Monthly Archives: October 2012
In the film Girl Model, there is a bittersweet scene of a wide-eyed, 13 year old Nadya excitedly pointing out pictures in her room of famous fashion models. To Nadya, these images seem to promise not just a fantasy world of glamor and beauty, but an escape from the dreary life of poverty her family faces in their small village in Siberia.
So when Ashley Arbaugh, an American agent representing a Japanese modeling agency, recruits the impressionable Nadya with the lure of an $8,000 contract, why wouldn’t her family support her? To Nadya, this is a chance not just to pursue her dream and turn her fantasy into a reality, but to also help her family “make things good at home.”
What Nadya’s family doesn’t realize however, is that this contract, which is presented in English and Japanese to a Russian-speaking Nadya, deducts the living expenses from the $8,000 she is promised. And as the film terrifyingly unfolds, Nadya’s dreams shatter as she is left in Tokyo, unsupervised, to navigate the city by herself. Running from casting call to photo shoot, she is repeatedly promised that these jobs, for which she is never paid, will give her the much-needed experience to become a top model in the industry. Ultimately, Nadya must leave Japan and return to her family in debt, and the film insinuates, both in interviews with the modeling agents and in its postscript, that many of these young models are forced to ‘repay’ their debts to the agency by entering into prostitution and pornography.
It’s an alarming documentary that lends fresh insight in to the current debate surrounding young models. While much has been written in the American press about the industry’s attempts to issue age guidelines in the United States and Europe, so rarely do we get such an insightful look into the transnational side of the industry. Shot in a naturalistic, almost gritty manner that shatters any glamorous illusions viewers may have had of the business, directors Ashley Sabin and David Redmon leave little space for discussion on whether the fashion industry is exploitative. Their central questions are ultimately more concerned with how this exploitation occurs, and why there is such a blatant lack of transparency surrounding these horrifying practices.
I was lucky enough to watch this film a few months ago at a local film festival, and the conversation with the directors that followed after the screening was almost as illuminating as the film itself. Audience members were rightly furious, pinning blame on the agents, on Japan for its idealization of youth and use of under-age models, and on the modeling agencies in Russia and Siberia for not being transparent with the girls and their families. The directors seemed a little unsettled by the questions, and were reluctant to place blame on any one person, agency, or government. As they tried to steer the audience to broader issues, I found myself looking around the room, and I couldn’t help but think how ironic is was that we were all so concerned with the exploitation of these young girls, when most of us were wearing clothes made in sweatshops, probably by young women of Nadya’s age.
And that, I think, was the central theme of the film: we are all complicit in this global labor exploitation that is the glamour industry. My intent on writing a previous post on the Pakistani textile fire that occurred during New York Fashion Week was to shed light on the dichotomous nature of an industry that often relies on exploited labor to fulfill its glamorous facade, as well as its transnational nature that makes it all too easy for key players to escape culpability when they fail to enforce regulations to protect the most vulnerable. But these key players are not just the designers, the agents, the factory monitors. They are also us, the consumers who fuel the need for the designer jeans made in a Pakistani textile factory, the luxury items made by undocumented Chinese immigrants in Italy, and the beauty magazines that feature the many underpaid, exploited models, both here and abroad.
It is significant perhaps, that David Redmon’s other film Mardi Gras: Made in China exposes the sweatshop labor conditions of Chinese factory workers who make Mardi Gras beads, an American cultural product that has come to symbolize frivolity and excess. While Girl Model opens with images of scantily-clad girls dissected by modeling agents at a casting call, Mardi Gras: Made in China focuses on the largely female factory workers whose bodies are pushed to exhaustion by their male supervisors. The two films are similar not just in their critiques of globalization, but also in how they reveal the commodification of female bodies by industries that view women as largely disposable.
Girl Model will be streaming online on PBS from March 25 to April 23. You can follow the film on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Watch extended video interviews with director Ashley Sabin and former model Rachel Blais here.
- Check out the Girl Model website for ways that you can help fight model exploitation and trafficking, including hosting a screening and downloading an educational guide.
- Click here to sign a petition asking the New York State Department of Labor to give child models the same protections as child actors.
- Check out the SPARK Movement to join young women who are “demanding an end to the sexualization of women and girls in the media.”
- Check out the site Miss Representation for more information on how young women can change beauty ideals. Check out their action ideas here.
- Check out this fantastic infographic about the international model supply chain.
- This statement by former model Rachel Blais, who appeared in the film, explains how the modeling industry will only change if there is a law banning children under the age of 18 from working in adult modeling industries.
