Women in media today: Fashion photography – are we suppressive or progressive?

In 2021 we, as a society, would probably argue that we are accepting of all cultures, races, disabilities, religions and preferences. But the question is, does this translate in the media? More specifically – how does this manifest itself when talking about the fashion industry and photography surrounding it?

Whilst the fashion industry is moving forward with the times of acceptance, there is arguably a long way to go. The fashion photography and makeup industry have both been notorious for their exclusivity and only pushing forward those who ‘fit the bill’ when it comes to the contemporary beauty standard.

We’ve had icons such as Twiggy in the ‘60s, followed by Kate Moss of the ‘90s, then superstars like Kylie Minogue in the early 2000s. This was also informed by films like Mean Girls. So this standard was much ingrained in popular culture and shaped many of the fashion standards which we still see today. This was the typical tall, slim, white woman predominantly. This isn’t to say that these women aren’t beautiful. Of course they are, and I am not diminishing that. However for beauty standards, this is very narrow, with little room for difference, something inherently damaging for the majority of women who do not fit into it.

How have we moved forward? Having said that the industry hasn’t been the best for inclusion, it is slowly improving. Diverse fashion/modelling and photography is being given more space in the media as we move forward. A photographer who exemplifies this is Martine Gutirrez. She is a trans self-portrait photographer, who, in her photographs, embodies various different ‘characters’, all the while commenting on how it is to be a trans, indigenous woman in the present day.

She grapples with topics such as identity, gender and race in her work.

In a 2016 interview, she says ‘I feel like in the beginning a lot [of my work] was just born from a re-imagining of myself, and wanting to be perceived as hyper-feminine and as this kind of cis-gendered woman…being on the street, people looking at me and the juxtaposition of my work, the discourse for talking about gender was so binary…we’re so confined by language that every time someone read about my art or saw something about my work two dimensionally, without me there to supervise the conversation they’re like “he, his that’s his work, so who are these women that he’s using” and then they’re like “oh he is this, wow what a transformation”…when really it’s like no you guys, there’s this whole in between stage which I’m trying to navigate through and trying to lead the viewer on’.

‘…a lot of it was just born from reimagining myself and wanting to be viewed as hyper-feminine’

She then goes on to talk about how women are used in terms of sex and the media and how these two things are so connected.

The fact that topics such as these are being more openly spoken about shows that differences are being more accepted in the media – this is of course a very positive step towards a more accepting society. It becomes normalised – and minorities thus feel less marginalised by wider society.

 It is possible to observe similarities between her and Frida Kahlo, as she was a self-portrait artist too, and a person of colour, so the parallels are clear. Also, Kahlo was not viewed as conventionally beautiful (being a trans woman, Gutirrez may relate). Additionally, she used her art to channel her struggle, as Gutirrez does. Kahlo also documents how it is to be a disabled woman and her internal struggle and accepting herself for the way she was.

Speaking of Kahlo, and her struggles of being a disabled woman, it feels only right to discuss how disability is represented in the media today also. Like all of these topics, it is difficult to give a straight answer as to whether things are moving forward for minorities. While for the most part society seems to be progressive, every now and then we seem to have a wobble; an example of such a wobble regarding disability would be this: Kylie Jenner’s insensitive photoshoot in 2015 using a wheelchair as a prop.

When asked why she had decided to go ahead with this, she said that it was to symbolise how trapped she felt being herself because of the constant media coverage the Kardashian/Jenner family receive. One may also be able to read into the fact that she looks doll-like, which could be a comment on how she feels like a puppet to the media. While these points are valid, many disabled people were not pleased with this contention for an array of reasons.

Being disabled myself, I have to say that this does seem to be distasteful. This is because the photos seem to trivialise and fetishize disability. Given her clothing and pose, the photos appear to have sexual undertones. Her gormless expression makes her look like a sex-doll. This is very damaging for the disabled community.

One woman on Twitter, Ophelia Brown, tweeted at Jenner: ‘Wow being in a wheelchair is so fun and fashionable! #Ableism is the ultimate fashion statement!’ The photos seem to diminish disabled people’s own sexuality, and make it seem we are a spectacle.

Jenner looks passive, making it seem that disabled people have no control, and with these sexual undertones there is an implication that those who are disabled are easy targets merely for the pleasure of others. When asked about this, Jenner said that this wasn’t the idea behind the shoot and it was more a comment on her relationship with the media, as mentioned before. Even if this was true, there are still issues for many. Surely someone with that much influence should think about how their content could be perceived.

Jenner definitely has a team of people to ‘okay’ things, so why was this allowed to slip through the net? Unless it was for shock factor of course, which wouldn’t be that surprising for a ‘clan’ like theirs. After all, there’s only one thing worse than being talked about, and that’s not being talked about, right? This seems to be Jenner’s approach.

Another thing that seemed to anger people was the idea that disability seems to be worn as a costume here. She can choose to style herself like this for a shoot, but for some this is their everyday struggle. They cannot pick and choose when they have a disability. So, using a wheelchair for ‘fashion’ seems to be ignorant and trivialises us.

There are lots of disabled models who struggle to get work because of toxic elements of the fashion/modelling industry. The real people who understand the struggle deserve the recognition – not someone who is wearing our battle for shock factor or fun. I’m not always critical of the Kardashian/Jenner family, but this time, sorry Kylie. It’s a no from me!

However, it’s not all doom and gloom for disabled people in the media. There has been increasing positive representation. For example, disabled models are breaking into more mainstream media, with companies being increasingly aware of the movement towards inclusivity and wanting to work with them in order to be part of this positive change. We have models such as Aimee Mullins, and comedians like Rosie Jones, to name just two.

We have also seen the emergence and rise in disabled modelling agencies such as Zebedee Management. This is an agency which specifically focuses on getting disabled people modelling jobs in the mainstream media. Having only been around for around three years, they are a relatively new agency.

Despite not having been around that long, Zebedee are making good headway with many models plus mainstream media coverage. This is good for the disabled community as it shows that disability is becoming more normalised. This is clear from Gucci model Ellie Goldstein – she has Downs Syndrome but says she doesn’t let that stop her in achieving her dreams.

In a recent (2020) written interview for Vogue, Goldstein says ‘I enjoy being a role model. It shows that if you follow your hopes and dreams, you can achieve anything.’ She adds ‘be yourself and don’t worry about what other people think of you.’

Goldstein is a shining example of how the fashion/beauty industry is changing. Beauty standards are slowly becoming less rigid and more accessible for all. Modelling for Gucci, a brand that is so high-profile, is amazing exposure for those with disabilities.  Representation is so important for people to love and accept themselves and for many this highlights that, in terms of the fashion/modelling industry, we are progressing further and further in the right direction.

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