On Bodies, Buying & Power

ROBERT MONTGOMERY

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.