- Watch former model Cameron Russell’s Tedx presentation on the restrictive norms attached to idealized notions of beauty, as well as the highly sexualized shoots she had to take as a 16 year old girl.
- Ashley Mears’ book Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model, is a fascinating ethnographic look into how the industry packages models to become a prized ‘commodity,’ as well as the exploitative nature of work in the new cultural economy. You can also check out her interview with the New York Times.
- In a recent Q&A on PBS’s POV (which is archived here), The directors cited the films Lily 4-Ever, Import/Export, and Model as films that inspired them while making the film.
- This short film explores a black model’s efforts to navigate an industry that marginalizes the beauty of women of color.
My Related Posts:
There are few international issues that incite as much global anger as the Palestinian-Israel conflict.
And yet, despite our government’s political and financial support of Israel that relies on American tax dollars ($30 billion in the last ten years alone), it is the one issue that I would argue is impossible for Americans to discuss openly in the public sphere.
This past summer, the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, decided to challenge this stifling of the conversation when they bought advertising space inside the public bus system that read, ““Join with us. Build peace with justice and equality. End U.S. military aid to Israel.” Continue reading
Tonight marks the second Presidential debate between Obama and Romney, and pundits have spent the last week trying to predict what the strategies of the president will be in order to make a comeback after a lackluster first debate performance. But if, like me, you’re getting a little sick of hearing the same talking points repeated over and over (Iran is bad, the economy is worse, and abortion, abortion, abortion) and wished that other issues you cared about were included in the debate, you might want to check out Democracy Now!, an independent media organization that will be including third-party candidates excluded from the debate!
Amy Goodman is one of my heroes, and her commitment to represent alternative voices in political debates that have been excluded or marginalized by the mainstream media is just one of the reasons why we so desperately need independent media outlets. Here are ten other reasons:
1) The American press is not ‘free,’ it’s Corporate.
Freedom of the press is a constitutional right, and Americans have always taken pride in our ‘unbiased’ media system that supposedly gives journalists freedom to pursue the stories they want without censorship. What many Americans may not be aware of, however, is that there are more subtle forms of censorship bias than the ones we associate with countries like China. As media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) documents in their article, “What’s wrong with the News,” advertiser sponsors and corporate ownership inflict their own kind of propagandistic influence on media outlets. Thanks to deregulation of the media industry during the 80s and 90s, and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that allowed for corporate mergers, all of the media we consume is controlled by just six main corporations. SIX. So what does that mean exactly?
2) Ummm … conflict of interest, obvi.
So here’s the problem. When a news organization like NBC is owned by a corporation like General Electric, it’s going to be difficult for NBC to report on issues that challenge ideologies and practices held by GE. Perhaps that’s why you so rarely read stories on nuclear waste in any GE-owned outlets (thanks to GE’s investments in the nuclear power industry), and why, when it was revealed that the largest American corporation had avoided paying federal taxes (whoops!), every major news outlet reported on the story except … yup, you guessed it. NBC.
Watch this brilliant little skit from a Saturday Night Live episode called “It’s a Media-Opoly” that aired in the late 90s, and has since been banned. Was it perhaps because GE execs were uncomfortable with the critiques that SNL leveled at their parent corporation? Do I need to repeat ‘obvi’ again girlfriends?
3) Because Americans support climate change, the mainstream media does not.
When the Washington Post’s two-page story on energy policy excluded critics of the big energy giants, it was revealed by FAIR that the ‘debate’ was actually sponsored by an oil industry player, the American Petroleum Institute. Sigh.
4) Because Britney Spears shaving her head was a headline on CNN.
It wasn’t just BS because Brit-Brit showed the world her shaved head for like, two seconds before covering herself with a hoodie and then resorting to wigs for next six months (if you’re the main news story for the day, I’m going to expect you to rock it, just sayin’). But it was also just one more example of how our media is now fixated with increasing ratings to make money for their corporate owners, choosing to cut expensive funding for international reporting and focusing on entertainment-related news, also referred to as ‘info-tainment.”
Imagine going to school for journalism because you dreamed of covering hard news and possibly taking down people in power a la Watergate, and then being forced to report on Paris Hilton. If you’re like MSNBC reporter Mika Brzezinski, this realization might make you snap. Watch below.
5) Because media outlets like Fox are to News as Alexis Wright is to Zumba.
Alexis Wright used her Zumba studio as a front for prostitution, and Fox uses its ‘news’ station as a disguise for partisan hackery.
