Not satirising the culture. It is the culture
Critics of the December-January French Vogue photo spread featuring little girls as mini women decorated in gaudy make up, swathed in luxurious adult women’s clothing, assembled on beds, fawning on animal skin rugs, pouting bright red moist lips under a banner ‘Cadeaux’ – little presents to be unwrapped – just don’t get it.
The 15-page colour shoot of little-girls-as-grown-up-women is just parody, an incisive cutting-edge commentary on the culture. And we’re all just too dumb to realise that because we’re overdosing on moral panics and thinking of the children (a mocking phrase applied to those of us advocating for children).
But it’s also obvious from the over-the-top styling and the overall lurid quality that this story is a parody and a critique of the fashion industry’s unhealthy interest in young girls, not an endorsement or a glamourization of it
When a stylist — Melanie Huynh — and a photographer — Sharif Hamza — somehow get it in their minds to viciously satirize an industry that so fetishizes youth that it pretends adolescents are preferable substitutes for grown women? And when a respected fashion magazine — Vogue Paris — has the balls to publish their horrifying Toddlers in Tiaras-on-speed work? When that happens, cue the outrage! Won’t someone think of the children…
But this spread is a not-so-subtle fuck you to our culture’s unhealthy obsession with youth (in general) and the fashion industry’s (in particular), and to the commodification of childhood that comes with both. Is this story “tasteful”? Hell no. Does it “sell” the clothes? Not really. Is it pleasant to look at? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t good for us to see.
I don’t accept that this is really a parody or irony or an f**k- you to the culture. It is the culture. Vogue is not critiquing or de-constructing, it is embedding sexualised and adultified notions of children into the culture, inviting the viewer to ‘read’ the images of little girls – in this case, Lea, Prune and Thylane – as mini-women, therefore as much older and more (sexually?) knowing, than they actually are.
Patty Huntington over at Frockwriter was first to publish the photos online, setting off a global frenzy of interest. She described “heavily made-up children draped seductively over chairs, daybeds and an animal skin rug, with their legs and décolletages bared, like child prostitutes in a brothel…”
Saunders is just speculating. She doesn’t quote anyone involved as saying that satire was the intention. No one from Vogue has said “It’s parody people, don’t you get it?” A bold, cutting edge editor would be prepared to go out and defend the shoot against critics, but that hasn’t happened (in fact editor-in-chief Carine Roitfeld resigned shortly after the photos went viral, which may of course be a coincidence).
Guest editor Tom Ford is on the front cover, standing behind model Daphne Groeneveld, aged 14 when the shot was taken. Is that meant to be ironic too?
I wonder if the irony will be lost on the kind of men who enjoy prepubescent girls groomed to look like adult women in high heels and with things in their mouths?
I agree with this comment on Huntington’s blog (in response to another commenter who couldn’t see a problem with the images):
You see nothing overtly sexual about a smoldering look through one’s upper eyelashes, about glossy wet pouted lips slightly parted, about bare legs tilted sideways on a disheveled bed, about a silky top plunging well below where the cleavage would be? If any of these looks, coupled with that clothing/makeup, were from a grown woman in a nightclub, the message would be pretty clear. You cannot just separate that kind of body language from the usual meaning just because the body performing it is a child. Yes kids play dressup. Innocent dressup is full of mismatched odds and ends, smeared makeup, plastic shoes, giggles and silliness. It is a pretend parody of the adult experience devoid of the adult understandings. Look into their eyes, THIS is not giggles and silliness. This is the inappropriate double whammy of insinuating adults are no good unless they look like a child, and children are no good unless they look like adults. It is pedophiliac style grooming of the reading public, so slowly and gently you don’t know when the line has been crossed….
Even if these images were created as a commentary on the fashion industry, a critique of the ‘getting older younger’ phenomenon in (or imposed on) children, the reality is they have still used children make their point. Labelling it artistic or clever, doesn’t make it okay. As writer and commentator Nina Funnell wrote to me:
So what is the standard here? Is it acceptable to dress children up in sexualised clobber, photograph them in a sexualised manner but only if the purpose is satirical? Do the children understand the satire that they are being used to create? How does the photo session impact on them? What precautions- if any- did the photographers, stylists and make-up artists put in place to protect the kids? Did they explain it was just ‘fun dress-ups’ for a day? And even if they did, what’s to stop a six year old from walking away with the message that when they look older and dress in a more sexual manner they get more praise, attention and money compared to when they look like their every day self? If we are going to say that child exploitation/ sexualisation is inappropriate then we have to be a bit consistent in that. We can’t say it’s inappropriate if it’s being done to sell a product, but fine if it’s done for ‘artistic merit’ or ‘cultural commentary’ purposes.
Nice of Jezebel to go in to bat for French Vogue. But many of us aren’t buying it. Vogue is not outside the culture. It is the culture.