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.
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