In an effort to increase ratings, ‘fair and balanced’ cable news stations like the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox have thrown nuance out the door and have instead resorted to distorting facts for the sake of supporting their singular partisan world-view. Maybe that’s why Fox viewers are notoriously uninformed on important issues. Check out this hilarious prank played by college student Max Rice, who wrote in posing as a ‘disillusioned former Obama supporter.’ Fox didn’t do any research on him, and he was kicked off mid-interview by a noticeably flustered Gretchen Carlson.
6) Because it’s not the media anymore, it’s the Media-Lobbying Complex.
It doesn’t matter the political affiliation really. Both Republicans and Democrats have appeared on media programs critiquing or promoting certain issues without revealing their conflicts of interest. So “NBC Military Analyst” Barry McCaffrey appears on MSNBC to promote more military spending on Afghanistan, without revealing his investments in DynCorp, a global government services provider that received billions of dollars to aid U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Other ‘analysts’ have appeared on the show to critique the health care plan, without revealing their ties to pharmaceutical companies. I could wax poetic, but you get the idea.
7) Because lack of critical media coverage helped fuel the Iraq War in 2003.
Americans were actually pretty ambivalent about invading Iraq in the weeks leading up to the war. You would think this complexity in public opinion would reflect in the mainstream news coverage. But according to a FAIR study, in the two weeks leading up to the invasion, only 3 of the 393 sources that were cited in mainstream media outlets ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS (yes, even PBS) on issues relating to the Iraq War were identified with anti-war groups. THREE. Of the THREE HUNDRED AND NINETY THREE.
What is even more distressing is that while Americans are fed fluff by our news organizations, the international versions of these outlets will often prominently feature global issues on their covers. Check out this comparison of the domestic and international versions of Time and Newsweek.
Last I checked, wasn’t the media an institution that was supposed to inform us on various aspects of different issues? This exclusion of critical voices has serious implications. How could the public gain any understanding of the ramifications of war, both in Iraq and at home, if they weren’t exposed to alternative viewpoints?
Below, Amy Goodman’s phenomenal half-hour documentary, Independent Media in a Time of War, explores the mainstream media’s mishandling of coverage in Iraq.
8) Because the mainstream media has a history of marginalizing protest movements.
Just look at Occupy last year. As I documented in a recent post, the media’s coverage of Occupy was condescending at best and utterly dismissive at worst. Are media organizations really going to write fairly about an anti-corporate movement when they are themselves owned by corporations?
9) Because the mainstream media supports politicians.
Amy Goodman recently interviewed Guardian blogger Glenn Greenwald and Open Debates founder George Farrah on the ‘faux objectivity’ of mainstream journalists, highlighting the recent debate moderators. Their main point was that the moderators asked questions based on assumptions which the candidates had to take as a ‘fact,’ such as the notion that “there is no greater security threat than Iran” (laughable when you consider that Iran has an anemic military budget compared to the United States).
As Greenwald noted: “So you don’t just have third-party candidates being excluded by—as a result of these rules; what you have is the vast bulk of political opinions and political facts being excluded because these moderators are chosen very specifically to ensure that they will embrace only the orthodoxy shared by both parties while posing as objective, neutral and non-ideological actors.”
Jon Stewart made a similar point when he appeared on CNN‘s now defunct show Crossfire, in which a Republican and Democrat basically just yelled at each other for an hour. Hilariously, and without raising his voice, Stewart accused the hosts of partisan hackery and serving politicians and corporations instead of the public. The show was cancelled a week later 🙂
10) Because in a democracy, you need dissent.
If the mainstream media is failing to provide alternative voices, than we desperately need independent media. We need to support movements and protests that critique the growing corporatization of our media, schools, and public space. We need to support the media as an institution that informs citizens, instead of selling advertisements and corporate interests to consumers. We need to figure out how to take the public discourse back, and we need the media to help us do this. Dissent, and embracing a diversity of viewpoints and ideologies, is the foundation of the very democracy upon which America was founded. So let’s embrace democracy, now!
To check out Amy Goodman’s book, The Silenced Majority, that recently made The New York Times best-seller list, click here.
Here are some of my favorite independent media sources and media watchdog group, feel free to suggest more:
Sunday marked the 11th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and as I watched the media coverage on various news stations, I couldn’t help but feel irritated at the fact that for 11 years, I had been fed details of a war through the filter of my television screen. When I mentioned my frustrations to a friend, she referred me to someone who is currently doing international development work in Afghanistan! This woman graciously agreed to be interviewed, but preferred to keep her identity and the identity of the company she works with anonymous. I hope that this can shed some insight on the unique challenges of working in development from someone who is actually working in Afghanistan, and what the possible future holds as the U.S. withdrawal looms closer.
