Thursday, May 13, 2010

Fashionable racism in Interview's "Let's Get Lost"

You know what industry is pretty racist? The fashion industry! Here's the latest evidence, courtesy of a Mikael Jasson shoot in Interview Magazine:





Here's the description of the images above:
"Let's get lost. The hour is late, the air is thick, and the evening is charged with a steamy sensuality. What works? Tone-on-tone swimsuits, slithers of silk, and plenty of skin, as flesh meets flesh, body meets soul, and Daria gets lost in the heat of the night."
In this feature, people of color are used literally as background material, like they're a cloth backdrop, or the color-coordinated car. They are framed as inconsequential: many bodies, limbs are draped about her; their dark, striking faces are mostly blank; they wear hats to cover their aberrant hair. The bodies of people of color in serve only as contrast for the beautiful white woman, Daria, the only person worth mentioning by name.

Though people of color, for once, outnumber white people, they are not the focus in this spread. They are models, doing their jobs well - all of them are quite striking and make the clothes look as interesting as anything Daria wears. But Daria is the specific focus of the camera, the lighting, the composition, the male model's bodies, are situated to frame Daria. Their clothes are universally earth tones or muted, while Daria wears bright colors.

Black people, here, are not people. In the context of this shoot, Sedene Blake is not a woman. Oriane Barnett is not a model. Raschelle Osbourne is not a woman. David Agboji is not a man. Salieu Jalloh is not a beautiful individual. Neither is Armando Cabral, or Carmalita Mendes, or Manuel Ramos, or Kelly Moreira, or any of the other models. They are framed instead as props.

Though this is in a fashion magazine and they are models, they and the clothes they wear are reduced to acting as part of the framework of the scene; you're supposed to look at the pretty white lady, not the pretty people of color.

In these pictures, people of color are equated with night; they are metaphors for a period of time. This is worse than animalization; this is dehumanization. People of color represent an abstract force, a concept. Not people. Beautiful, perhaps, but that's besides the point. Simply the environment in which a white person exists. Something a white lady falls back on. Something a woman in a swimsuit sits on, to make the swimsuit and her white skin look better.

Sonja Uwimama commented on this at Africa is a Country:

You would think that if they’re going to keep using Black people as the exotic background on which white people get to project their fantasies, they’d at least be more original with it. In the heat of the night? Really? Sorry, Interview, but the joke’s on you.

This is just the most recent incident of blatant racism in an industry with no shortage of it. Renee recently wrote on the topic:
The Black woman has long been seen as the ultimate un-woman and despite the supposed advances, race and gender continue to leave Black women at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Fashion is but one manifestation of the ways in which we continue to be “othered”. Black women are called angry when they rightfully lash out against blatant racism, because we are expected to accept our second class status without complaint. That it is exhausting to constantly wage a battle to be recognized as human and therefore valuable, is not considered. We are constantly told that our tone is why Whiteness does not listen; however, Black women are well aware that White supremacy is dedicated to maintaining the race and gender divisions, because it serves to cement power.
"Let's Get Lost" is evidence that gender privilege is not a shield against the racism of the fashion industry (or any other context). Even when models of color make up the bulk of the shoot, they are often treated as little but fodder for contrast and controversy. In this issue of Interview, men of color serve little purpose beyond "pushing buttons" and "being edgy".

Men and women of color, in this shoot, are little but something exotic in which a white woman can get "lost". This reinforces the idea that black men prey on white women by leading them astray.

What I've written above is just the introduction to everything that's wrong with this. This clearly and thoughtfully racist. It's trolling with fashion photography.

Further reading:

Tom and Lorenzo (an excellent fashion blog and my source for the shoot details)
Femonomics

2 comments:

  1. WHOA. Aside from the sea of basically indistinguishable (until you look closer - many of the darker-skinned models are famous and beautiful in their own right) minority models, there are so many problematic cliches being used here.

    1. The "white" model is dressed in a way that suggests upper class status, and though I'm sure the chinos/khakis on the men, and the dresses on the women, of color are also designer, they're made up in such a way where they look covered in dirt, torn, sitting on old cars, etc: she looks like she went to vacation in an impoverished but beautiful Caribbean country and "ran into the locals". White = wealthy/important; Black/of color = poor, and sort of weirdly mob mentality in this scene.

    2. Can we not, for a second, do the oversexualized men/women of color thing? Let's get lost. Flesh against flesh. Daria gets lost. How daring...or antebellum.

    3. Oversexualized people of color aside, let's try on "aggressive" as a stereotype. In half of these pictures, "Daria" looks dead or drugged. The first picture, where she's being held by one man while another lays his hand across one thigh to touch the other (or maybe he's just got a finger raised? that'd be a LITTLE better) is menacing at the very least. The way everyone's circling around basically looks like a bunch of guys dragged her home from where she'd passed out on the beach to show all their friends.

    While I admit in at least one of the pictures there's another (WOC) model rocking the heroin chic "I'm so wasted, I can't hold my head up" pose, Daria is literally looking comatose in ALL BUT ONE photo. In one she's just a thigh with a hand on it, while others are dancing or clapping. Ick.

    Daria isn't "getting lost" in a way that gives her any agency, and that's problematic to begin with, but the fact that this shoot tells a story of someone who looks like a victim is a bigger one. The insinuation of rape, aggression or even just "luring to the dark side" by the men of color -- with a double whammy of aggression/seduction of a woman of an upper class by men/women of a lower class -- in these photos is something that's far too prevalent in our society to be being used this way.

    This isn't edgy, or even interesting, it's just offensive. Wow.

    I don't know. I'm a white girl here and these make me pretty angry. I want to hear some positions on these photos from people who aren't.

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  2. Ugh. I'm so used to this kind of thing, and yet I'm not. "Daria gets lost in the heat of the night"? The combination of those images, and that caption... that hurt. I gotta hand it to you, White Media Establishment— you got me. Even through all my armor. The photos alone hit so many buttons— it's like a "choose your own adventure" of racist, whiteness-assuaging stereotypes. As noted, there are all kinds of insinuations— of dirtiness, of poverty, of rape, of violence. The overall mood is one of menace. And why can't I stop hearing the word "spook" in my head when I look at these?

    To me, it doesn't even feel like black people are being related with a period of time (night); it seems we're being directly related to darkness— swallowing darkness. Obliteration. Nihil. It's beyond dehumanization— things that are not human do exist; they're materially there. Here, black people are being related to... nothing. To be touched by us, to be with us, is to become nothing. "Lost," in the existential sense.

    Of course, we are always lost; we were never there.

    How many times have I gone out with (white) girlfriends and felt like I'd disappeared? (And like I made them stand out.)

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