer. They make it ok to objectify women, they promote a literally unattainable (unless one day we really will all live in the Matrix) aesthetic ideal, and they legitimize and promulgate the Stepford fantasy…just to name a few.
Poor H&M. It seems the retailer has unwittingly created their own little army of long legged digital Frankensteins. While their computer generated models showed off their merchandise beautifully, and cheaply, they also did a superb job of showcasing a contemporary ethos bent on misogyny. Good job, girls! Well done! Like the aforementioned movie producer in the film Simone, the brand may find it in their best interest to destroy their creation before they are able to wreak more havoc. However if that film taught us anything it’s that digital cultural artifacts have a way of taking on lives of their own.
First off let me state that this is not a fashion book. Nor is it a beauty book. Nor, and you may find this surprising, is it a feminist manifesto. Still interested? Good. As the title suggests the author, Linda M. Scott, offers a fresh perspective on the relationship of fashion to radical feminism. Now you may be asking, “What relationship?” That universal misunderstanding is precisely the stereotype that Scott tackles, head on, in this volume. Professor Linda M. Scott, with meticulous research, challenges the longstanding assumption that fashion and feminism exist in stark opposition to each other. In a nutshell, Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism is a revisionist approach to the history of fashion and feminism.
Feminism: The Good, The Bad, The Pretty
One of Scott’s most salient revisions to feminist history appears in the opening chapters of the work which examine the origins of the first wave of the movement. Per Scott’s retelling American “feminism” had less to do with establishing equality for women than it did with asserting and maintaining strict demarcations of class and social status. Scott characterizes early feminists as wealthy, and upper middle class, Caucasian women mainly concerned with improving the social standing of wealthy and upper middle class Caucasian women. Take, for example, Scott’s depiction of the movement’s attack on the corset. Much early feminist rhetoric lambasts the evils of the corset. A deliberately uncomfortable accoutrement, it literally held women prisoner within their clothes by making even basic movement all but impossible. So early attacks by feminists were indeed not unwarranted. What makes Scott’s take on the controversy unique, however, is that – as she points out in meticulous detail – the only women who wore corsets were women of a certain class. You guessed it, the women of the American aristocracy. As Scott reminds us slave women certainly didn’t wear corsets, nor did immigrant women or working class women. So exactly whose rights were these early feminists fighting for? This is a theme that underpins much of Fresh Lipstick, in fact.
Much feminist rhetoric, both contemporary and historical, extols the virtues “sisterhood,” essentially giving the impression that one merely needs to possess a vagina in order to be represented by the movement. Scott, rejects this representation as pure fiction and details a history of feminism that is far more dubious – or at least class, race and appearance conscious. Per Scott both first and second wave feminists defined feminism in very narrow terms and deliberately excluded certain classes of women from the movement. Scott details a history of feminism that is particularly exclusionary to women who fall outside of the feminist ideal – whatever that ideal happens to be at a given time. Scott also challenges feminism’s attack on the beauty and advertising industries and argues that feminist literature attacks these industries while completely disregarding social and historical context. Though Scott makes a valid point here perhaps Fresh Lipstick’s biggest weakness is that it makes no distinction between academic and popular feminist literature. While I don’t disagree with Scott’s assertions in this regard it does warrant mentioning that many of her arguments regarding feminist “dogma” make sweeping generalizations of the movement, effectively painting all feminism with the same brush. Ironically this is a crime that Scott nails feminist leaders on again and again.
Still, one of the things I found most interesting about Fresh Lipstick is how it challenges the anti commercial rhetoric associated with contemporary feminism. Scott asserts that not only is there no over-arching conspiracy perpetrated by the collective beauty industry to coerce women into buying products that they don’t need, but that there never has been. Scott traces the history of female targeted advertising and makes a very convincing argument that throughout history much of the advertising directed at women has been researched, developed and written by women. In Chapter Six Scott details the history of one of the most famous advertising campaigns of the twentieth century – one, in fact, that many credit as the first advertising ever to “use sex to sell a commodity”. (179) The ads, which first appeared in 1911, were for Woodbury Soap and were developed from concept to execution by Helen Lansdowne Resor, Creative Director of J. Walter Thompson. JWT was the largest advertising agency in America for half of the twentieth century and Scott makes a point of illustrating that Resor was hardly a professional anomaly. In fact until well into the 80’s most advertising agencies, as a fundamental part of their hierarchical structure, included highly active “Women’s” departments that were responsible for developing advertising, including market research, copy and creative, to appeal to women. These departments were often the largest, most influential and most profitable in their respective agencies – and were typically completely staffed by women.
These are only a few of the book’s eyebrow raising revelations regarding the history of fashion as it relates to American feminism. Indeed Fresh Lipstick’s challenge to feminist rhetoric is quite extensive and highly organized, examining the movement from it’s nascency to present day . Backed up by a staggering amount of meticulous research, the book is both a fun and enlightening read. I highly recommend it for anyone fostering an interest in the history of the feminist movement, or how feminism helped to shape the American fashion industry.