Q: So, can you provide some more background about what your role is, and what the goals of your development team are?
A: So basically, the team I’m working with is focusing on the development of the country’s private sector so we can improve the overall economic situation in the country. We’ve been there for over ten years, so we’re trying to stay on track for progress. I would say that the most important goal is to help the country be self-sufficient, in that they can become more self-reliant without international presence.
There are a variety of different players involved, but really the goal is to find local businesses and attractive opportunities, so the money we give can be spent towards promoting productive business growth to stimulate the economy.
Q: OK, so what would you outline as the main obstacles you’ve encountered while working in development in Afghanistan? Maybe we could start with some of the cultural challenges first?
A: Cultural context is crucial. Honestly, it doesn’t matter how much you read about the history and culture of the country you do work in, because in my opinion, you really need to be on the ground to understand the reality of the situation and what the risks are. I’ve spent a lot of time adapting to the environment and I definitely think you do better work here once you have a better understanding of the culture and are able to frame this notion of development within their (the Afghan people) terms.
On a day-to-day basis, there are smaller and larger challenges I’ve been faced with. For example, what I’ve experienced from the Afghanis we have worked with is that you can’t just jump into a meeting and start asking direct questions. That’s basically considered rude here. You have to allow a few minutes of familial conversation before you start business. And of course, even with the best translator, there runs a risk of misinterpretation, just because there are some phrases and words that can’t be perfectly translated, you know?
Q: And you’re a woman working in Afghanistan …
A: Yup, which offers its unique challenges, obviously. One of the first things I noticed is that you rarely see women outside, so there seems to be a confinement of women in the private/domestic sphere, though let me be clear that I am not speaking for the entire country, just where I am personally located. So as a woman, walking outside means getting stared at … a lot. And when I actually meet with men, I have to cover my arms otherwise I am perceived as being ‘too forward.’ It can get annoying to constantly have to monitor yourself, but I have to say, that for the most part, the Afghan people I work with have been really warm and welcoming. Of course, we’re working with the ones who are welcoming this idea of development in the first place, so the men I meet with are probably more open-minded to the idea of women from the West working in the public sphere.
Which brings me to another point. Just because some people are open to this idea of development, doesn’t mean that the relationship is completely harmonious and trusting. After all, this is a country that has experienced war for the last 30 years, and drastic changes in regime shifts. I mean first you had the Soviets in the 1980s, who were toppled by the American-backed mujahedeen that later branched out to the Taliban, and now, the current American invasion.
And I think a lot of Americans forget that, both here and at home. There’s this attitude coming from our stakeholders sometimes of, ‘Why don’t they want help?’ and you really have to understand the history of international involvement in the country, and how there have been so many broken promises made. Even now, while I get to work with a lot of amazing stakeholders, there are some who are not always genuine, who are just trying to invest to add something to their company’s vita, you know? And so you have to be conscious of how things operate here, of how to best leverage your resources, and to make sure you are hooking up with the right people who are sensitive to the country’s unique cultural history and challenges.
Q: What about security?
A: The security situation is definitely limiting. You have to do a lot of coordination with logistics; you can’t just go out and see places.
Q: Do you feel that affects media coverage as well?
A: What I’ve gathered from the military officials I’ve talked to is that the relationship between the media and the military is um, pretty tense. The military claims they’re misquoted all the time …
Q: Right, but isn’t it difficult for journalists to get access to information? I remember a few years back Laura Logan gave an interview in response to criticisms from the Bush administration aimed at journalists that they weren’t giving the ‘whole story’ on Iraq. And her response was that due to security and logistical issues, it was difficult to move freely within the country. Have you ever seen the film Control Room? I couldn’t believe that the majority of reporting done from the CentCom (U.S. Central Command) base was located hundreds of miles from Baghdad …
A: I haven’t seen the movie, but I definitely wouldn’t be surprised if security issues placed restrictions on journalists as well.
Q: Not to mention that most media outlets are relying on AP reporters for their foreign news coverage, so it’s not like there’s a ton of journalists out there reporting on foreign affairs, even in Afghanistan.
A: Right, and I think that again drives home my main point. If you’re relying on the news for your media on Afghanistan, you’re just not getting the full story. Nothing compares to actually being on the ground and working with people here. And look, I’m not saying that I have full access to the country here, as I mentioned before. But even working here with the American government, I am still exposed in a way I never was before. Meeting with Afghan people and seeing the culture first-hand really changes your perspective.
