On Bodies, Buying & Power

Thursday, 11 August 2011


But what we are only now beginning to register is the acute and profound social, spiritual and psychic damage we humans are suffering from after half a century of unrestrained greed, a daily diet of advertising, and rampant over-consumption. Our lust for shopping and our sophistry for style have taken us into a critical new arena. Human identity is now defined by what one owns rather than who one is. … Much of Western society is in the grip of an unprecedented illusion and is deeply entangled within it. Modern icons are no longer poets, statesmen or rock stars – they are models.

- Charty Durrant, ‘The Tyranny of Trends’.

When I read an article that I continually turn over in my head, I know that the only possible reaction I could have is to write out my own response, otherwise I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve been reading and re-reading Charty Durrant’s brilliant article, ‘The Tyranny of Trends’. There are many things to focus on in this article, and the lines of analysis she raises are multiple. My response here is with a focus on the things that worry me. This is going to be a long post, so you have been warned ...

One of the first thoughts that entered my mind as I was reading the article, particularly the passage I have quoted above, is Lady Gaga. More specifically, I thought of her music video for her song, ‘Bad Romance’. In an interview, Lady Gaga has given the critical and social context for how to interpret this music video, stating that it’s about ‘how the entertainment industry can, in a metaphorical way, simulate human trafficking -- products being sold, the woman perceived as a commodity’. In this music video, a socialite is kidnapped by models and sold into the human-trafficking industry. In the midst of this ‘bad romance’, she is depicted as a fashion model on the catwalk, simulates the typically sexist parading of female flesh in music videos, and is adorned with all the luxurious embellishments that we associate with the fashion and entertainment industries. The links which are drawn are clear: the fashion and entertainment industries ‘sell’ the female body for a price, just like the human-trafficking industry. Women’s bodies are, in this culture of rampant buying and selling, not more free but less free because they are increasingly perceived and constructed as commodities.

There is nothing particularly far-fetched about the correlations Lady Gaga is drawing in her music video. It seems to me that the continual growth of the human-trafficking industry is the natural by-product of the way we are shaping perceptions about the female body in the modern world. It may be the most extreme example, but it is nevertheless an acutely accurate one. I find it astonishing though that so many women in Western societies think that they are divorced from the violence and brutality of the human-trafficking industry, when in fact they are enacting the same violence upon themselves in metaphorical ways on a daily basis. We no longer need the tyranny of archaic sexist laws to impose objectifying beliefs upon the female body – we are the ones who are inflicting this tyranny on ourselves. I’m becoming more and more disturbed by the increasing sense that we have lost perspective about what freedom and identity actually represent. There is such a strong infatuation with the ‘freedom’ to buy and sell, to commodify and ‘brand’ people, that we have actually started to believe in the illusions we have created.

A music video like Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’ could only come to fruition within the logic of a culture obsessed with the consumption of things and bodies. When I hear social commentators mourning the rise of the self-destructive behaviour exhibited by young women these days, I’m sort of surprised at the naivete of some of their comments. Really, what other choice do young women have but to build a culture of self-loathing when they are saturated by constant reminders of their bodies’ worth as commodities? I’m not just speaking about the obsession with models these days, but also about all the various other television, music and film icons that glorify objectification and make it seem cool. I mean, how in the world is it a compliment to call a woman a ‘ho’, ‘slut’, ‘whore’, ‘bitch’?

A lot of this comes down to money – the need to sell, package and brand ideas, products and people to an audience and to consumers. The frightening thing for me is that we’re teaching young girls to value themselves as objects. So in that sense, I see very little difference between those poor women sold within the human-trafficking industry, and women in Western societies who are likewise often branded ‘sluts’ and objects. There is nothing overtly extreme about Lady Gaga’s politics, she’s actually just telling us the truth. And I think it’s a truth that needs to be faced rather than hiding in the dark about these unpleasant issues.

