Dismembered bodies, blood, murder, starvation, mental illness, battery, sexual assault and… death. Sound sexy? According to Vogue magazine and America’s Next Top Model high fashion and brutalized women go hand in hand. I have written at length before about this America’s Next Top Model spread. All of these women were made up to look as though they were brutally murdered and then were praised for their ability to look sexy. At the time I held out hope that it was just a passing fad but then Italian Vogue released these photos (to glowing praise no less).
When did murder, rape and misery become high fashion? I cannot look at these images without wondering ‘how did these women end up beaten, abused, and murdered?’ Actually, I know how. According to Jean Kilbourne in her text Can’t Buy My Love, more than one-third of women slain in this country die at the hands of their husbands or boyfriends. Though the photographers may not intend for them to be, these images are very political. They are representative of a greater cultural illness.
I can sense the “Relax, it’s just a picture” response that I am sure to get. The problem is that these images do not exist in a vacuum, they exist in a cultural climate of intense anxiety and backlash. Backlash against women’s movement into the workforce, backlash against women’s sexual agency, and backlash against women’s bodily sovereignty. These images exist within the context of white-supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy and that means that they are saturated with meaning.
I know that even when I am not conscious of it, I am always thinking about my safety. I know that there are some places that I cannot walk alone and I know that there are some articles of clothing that make me a target for male violence. The women over at feministing call it a rape schedule. We know where to walk, what to wear, and when to have our keys in our hands. We know to lock the doors behind ourselves and we know that elevators, parking garages, and stairwells are places to avoid. We are constantly aware of the threat of male violence and images like those in Vogue or America’s Next Top Model contribute to that anxiety. They keep fresh in women’s minds the logical result of male violence. This type of emotional and psychological terrorism serves the very specific purpose of keeping women in their place through the constant threat of violence, specifically sexualized violence.
Further, these images contribute to the normalization and fetishization of violence against women. When we are inundated with images of annihilated, abused and murdered women we become desensitized to it in media and in real life. These texts contribute to the dehumanization of women. They are insane! They enjoy being beaten! They are not real people! The America’s Next Top Model shoot presents women being murdered in a variety of ways. One woman is pushed off of a rooftop, one is poisoned, one is stabbed, one is drowned and wrapped in plastic, one is pushed down a flight of stairs, one is strangled, electrocuted, shot in the head, decapitated, and perhaps most horrifying one has her organs stolen. Her individual parts are literally more valuable than her person as a whole.
As I was researching images for this piece, the sheer volume of images that I saw overwhelmed me. The advertisement posters for the new movie Captivity are an even more brazen example of this normalization of violence toward woman. Can you imagine driving your mini-van filled with children past this image every day? What would you tell your daughters? I wonder how people can continue to tell me that these things have no effect. How do we look at images like these and feel nothing? The trend of abuse toward women as fashion is terrifying and yet not really surprising. It is a slightly more obvious version of the dismembered female bodies that we see in mainstream advertisements every single day.
After all of that how can we even pretend to be surprised when a story like this crops up? These boys live in a society that devalues women to such an extent that gazing at their corpses is high fashion! There is no other conclusion for young men to draw than that women’s bodies are (a) their property and (b) ultimately valueless. These young men are perfect products of their society and, sadly, as Kilbourne’s statistic proves, they are not alone.