I can't go another day without posting the pictures from Christian Dior's new ad campaign, ‘Shanghai Dreamers.' Check it out, friends! I have a ton of thoughts about this, mostly 1) What the fuck? Parading this tired bullshit again?
Can a person yawn and barf at the same time if that person is me and I'm not tired or nauseous, just so sick of seeing this over and over and over and over and over and over again? (All of those links will take you to the amazing ladies of Threadbared, who are always on the ball when it comes to fashion's enduring predilection for using people of color as background and/or props.)
And 2) Doesn't this creepily remind of you when Gwen Stefani was in her Harajuku Girls phase, after she decided to get over Indian culture and appropriate Japanese street culture instead?
During her Harajuku phase, Gwen physically outfitted herself with four Japanese women, who were, of course, a good two feet shorter than her (making the visual image of a very familiar Orientalist narrative of domination and subordination all but undeniable,) and were all dressed the exact same in contrast to Stefani's wildly differentiated and individualized outfit (to visually reinforce the same tired trope of the simultaneous conformity and weirdness of Japanese culture, even though Ms. Stefani was the one who picked their outfits!) For more than a year, Gwen paraded herself around in public with these four Japanese women serving as the background to her fashion statement, with virtually no public outcry or criticism, except for the incandescent and brave Margaret Cho. How much more obvious can objectification look? Just look at this photo. Gwen's Harajuku girls are meant to look like objects, while Gwen stands out as the clear subject. She gets to be an actual person who can articulate and exert her personality, which is defined against the backdrop of undifferentiated small, Asian, female bodies. Dior's Shanghai Dreamers campaign is no different.
Going back through some of the wonderful archives over at Threadbared under the category of ‘Fashioning Race,' I revisited Mimi's essay, "Background Color, Redux II," where she quotes from art historian James Smalls' essay, "Slavery is a Woman,":
A recognized example of the standard representation of blacks in European art is provided by Jean-Marc Nattier's 1733 Mademoiselle de Clermont at Her Bath Attended by Slaves. (Fig. 2) There, black women are shown in their expected roles as servants and exoticized complements to the white mistress. [...] The portrait constitutes a visual record of white woman's construction and affirmation of self through the racial and cultural Other. [...] The black woman's headwrap and partial nudity are signs that mark her as different from white womanhood. As well, they constitute visible markers of white woman's command over black woman's labor.
In the case of Dior's ‘Shanghai Dreamers,' the conformity and the old-fashioned appearance of the rows and rows of repeated Chinese faces and bodies only serve to constitute a visual record of the Western world's construction and affirmation of self through the racial and cultural other. If Chinese people from a certain era (and to be quite uncharitable, I don't believe Christian Dior knows what era of Chinese photography and life he is referencing when he says, "My inspiration came from a certain Chinese style of group photography but these ceremonial photographs marks a departure from a certain historical period and herald the future,") represent how oppressive Chinese society is and how indistinguishable Chinese people are, then it must mean that European and American societies are so free and liberated and individualized!
I'm so tired of hearing about how scary and conformist China used to be (and might I mention, always hearing about it from people who AREN'T ACTUALLY CHINESE AND DIDN'T LIVE THROUGH SAID SCARY TIMES.) Can someone, for once, actually ask a Chinese person who lived through the scary sixties and seventies what it was like and how they see themselves? To all future fashion designers and artists who want to capitalize on the current cultural fascination with China (aka Yellow Peril Redux), I can give you my mom and my dad and my entire extended family's phone numbers, and Mister Christian Dior (and Karl Lagerfield and the folks over at Chanel who were behind that awful video about Shanghai,) you can call them up and ask them what it felt like to live through the Cultural Revolution in China. Because I promise you, they won't mince words about how difficult of a time it was to live through, they won't forget to mention all of the loved ones that disappeared or died or were imprisoned or went crazy, but I don't think for a moment that my mom or my dad or my aunts or my uncles would recognize themselves in your stupid fucking photos.
And on the subject of conformity and democracy, we seriously need to talk about our own scary and conformist ideals of beauty and feminity and fashionability, and thank goodness for Natalie for starting the conversation with her posts, "The best argument against the evidence of democracy in fashion is a conversation with a fat woman,"and "Rejecting the notion of the flattering outfit." And I'm not even going to get into the plenitude of other arenas of oppression and conformity and inequality in American and European societies.
I keep thinking of David Foster Wallace's speech/essay on why Kafka is funny (you can listen to it here) and the moment when he asks us to take a cliche literally. For example, what does it mean if someone is actually ‘creepy?' (Hi Gregor Samsa.) What about the uneasy and repugnant relationship of the photos in Dior's Shanghai Dreamers campaign to the fairly commonly trotted out comment in reference to Asian people, "You all look the same?" Has any Asian person in America been spared of this comment? I certainly haven't, and neither have my friends and family. If a random dude says that to me in a gas station, is it any less innocent or sinister than if Christian Dior decides to say the very same thing at his Dior storefront on Huaihai Lu in Shanghai?
By the way, I know a lot of people have defended this campaign by pointing out that a Chinese photographer, Quentin Shih, shot these photos, but that argument doesn't make any sense. Just because there are people of color working in the police force and in the courts, that doesn't negate and invalidate the structures of racism that exist in the criminal justice system? When Margaret Cho spoke out against Gwen Stefani's use of her Harajuku girls, one of the girls, Nakasone-Razalan, responded by defending Gwen and her own choice to be part of Gwen's posse. Well, yes, racism is very complicated, isn't it? How many white people are okay with the statement, "Every single white person is a vehement and vicious racist?" Find me five and I'll buy them lunch. Well, the flip side of that argument is also not okay. The fact that these photos were shot by a Chinese photographer does little to change or erase the entire history and tradition and institution of Orientalism and imperialism and racism, which is also why any argument that starts with, "My best friend/fiance/wife/husband/stepbrother/cousin/blah blah is [insert X race/ethnicity] so I'm definitely not racist, and he/she doesn't find it racist either!" is so profoundly pitiful.
I'm not presuming to know anything about the photographer for Shanghai Dreamers, but let me tell you that some of the saddest moments I've experienced were ones when I or someone I know tried to express frustration or anger at an instance of bigotry/racism/sexism/homophobia etc and a fellow woman/person of color/gay person/etc joins the conversation to say, "Actually, I wasn't offended at all," which is just as valid as someone saying that they did feel it was racist/sexist/homophobic/whatever, but when there's someone who doesn't want to feel like he/she is a racist/sexist/privileged ignoramus, inevitably such a comment leads to a complete discredit of the original spirit of the conversation, and it comforts the person who is terrified of seeing himself/herself as complicit in an unjust world–it allows that person to take a deep sigh of relief and think, "Ah, good. See? This woman, this person of color didn't find the situation racist or sexist at all. That other woman/person of color was just being overly sensitive. I knew it. I knew I wasn't a bad person."
Maybe if we stop worrying about being bad people, we can actually begin to see what's right in front of us– in this case, another instance of just how little the fashion world wants some of us to be seen.
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