This brings me to the Miley Cyrus brou ha ha of a couple of months ago. The legendary celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz took the following photo of the fifteen year old Disney superstar for Vanity Fair:
Personally, I think it's lovely and no more revealing than anything any girl her age would wear to the beach. My opinions aside, cries of "child pornography!" were soon shouted from all corners of the nation (as the French, once again, pointed and laughed).
I know this is really old news. I know that most likely no one who is reading this is a fan of the (now) sixteen year old Cyrus or thinks this pretty picture of a pretty girl is pornography. It just leads me to a little experiment I conducted. The website models.com has a constantly updated list of the top 50 models currently working. Many of these women are below the age of eighteen and few of their names would be recognizable to anyone who did not follow fashion very, very closely. The following photos all appeared in magazines either in the US or Europe. The girls modeling are all about the same age as Cyrus, but there was no outcry of any sort. I want to be clear that I don't particularly think there should be, but, consistency, people! More on this after the AV presentation:
And most of all, this (NSFW).
Since few people seem to be talking about children being presented as women in fashion, I would like to do so. There has been a lot of really unfortunate news surrounding models recently, much of it weight related, some of it involving murders and suicide, and really there is a collective sarcastic "boo hoo" from everyone whenever somebody mentions there might be a problem within the industry. The glamor! The money! The shallowness! Who cares?!
In the wake of 20 year old Kazakhstanis falling from the sky in Lower Manhattan, maybe we should begin talking about what is going on with pretty, pretty girl children who are being dressed up as grown ups and maybe think about who is looking out for their interests. There has been talk on the interwebs about the possibility of starting a modeling union. This Jezebel thread is particularly interesting. It seems to me that this is a question of perception and a question of international child labor law.
The only difference between Miley Cyrus and the girls whose images you can see above, is one of marketing, branding and perception. Ms. Cyrus is under contract to a giant multi-national corporation who have a vested financial interest in keeping her image squeaky clean and youthful. She has a team of handlers, lawyers, parents, publicists and agents looking out for her (and their own) interests. She is also a member of a union, namely SAG. She also lives in California where the Coogan Act dictates how much of her finances are to be handled. Only time will tell how this all works out for her in the long term. These young working models are in a very different situation. Many of them are from brutally poor countries, mostly former Soviet states. Many of them don't speak the language of the country in which they are working particularly well. Most, I am sure, are grateful and thrilled with the opportunities they have been given. They are dressed up and treated as working adults. But they are still kids. I'm sure some of them have savvy parents who are looking after their daughters. I wonder if some modeling agencies shy away from girls with caring, involved families, and prefer signing up fifteen year olds from Poland or Latvia, whose families are far away and more likely to be desperate for the work.
New York has pretty clear child labor laws, but I don't think anyone is paying attention to them when the girls are from Estonia and dressed up like goddesses. Women are being treated more and more like commodities, and are treating themselves as commodities, too. (If I read of one more woman in the NY Times referring to herself as needing an "upgrade" I will go postal) I think that is why this issue bugs me so much. That if the facade is good enough, pretty enough, perfect enough, no one cares what is crawling around underneath. I'm as complicit as anyone else. I'm a bigger fashion junkie than most. It seems everything is about that facade, one picture of one fifteen year old girl tastefully draped inspires cries of "where are her parents?" and magazines full of pictures of other teenaged girls cause no concern at all. Only the labels are different, and the market in which they are being sold. One has the courts looking to see if her money is being banked appropriately, the others do not. It just kind of sticks in my craw that if a girl is beautiful and works in what is perceived as a frivolous industry, it is kind of assumed that whatever bad things may happen to her are sort of her own fault, and don't count because the shoes are so terribly, terribly expensive.
No one can argue that there are children who are treated much more appallingly then these mostly fortunate girls with modeling contracts. Many less fortunate girls from Latvia, Ukraine, Moldova and most of the former Soviet States are being trafficked to the UAE, Scandinavia and the United States to work as prostitutes where they are treated as slaves. Children work in factories and sweatshops all over the world in deplorable conditions. I do wonder how many hopeful (or desperate) young girls have had the promise of a modeling contract lure them into deadly circumstances they could not escape from. Maybe if the fairy tale lovely model from Kazakhstan is treated fairly, maybe the girls in the sweatshops one day will too.