Ford’s Theater — or how not to photograph little girls.

This is a repost of something I put up at Balloon Juice last night–and that I then added to after reading the comment thread there this morning. Check that thread out here if you want to see the context for the second half of the piece.

Update:  I’ve attached a belated follow-up to the very thoughtful comment thread below the jump. Thanks to all who contributed to that thread, and apologies for taking this long before returning to the discussion.

Via my friend, science writer (The Carbon Age) and twitterer Eric Roston (@eroston) I just learned of the Tom Ford-edited issue of French Vogue featuring fashion-porn pictures of female child models.*

The girls are real children — one is said to be six years old — presented in the clothes, makeup and poses that suggest the sexual agency and availability of much older women.

Beyond a kind of weary sorrow/rage at the thought that someone’s going there yet again, the pictures crystallized for me the feeling that’s been taking shape all week as I’ve thought about Ross Douthat’s now well-covered foolishness in his recent column on adoption and abortion.

Lots of people (see my last post on this for a very partial selection of links) have pointed out the obvious about that piece. Recall that Douthat’s “argument” was that evil of abortion could be seen in the way it constrains the supply of  livestock babies sought by wealthy child-poor couples.  That’s a view that instrumentalizes both (poor) women and the children they are supposed to produce to satisfy that family-acquisition impulse.  The mothers and their infants become means to others’ ends.

Ford and Vogue make similar use of their subjects.  The girls, dressed and made-up in haute hooker chic, are toys — dolls, really — onto which a viewer is supposed to project … whatever.

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Those photographs suggest erotic presence, but they depict kids, after all, and in these images, like the babies and women Douthat would bend to the service of other women, those children cease to be actual individuals.**  Instead, they become blank canvases on which others paint their own aims and desires, with the requisite ugly twist on the word, “desire.”

The bottom line?  To put it in the syntax of Jeopardy,  I’d ask:  “What is the fact that both Douthat and Ford/Vogue think it’s OK to diminish the people that are women and or children into anonymous, interchangeable objects”  And with that I’d win the category that answers:

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Things that are not right.

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I’ll close with a bit of science fiction geekery.  A long time ago I read what still seems to me one of the best of dystopic visions of our commodified and manipulated future, John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider. It holds up remarkably well, and in my own idiosyncratic sequencing of such things, it seems to me that it should be thought of as one of the founding texts of cyberpunk.

Brunner’s story can be read as a kind of pilgrim’s progress, in which more than one character is coaxed to the realization that (in my bad, from-memory paraphrase of the book’s ending) the operational definition of the concept of evil was the use of another human being as a thing.

That notion is the source of my disgust with Douthat, and my loathing for whatever it was that passed for thought in Ford/Vogue‘s decision to peddle some kiddie porn.

And as for what I’d do about it?

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This, of course.  I’m a free speech fundamentalist, or pretty close to it, and I believe that the best response to grotesque speech is to point out its wens and warts, which I have here tried to do.

And on that cheerful note…goodnight, y’all.  Better dreams.

*The link is to BoingBoing, through which you can dive as deep as the ‘net lets you now into this particular wading pool.

**In case it’s not obvious, can I say here that the issue is not with the idea of fashion photography and/or erotic tensions and meanings in images.  It’s the six year old problem: the fact that little kids do not possess the agency to figure out whether the process of being turned into any particular image is OK by and for them.  Clear?  (Obviously, there is a lot more to think and say here, but it’s late, and this is a blog post, not a monograph…and this is why we have comment threads.)

Image: Dirck van Baburen, The Procuress, 1622.

First — thanks to all.  I spat this out in haste last night, and it describes a reaction more felt than thought, and the comment thread offers the corrective I hoped it would to what I think is my incoherence.

Most important, I realize I didn’t think all the way through the argument.  I agree with those who’ve pointed out that Ford =/ Douthat, and for that matter, pictures of little girls in age-inappropriate costumes and poses =/ baby brokering.  If there is a link — and I think there is, still, it is that both Douthat’s writing and Ford’s images reduce women and girls to attributes.  But still, I think that what I was trying to say could have been better said with a focus on the Vogue spread itself.

There, as a number of commenters pointed out sexualized images of child models have a history (see e.g. Mike Kay at comment 15) — and as J. Michael Neal points out at number 5 and Debbie does at comment 55, Ford may very well be attempting critical comment on that history and on the habits of fashion photography.

But that still doesn’t resolve my sense of dread as I look at this pictures, and I think that reaction derives from two interwoven thoughts.  The first is that objects like these photos shape social relations.  I look at these photos and see this:  to be female, of any age, is to be an object, a vessel for other’s desires and intentions.  I recognize that there are other ways to interpret what’s going on here– but it is the kiddiness of the images that tip the balance for me.

The second is that context matters.  The spread’s presence in Vogue cuts both ways.  Given who reads that pre-eminent women’s book, the notion that this is criticism carries weight, as I’m not sure how much an audience of couture-fascinated women are going to see six year olds playing dress-up as objects of desire.  On the other hand – these kids are selling stuff, clothes and style, and it is the leap from stuff to selves that makes me very queasy.

I don’t know how many of you have read Andrew Vachss.  His novels – I’ve only read ones in the Burke series – center on horrific stories of child abuse and worse.  He emphasizes over and over again what should be obvious:  children don’t have agency when adults sexualize them.

That’s what makes me very, very wary of  even well made, ironic, fashion-tradition hedged images like the one’s here.

So, in response to all the well-thought criticism of what may be an unfair juxtaposition of Ford and Douthat, I think the commenters who point to the real differences between the two are onto something, and if I were to write this piece again, I’d focus just on what bothers me with these pictures, rather than trying to tease out this comparison.

I’m older than I once was, as Paul Simon says.  Fifty two and counting.  I have a young kid of my own.  I can imagine (though not really remember) myself as a twenty-something journalist in New York thinking that Ford’s images (Calvin Klein’s back then, actually) were pure transgressive art, full stop.  (I never bought into Douthat’s intellectual pathology, thank FSM.)  But I’m not that mostly notional young pup any more, and for all that I can see the artfulness in those photographs, I can’t get over my sense that these pictures help us make strangers of each other — and of the most vulnerable among us.

Explore posts in the same categories: gender follies, Sexuality, The Way We Live Now

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One Comment on “Ford’s Theater — or how not to photograph little girls.”

  1. Susan of Texas Says:

    The artist’s intentions are one thing, the way the work of art is perceived is quite another. Even if the photographer’s intentions are social commentary, he’s still making photos of sexualized children. he’s not responsible for other people’s attitudes, but he is facilitating them by publishing the photos. That makes me very uneasy.


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