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June 15, 2012

“Victim of Beauty”: Glamour of Violence (Once Again)

It has happened again.

Gorgeous women have been visually beaten and burned, bashed and slashed in service to fashion, art, and commerce—each of which seem to take cultural precedence over women’s health, well-being, and personal and political agency. This time the perpetrator was a so-called “beauty” layout in the Bulgarian fashion magazine 12 titled “Victim of Beauty.”

Now the blogosphere is abuzz about what the heinous images “really” mean. Jezebel set aside its characteristic snark to patiently and deliberately explain—once again, slowly—why pictures like these are problematic. I agree with Jezebel that images like these flow from the fashion industry’s contrarian self-image (“they like the rebellious reputation that shocking us squares confers”), however, given the dismal commonness of images like these (something also well-documented by the Jezebel column), the only thing “cutting edge” about them is the cuts that are left on the edges of the models’ skin.

After Jezebel called out 12 for its glamorization of violence against women, the 12 editors shot back with an email in which they  touted the polysemic nature of visual images and relieved themselves of any responsibility they may have had for the misogynistic images they produced. They stated:

It is also important to say, that we do NOT support violence of ANY kind, and this is NOT a shoot glamorizing, or encouraging, or supporting violence against women. We believe that images such as ours can be seen from various angles, and we think that exactly that is what is beautiful about fashion and photography in general – that anybody can understand it their own way, and fill it with their own meaning. Where some see a brutal wound, others see a skilful (sic) work of an artist, or an exquisite face of a beautiful girl.

Does the 12 editorial staff really think that there are any readers unsophisticated enough to buy their “photos-are-an-empty-container-you-fill-with-your-own-meaning-schtick”?

Fashion photography, like all photography, tells a story. Sometimes it can tell multiple and even competing stories. That’s where polysemy (the notion that a word, symbol, or image can have multiple meanings) comes into play. In this case, however, the 12 editors have ensured that one narrative dominates the shoot. When paired with the caption “Victim of Beauty,” these violent images suggest that women—particularly beautiful women—deserve abuse. They pair privilege (which is marked by whiteness, wealth, physical attractiveness, and high fashion) with punishment. They tacitly argue that although the women have achieved the disciplined perfection required by high fashion, as women, they are never really in control of their bodies. They are always vulnerable. It’s also particularly troubling the way in which markers of sexiness—the smoky eyes, the sultry lips, the tilted head, the shimmering makeup—are present alongside the signs of abuse.

There is a real, material, physical danger in triggering sexual arousal and then associating that experience with violence. The 12 editorial staff also omitted one key component of the equation when they noted that “where some see a brutal wound, others see  . . . an exquisite face of a beautiful girl.” Because their “fashion” layout made that “girl” a (literal) “Victim of Beauty,” viewers are being encouraged to see (in that beautiful, brutalized face) an opportunity for sexual conquest.

– Karrin Anderson

(photos via 12mag.net)

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