I’m not out to be a spoil-sport here; I like buying pretty things too, I like watching (certain) music videos, I read magazines like Vogue, I adore certain aspects of the fashion industry and I consume the products of the entertainment industry. And believe it or not, I have a sense of humour. I won’t deny that I enjoy aspects of consumer culture, but I also have a distinct sense of who I am that has nothing to do with it. It is perfectly possible to admire a model, without obsessing about her. It is perfectly possible to admire something you want to buy and derive pleasure from it, without placing unreasonable expectations of happiness and self-worth upon it. What is lacking in our world is balance – we have shifted so far to one side, that we have forgotten who we really are and where our worth lies. There is nothing wrong with the ‘embellishments’ of consumer culture, but there is something incredibly wrong with viewing them as the defining aspects of our identities. We are so much more than that. The problem is, so many people feel powerless these days, which distorts the fact that we control the world via our actions and we have more power than we think. Maybe we should start figuring out how to actually use it.

Image credit: Image by Robert Montgomery.


etre-soi said...

What a wonderful post Hila, wonderful ! So, so true what models are we giving to our children ? I have a 10 year old niece and I really don't want her to believe that money is the right value and that women are just an object like anouther because this is exactly how things are going. Looks like all these reality shows and some video clips are only showing that a woman can be bought with nice clothes, big cars and so on.
Me too I do love beautiful things and fortunately I'm a balanced girl :).
Regarding Lady Gaga, I'm not a fan at all but I don't think that everyone who is watching and listening to her is getting the right message she wants to pass on, unfortunately !!!

Amelia said...

People don't buy things because they're happy, people buy things because they're unhappy and think that by buying a new bag, a house, a car they'll be happy. Television, media they all sell a way of living - hey, look, you might be poor now, but if you buy this completely useless product you'll be successful and happy things will come to you.

I think social pressure is not only on women, but on men too. I mean, they have to portray a stereotype too and it's as ridiculous as the female one.

The worst thing is that most people let these completely horrible, out of touch stereotypes in and say 'this is how I'm suppose to be' and 'this is how the opposite sex is suppose to be'. I think this can also be nipped in the bud by a very sturdy education at home and encouraging children to have role models that aren't just beautiful, but educated and smart (Iman comes to mind).

jessica/ jimmy vo said...

great post! you know its a good one when it makes people think deep about what you said and how it effect them. Great job!!! You've definitely caught my attention :)

peace x


Jane Flanagan said...

Thank you for this post.

One of the most disturbing blog posts I recently looked at featured a typical style collage, with items of clothing and shoes, written "This jacket... with these shoes" etc.

Where it got disturbing is when it add "with this face" and a picture of Alexa Chung. I thought the reduction of a face to a product that compiled part of a wishlist was so disturbing and disowning of the blogger's own identity.

I struggled with the Etsy post a little. In parts, it seemed a little hyperbolic, focused singularly on the fashion industry. I think the problem wider and deeper. You've identified entertainment. I also work in media and have direct acquaintance with it here (decisions about women's content are made by men who have news and sports background and utter disrespect for female-oriented content).

But I think the issue is also individual. There seems to be a wholesale lack of reflection about the implication of writing a post where you lust after another person's face, like you would a pair of shoes. But the popularity of this kind of content speaks for itself. Even when given a choice to do otherwise in an open-concept environment like the blogosphere, women choose to create and consume the same ideas.

Nancy Baric *negfilm said...

sadly yes. people are exploited more because everything has become commodified, this is true.
although i don't know if the human-trafficking industry has grown due to our buying patterns. women and children have always been bought and sold, the difference now being that it is discussed more openly...

Felix Curds said...

this post is supremo and i agree! consumerism feeds on fear: if you don't buy these clothes you'll never get laid, if you don't buy this toothpaste to whiten your teeth people won't smile at you ever. stuff is good but it's just ridiculous that we don't sell the product but this deluded image that especially plays to the patriachal standards of beauty and women's insecurities about being inable to truly achieve them! idk... (sorry be not being as articulate as you, I'd like to sustain however that this post is supremo:)

naomemandeflores said...

Very weel said and sadly true. I heard this week in a lecture that we have to think of society not as groups of citizens but as types of costumers. I couldn't believe it. And everybody in the room seem to agree. I was chocked and broken-hearted after this experience.

Camila Faria

L.A. PLAYLIST said...

let's go back to new york!!! :)

Christine said...

I have nothing else to really say but that I couldn't agree more. In my profession, I'm constantly being reminded less of my talent and more of my "selling" power (one reason I got out of NYC) and compared to those who have better looks, buy their looks, or just are really good at selling a persona to the media. Sadly, I don't know if things will really change anytime soon.

Olga said...