Q: OK, now I want to ask you about the state of women in Afghanistan and it’s a two-part question. First of all, there seems to be a new focus on women’s education and empowerment in the developing world, because recent research has shown that there is an actual ‘net growth’ in economic development when girls are educated and women are given means of economic empowerment (like through microfinance). There is strong evidence that the education and empowerment of women creates a more educated, powerful community—their children are more educated, infant mortality decreases, and women who have access to the family’s finances are more likely to spend their money on the family’s health and nutrition then their husbands are.
And my second question is, even though there’s been a marked improvement in the education of girls, with over 2.4 million going to school, why do you think progress in other aspects of women’s development has been so slow?
A: Well I can’t speak to that specifically, because I don’t focus on women’s development, but I think there are several contributing factors, based on the conversations I’ve had with other people working here. First of all, just because you give aid to a country, doesn’t mean that it’s going to change cultural attitudes overnight. Even if girls go to school, they are still entrenched in deeply complex, patriarchal familial and societal relations. And of course safety is still an issue, and there are some who believe the military invasion has made the security situation more dangerous because of retaliatory threats by insurgents. But, there are also many who fear that when western forces withdraw, that instability might return and any gains made will be reversed.
One interesting aspect about women’s rights that I didn’t really consider before I came here was the huge gap in skill set. I mean, there were many women who attended university in Kabul in the 1960s and 70s …
Q: I was going to ask you that! I recently screened a documentary film, Afghan Star, to my students for a section on how music can serve as a powerful tool for protest and change. And the movie follows these four contestants who are competing for a grand prize, and fans of each contestant ‘campaign’ for their favorite, in what the film argues is basically a first taste of democracy for many Afghanis. Anyway, they show flashbacks of Kabul in the 1970s, and it seemed to be kind of a hip, cultural mecca!
A: Yeah exactly. So you’ve got these people who are more educated, and then a lot of people who have been growing up during the war who are illiterate, and honestly, I just think it’s going to take time to bridge that gap, and a lot of patience.
A look back on the former ‘Paris of Central Asia’:
Q: So moving forward, what do you see as some of the biggest challenges Afghanistan faces with development?
A: Well first of all, we are currently having huge issues with inflation, because of all the aid that is being pumped into the country. Furthermore, since Afghanistan imports a lot of their products, the charges for customs are really high. They just can’t compete with countries like Iran, whose currency is really cheap, in that respect. And it’s going to take a while before the country has enough local businesses and ventures before they can compete with other industries. The argument is that when we withdraw out of the country and we invest less money, inflation will go down. But then if we don’t continue to support reconstruction aid, what will happen? Can we really accomplish all that needs to be done in the next two years? It’s something that those of us who are working in development, are still grappling with.
Q: OK, so here is my final question. Political pundits are always throwing around this notion that Afghanistan is impossible to keep stable, that it’s too tribal, too conservative a culture, too vast a region. But I recently read an article in the New York Times in which several Afghan scholars cited this viewpoint as condescending, as a reaction used whenever Americans do not want to engage in a conflict.
I mean, do they have a point? Sure the country’s been at war for 30 years, but it was only a few decades ago referred to as the ‘Paris of Central Asia …’
A: OK, let me say this in response to the ‘Afghanistan is tribal’ argument. I have met with different groups of people, from different ethnic tribes, Pashtuns, Hazaras, etc., and while there may be some cultural differences and tensions, most of the people we’ve met with seem to be on the same page of wanting to move forward with their business ventures, with progress in the country.
Can Afghanistan ever be stable? I can’t say for sure, but I will tell you there are concerns that Kabul might collapse as foreign aid and investment are withdrawn before 2014. It might just take a strong leader, and that’s why the next round of elections is so important. If they’re fraudulent, then I doubt the Afghan government will be able to assume responsibility for the security of the country.
But then, maybe change will come from the people themselves. My hope in the development work that I’m doing is that we can help to empower the Afghan citizens, and honestly, I’ve just been amazed at how innovative people are. Even if they don’t have formal schooling, many of them are self-taught artisans, are skilled in construction, agriculture, and different types of services. It’s really inspiring to me to see that despite these change of regimes, despite the oppression, the wars, the people here just do it. And that’s why personally, I have hope, even if I’m unsure as to whether everything can be stabilized in just two more years.
Please stay tuned for an upcoming interview with a Cultural Studies scholar from Kabul who has done extensive research on women in Afghanistan, the intersection of capitalism and development, and yes, even reality television shows like Afghan Star.
Afghan Star trailer … amazing film (and available on instant neflix!)
The documentary film Control Film: