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Posted in EDITORIAL
25 Jan ’14

Gender, Race and Class War. What a way to start 2014!

This has been a cray-cray week, with the start of it finding a Russian-debutant-heiress-magazine-editor sitting almost uncomfortably, as if she knew something was wrong on the nude-tied-and-bound-BDSM-art-piece depicting a black woman as a chair. Interestingly enough this was posted on an off-shore Russian blog on the holiday of Martin Luther King Jr. King, as we might remember spent his life, and subsequent assassination, fighting to make it completely possible that a Black woman or man in the American South can live without fear. No wealthy Russian heiress should be allowed to make light of that with a tongue-in-cheek apology. Dasha said that it wasn’t racist because the bound-black-woman-BDSM-chair was a piece of art based on another piece of art that was a white woman and this was a black woman that was making a statement about the white woman chair and about racism so the European artist turned her black. Did you get that? Don’t worry, you weren’t supposed to. That is what ridiculous rhetoric is. You are supposed to feel stupid, it is their power. That, my dear editrix, is just bad public relations. Course I’m sure your constituents in the fashion hierarchy won’t mind. Hell, they may applaud it’s seemingly emblazoned flagrant disregard for anything PC. But let’s not forget this stunt was less than appropriate and even less amusing. No less than the same day this fairly transparent publicity stunt was pulled a very non-debutant emerging fashion photographer found out from a call from the New York Post that he was dealing with a $1.1 million dollar lawsuit from one of Dasha’s rich buddies. It seems like the richer class of folks likes to make people feel insignificant to protect themselves, either by citing bad art or suing the fuck out of someone. Should this surprise us?

Is this article going to be classist, is it going to name names, is this article going to belittle an entire group of people? You’d fucking better believe it is. Read on with trepidation. I will not mince words and intend to call it how I see it.

Let’s start with something that seems to be coming up a lot lately, the idea of nudity and female sexuality. A recent article at Salon.com discussed what female nudity in relationship to actress Lena Dunham’s television character, who just happens to be naked a lot. Just maybe there are a few answers to some deeper questions revealed in our reaction to Lena’s character’s banal but frequent nudity. Things the @Salon article discuss are six points I would like to borrow because they seem to fit the overall discussion here.

“1. Women too often are made to embody male power, honor and shame.”

This we know. From advertising to trophy wives and no matter what Miley Cyrus and her constituents say, Twerking isn’t a feminist act. However Agent Provocateur, cult photographer Miles Aldridge and model Hailey Clauson seemed to forget or ignore this for dangerous female stereotypes earlier this week in their SS14 campaign. The campaign was the lingerie brand shot in a modern but very 50s looking kitchen, and the model was even pushed to smoke and iron in her undies. Okay, retro pin-up has been going on for quite some time, it is a niche market. But dare we say that even Dita Von Teese would likely shy away from a campaign like this. Are we going to perpetuate these images into the 21st century or are we going to question them and the very idea of feminine beauty? Funny thing is, when we first saw this campaign we didn’t notice that Miles Aldridge shot it. Aldridge work is normally all about irony. Unfortunately the creative director and staff at Agent Provocateur chose photos were devoid of any of the photographer’s normal mix of high irony and contrast and the brand stripped it of any social commentary. Does this surprise you? I think the brand chose to say exactly what it wanted to say: women are getting uppity, and they had best get back in the kitchen and fuck men.

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“2. Female public nudity is usually treated as a moral offense, a cause for concern and discussion, but it’s rarely allowed to be a source of non-sexual female power.”

Let’s get back to our photographer friend, Allen Henson, who is as we mentioned earlier in a 1.1 million dollar lawsuit for taking a perfectly legal cell phone photo of a young woman – granted topless, but that is legal in New York – on the observation deck of the Empire State Building.

That’s right, 1.1 MILLION DOLLARS. Okay. Is that internalized. For a cell phone photo. Ridiculous, right?

The Empire State Trust in it’s lawsuit claims Henson took a series of photos of a topless model on the 86th floor observation deck back in August, which the suit alleges tarnished the image of the building and the observatory as “safe, secure and appropriate places for families and their children.” This brings into question this power struggle as what is “appropriate” or “secure” when Henson was neither stopped or asked to leave and the topless act itself was recently enacted as perfectly lawful on the streets of New York.

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Streets where, although oddly devoid of kids but that might be another issue in post-Bloomberg New York, it would seem children would at least theoretically be able to play openly and see naked breasts. Openly. If the City of New York thinks its a moral, appropriate place for topless women, then why does one of it’s most iconic landmarks say the opposite? Could it be, maybe, they thought it was sexualized when it wasn’t?

“3. Female nudity is not just about sexualization, it’s about maintaining social hierarchies, like those of race and class.”

I would say the Empire State Trust pretty much typifies social hierarchies and class, it’s not it’s only function but for arguments sake let’s go there. The building itself also holds the distinction of being the center of broadcasting networks to the largest media market in the world. It is an American cultural icon, one of the Seventh Wonders of the World, and has withstood the test of time since it’s late 1800s induction and raising during the Great Depression, including something that the twin towers of the WTC could not have withstood – a plane crash.