It was so interesting to read your long post :) I absolutely agree with all the points of view that you raised. Perhaps we are too quick to generalize social phenomena - any generatlization misses a lot of aspects of individual cases. I have acquired the habit of only speaking from personal experience. In my experience, there have been models in the 80s who had not only charisma, beauty, and individuality, but also a healthy attitude towards their bodies. They were beautiful, but real.

nancy said...

this is such a wonderful post. I have linked to you on my blog in my most recent update - I hope that's okay! thank you for writing this. it needed to be said.

Melancholy Swan said...

What is sad for me is the way commodity culture has convinced the consumer that there is something inherently wrong with them that can be solved only by the purchase of a good or service. Women's bodies were held up to be objects of desire and at the same time were constantly reminded of "odors" or fat or bad skin, whatever would make us run out and buy what would fix us. If we aren't desirable, we have no value.

The insidious nature of commodity culture is that whatever philosophies or actions come to challenge it, become assimilated. How else do you find so many things emblazoned with the word "simplify?"

Being a melancholic I encounter those who look at the rise of depression diagnosis as a sign of the marketing power of pharmaceutical companies. We are surrounded by abundance and bullied by signs telling us to "breathe" "relax" "dream," but a lot of us are miserable, because we can't escape (and don't entirely want to) consumerist culture. That next handbag just might make me cool and desirable. But, as the magazines tell me, since I'm 40, that ship has sailed.

BTW. Thank you for your post on Mrs. Palfrey at the Clairemont. We watched it this evening and loved the quiet, sweet story.

Sasha said...

"what is lacking in our world is balance – we have shifted so far to one side, that we have forgotten who we really are and where our worth lies. there is nothing wrong with the ‘embellishments’ of consumer culture, but there is something incredibly wrong with viewing them as the defining aspects of our identities. we are so much more than that. the problem is, so many people feel powerless these days, which distorts the fact that we control the world via our actions and we have more power than we think."

Your words have pretty much said everything I would ever wish to say when talking about this topic.

I once took a wonderful American Studies course that dealt with philosophical and political ideologies that have shaped the United States and in some ways are "radical." My basic understanding, at the end of the semester, was that people now find it so much easier to create themselves as people, as individuals, with objects, with consumerism (which is what businesses would like, obviously). Focusing on so many material things makes it easy to forget the immaterial things; it makes it easy to forget how powerful the immaterial is.

Your long posts always give me so much to think about and I thank you for that.

P R I M O E Z A said...

well, a lot has been written here...just want to say that was a great post hila and i really love that piece of writing you've used.

andrea despot said...

thanks for addressing this issue, but also for addressing the "balance" and for admitting that while you can still like pretty things and appreciate parts of the fashion industry, it shouldn't be so one-sided! that last paragraph is perfect, hila!

Ella said...

A+ post, Hila! Consumerism today is totally based on making people feel like absolute crap if they don't buy an item, and in so many ways, horribly degrading (especially) in many items marketed towards females!

This is such an excellent post! You've said it better than anybody ever could! :)

gracia said...

Ah, just what I needed to read and remind myself of and reflect upon... and now I can see all those things I think I need rolling by. I like that. Rolling by. Rolling by this evening is a neat and ordered house, a digital radio system, a new couch.

Thanks for this post. It was just what I needed to read this evening. Especially when the monotony of housework and what is expected weighs heavily on me. Thanks, too, for the balance. Will be treating myself to a new pair of sunglasses tomorrow.

(It's been a little while since I last left message here or read blogs. I am rusty. I am burbling. But before I depart, though v. late, Happy Birthday to you. Here is to a marvellous year ahead.)

Tracey said...

This is wonderful Hila (I shall echo the words of others who have visited before me). I actually read this post much earlier in the day but wanted to think on it first before leaving a thought or two.

I have often pondered the modern 'philosophy' of consumerism and just what it ends up consuming in the process ... I do worry about the people that are held up as role models for young women ... when did intelligence, personality and creative talent become less valued than certain concepts of beauty ?? ... I don't know Hila, I think I'm rambling ... and so I shall just say that yes, I agree with you - we all need to figure out how to use the tremendous power that we have to find a new direction.

Have a great week! xx

tywo said...

I think you said it all, Hila. What we lack is balance. My friend, I am not innocent either. I feel powerless sometimes..so to control myself, I rarely pay attention to social media. I try to stay away from things that deprive me of who I really am.
It saddens me to see/hear how my sister feels about herself because of what she has been fed.
I feel like everyone should read this post.
Thank you.


banana meet-cute said...

Hi Hila, fantastic, thought provoking post. You may have seen this already but this article contains some similar ideas and has gotten me thinking!


hila said...

entre-soi/sofia: yes, I worry that the very clever messages that lady gaga is trying to convey through her music are often lost on people, and they just focus on the outrageousness of her clothes and theatrics. I don't personally adore her music (I like some of it), but I think she's deeply intelligent and wholly aware of what she's doing.

amelia: yes, I agree, it applies to men too. but I do think that women have it worse in many respects, simply because it is still second nature to primarily judge a woman based on her body, rather than her mind.

jessica/jimmy vo: thank you, glad you liked it.

jane flanagan: yes, you've hit the nail right on the head there. I wish women in the blogsphere would desire and demand more. I have to be completely honest: there are times when I think that the blogsphere is too dominated by superficiality and sameness. And then I feel totally bad for thinking this way, because there are also so many wonderful and intelligent blogs. It's hard. I wish the blogpshere wasn't so consumed with seeking popularity and was more concerned with engaging with people on a more authentic level.

nancy: true, you have a good point there. I guess I'm not saying that the human trafficking industry is caused by contemporary consumer culture - this has always gone on, historically. Rather, I think it has been allowed to proliferate and has reached epic proportions because of the proliferation of negative and de-humanising ideologies of gender.

melancholy swan: you've worded this so eloquently, I hardly need to add anything. I'll just have to agree with what you've said. there are so many things about the way the female body is thought of and constructed these days that truly frighten me.

sasha: yes, I find it sad that we've given inanimate objects and consumption such power over our lives.

primoeza/elizabeth: thanks elizabeth, much appreciated.

andrea: I hope that came through - I'd really hate to come across as judgemental or moralistic. I don't have a problem with things per se, or with buying and selling. What I have a problem with is the fact that it's taken over our lives and identities.

ella: thank you ella. And may I say, you've been writing some pretty awesome posts lately.

gracia: no not rusty, just your usual lovely words. Thank you gracia.

tracey: you're not rambling at all, don't apologise. And I totally agree.

tywo: I think we all have enormous power, we just have to constantly remind ourselves who we are and what we are worth.

banana meet-cute: thanks again for this link, I haven't read this article before, and I found it really interesting.

hila said...

felix curds: I think you've been pretty articulate here - in fact, supremo.

camila: yes, and just as disturbing is the idea that people are 'brands'. Um, no, I'm a human being, thank you very much.

l.a. playlist: if only ...

christine: I know, I feel so discouraged about this issue. But I also have faith in our ability to change things.

olga: I sort of feel like we're moving backward when it comes to a lot of these issues.

nancy: of course I don't mind, thanks for doing so.

Stephanie said...

"i won’t deny that i enjoy aspects of consumer culture, but i also have a distinct sense of who i am that has nothing to do with it."

I think I've just found my new mantra! While we can't fully extricate ourselves from the time & culture we live in, it is still so important to try to gain some perspective—by listening to old music, watching non-blockbuster movies, or just being in nature—to remind ourselves that not everything is disposable.

Ps. Thanks for the link to Charty Durrant's piece. I look forward to reading it!

hila said...

stephanie: I'm a little afraid of being (or writing) anyone's mantra :) but thanks.

vegetablej said...

Spending my Saturday morning reading you on feminism is a great pleasure. I am so happy to see a contemporary collection of articles of feminist analysis -- such a rarity nowadays.

As annoying as the selling-sex videos that most pop divas seem to be coerced into making (and they're as boring and uncreative as they are mind-numbingly similar), are those reality model-contest TV shows. I find it chilling that it's called entertainment when young girls are made to dress up and parade around and be judged on every aspect of their bodies and faces by middle-aged people profiting from the spectacle of pain and degradation to them and their young psyches created by the competition and mean-spirited critiques in weekly torture sessions. To me this is the epitome of consumerism gone vampire and it needs to get off the air now.

In fact I find the trend of reality shows to create ever deeper levels of pain and degradation in contestants/subjects for viewers "pleasure" so the advertisers can sell us more cosmetics or toothpaste or cars troubling. Are they not suggesting that pain can be assuaged by buying something?