Photo by David Shankbone
What does this infamous tower of broadcast journalism and New York pride have to fear from a woman with her shirt off?

How in the world do these people think that anyone would buy that a topless woman could topple one of the Seventh Wonders of The World’s cultural significance and lower tourism? It’s absurdity is, again, a social insistence and point of view where not only good (read ‘oppressed’) girls “don’t do that” but everyone else that could not possibly sue anyone for a million dollars is quite literally thought stupid.

Yes, these rich owners of The Empire State Trust think you and I, and Allen Henson, are stupid. Just like the debutant editor of GARAGE Magazine, and the reporter that asked an inane question of Lena Durham. These people think we can’t think for ourselves and will accept that the richer they are the less they have to be criticized. Remember that.

“4. Female public nakedness as protest or social commentary is not new and is critical, expressive and censored speech.”

From the Ukraine to San Francisco we see regular occurrences of this very thing in performance art to Punk rock bands. Right, this isn’t new. Lady Godiva did it. Is what Allen Henson photographed in that realm of civil disobedience? No, he was doing something completely legal. Henson called his exhibit a “social experiment”. Let’s not worry about what his intention was, really. It was an experiment, and it got the most ludicrous response possible, besides inciting a riot. In fact, in an earlier exploration of this same subject the cops were called and they walked away. He didn’t have anything to civilly protest. All he did was take a photo. He didn’t even take his clothes off, why is he being sued? I wonder how many people took cell phone photos that day?

An earlier photo where Allen Henson and topless model friend were approached by police and left alone.
An earlier photo where Allen Henson and topless model friend were approached by police and left alone.

“5. It’s not just that women have the right not to be sex objects, but also that we have the right to dismantle a discriminatory canon.

Is legally taking your shirt off and having a pal take a few photos or selfies dismantling a social discrimination.

We would hope so.

“6. Self-defined public female nudity is a challenge to capitalism and its uses of women as products, props, assets and distributable resources. Nothing on Earth is used to drive sales and profits and display male wealth and status like women’s, often naked and semi-naked, bodies.”

Did Allen Henson make any money off of the cell phone photos he took of the young lady on the observation deck of the Empire State Building? Allen Henson’s work as a fashion photographer implicitly puts him in a questionable category here, and it should be questioned. Like my girlfriend just pointed out, “I take pause when any heterosexual man is telling me what my nudity will do for society.” In a similar vein, this should be a choice and dare I say that in this case a photographer who’s job is to make a subject an iconic, known participant of culture has to work within the realm of that culture’s mores to deliver the goods. Apparently this shoot was not commercial in nature, and was more of a social project, it does bring up the question of how its experimental purpose served the person pressing the cell phone shutter button. For that matter, suing Allen Henson may have served a very similar purpose and I might question the Empire State Trust’s intentions for doing it.

All in all it was really an aesthetic choice. Like Corrine Roitfeld once said to Karl Lagerfeld, “styling a nude is the most difficult thing you can do.” Having the backdrop of New York City from one of it’s most identifiable cultural landmarks seems like a good choice to exercise your freedom to do a completely lawful act. But again, for argument’s sake let’s go ahead an think about Allen Henson’s job and take it into account. If Allen Henson’s job innately is to get his subject attention then dare I say he has done his job. Was it a commercial shoot that was intended to pay him, at all? By all indications it was not. His subject wasn’t a model that was wearing the latest Prada or Dior, or a particularly focused and controlled lighted situation with gaffers and assistants, hair and make-up and styling. The photo was so simple anyone could have taken it. A photo that’s most determined act was the choice of going to the top of the once tallest building in New York and taking a few pics with a cell phone. What in the world does his, or her, profession have to do with it? Do you need to ask permission to take a cell phone photo at the Eiffel Tower or Stonehenge? Even intention, was there an intention to commit a crime when the crime itself does not even exist.

Dasha Khukova, EIC of GARAGE magazine and a Russian debutant's photo was more sickening than a cell phone pic woman topless on the roof  of one of the most well known cultural landmarks in the world.
Dasha Khukova, EIC of GARAGE magazine and a Russian debutant’s photo was more sickening than a cell phone pic woman topless on the roof of one of the most well known cultural landmarks in the world.

All in all, time will tell what we make of this ongoing story. What we make of it and do with it may be a defining factor for a very long time. Lena Dunham, Allen Henson, the young lady that exposed her breasts on the Empire State Building as an experiment, a cultish UK brand of underwear, even the snobby art-debutant ponied-up on a piece of bad art. All of them and all of us need to decide what we are doing, and how we finally decide on what is most important in these cases that are essentially all surrounding the simple power of female nudity to not only the status quo, but everyone. This is the core issue if it is a racist, artless BDSM chair that a rich white Russian sits on or an actress that does not fit the stereotype of the sexy co-ed, or a photographer taking a iPhone photo of a topless girl at a landmark. In fact, maybe we should all take a class action lawsuit against Dasha Khukova for trying to make us feel stupid and not succeeding, finally just get over a little nudity on TV, and applaud Allen Henson for making them all look about as stupid as they really are. I mean, seriously, is it 2014 or 1954? I would like to believe we have come further than this.

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