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Violence of Beauty/Beauty of Violence

Before I say anything, I’m going to ask you to look long and hard at these images:

What do you see in them? How do they make you feel? I see two beautiful women who are completely nonchalant about these very serious injuries (one of which is totally FATAL) they have inexplicably sustained. And I’ll tell you what. It makes me really fucking angry. It makes me think of a quote from one of my favorite movies, Stage Beauty, in which a female actress rips apart the performance of a male actor who previously played the women’s parts in 17th century England (emphasis mine):

Your old tutor did you a great disservice, Mr. Kynaston. He taught you how to speak, and swoon, and toss your head but he never taught you how to suffer like a woman, or love like a woman. He trapped a man in a woman’s form and left you there to die! I always hated you as Desdemona. You never fought! You just died, beautifully. No woman would die like that, no matter how much she loved him. A woman would fight!

I believe that. I think any woman, even one who was continually abused, would lash out in return when faced with the real possibility of death. It’s simple human instinct. So why do the women pictured seem so blithe about their wounds?

Well, you might wonder about the context of the photos. Perhaps it’s part of a how-to in a special effects magazine? I know that in my Make-up for Theatre course, I learned how to make bruises and gashes just like those. When I took photos for my portfolio, I wasn’t focusing too much on my expressions. I was just trying to record the work I’d done. So perhaps that explains the lack of emotion on the model’s faces.

Or perhaps, the photos are from a domestic violence campaign, like this one done by Anna Friel. But then, that doesn’t seem quite right either. Besides the obvious difference that Anna Friel’s poster includes information at the bottom about domestic violence, what it means, why it’s wrong and where to go for help, the biggest distinction seems to be, oh I don’t know, the look of fear on her face? I mean, the closest the models up there get is the slight pout in the mouth of the right-hand woman–but that’s really par for the course with beauty shots anyway.

And that’s what those shots are. They are beauty shots of horrific wounds.

They come from a Bulgarian fashion magazine called 12, and they’ve caused a stir and re-started a conversation about the fashion industry’s fascination with beautiful women dying or in peril of dying. America’s Next Top Model did a “Dead Models” photoshoot one season, heroin chic happened, this Dolce & Gabbana gang rape ad happened, for god’s sake. And those are just a handful of examples. It seems to me that a lot of fashion’s fascination with the dead is the emphasis on “high fashion awkward.” Classic couture poses almost always involve an unnatural positioning of the body–just like you find when someone, say, falls off a building or gets electrocuted or strangled.

The sexism and danger of framing images of dead or injured women as beautiful should seem obvious (have these people NEVER seen a creepy serial killer movie or TV show?), but apparently the feminist community is sexist for calling 12 out on these images. In their response to the backlash, posted on Jezebel’s website, the magazine asks two questions of the haters:

1. How would you perceive those photographs, if they were accompanying
an campaign against domestic violence? Would you still think of them
as disgusting or you would praise them as brave and thought-provoking?
Worth the think, isn’t it?
2. What would you say if those where bespoken men, carefully groomed,
but still, terribly injured? Probably nothing, and quite frankly
that’s a bit sexist.

So here are my answers, 12.

1. See above, where I posted an actual domestic violence campaign featuring celebrities in make-up. The brave and thought-provoking part of that image is the FEAR Anna Friel conveys with her expression. Her injuries are not beautiful. They are the work of hate and oppression, and those are very ugly things. They should not be fucking glam-ed up.

2. I know that I personally would still find fault with those images if they were men. Again, violence should not be posited as a beautiful thing. And I have a question in return: why didn’t you use men? Worth the think, isn’t it? And quite frankly, that’s a bit sexist.

And don’t even pull the “art is expression” argument with me. Until our world is purged of rape culture, any expression of violence against women as beautiful is going to enable those people (men and women) who believe that violence against women–sexual, physical, emotional, etc–is acceptable, and even fascinating, to society at large. That’s something we should absolutely not support in any way.

8 thoughts on “Violence of Beauty/Beauty of Violence

  1. These images are really disturbing, but your argument is so eloquent that I kind of want more things to get under your skin.

    I think I agree with you on all points except that a male version would be just as disturbing. Perhaps that makes me sexist, but only because our society is sexist. Rightly or wrongly, I think when we see an injured or abused woman we assume her wounds were inflicted by a man; but if we saw a man with the same wounds we’d probably think another man had caused them. That’s why these images are so unsettling: because they’re layered with a violent sexuality that a male version wouldn’t obviously echo.

    1. You’re right, obviously. Such a spread with male models would still annoy me, but to a less severe degree and definitely in a different way. When I try to imagine male models in glamor shots like these, it’s always with super tough expressions and some grungy backdrop–in other words, wearing their bruises proudly like some kind of Fight Club scenario.

      Some of the commenters over on Jezebel were bringing up the question of whether the wounds were inflicted by a man or a woman, because we do assume they were made by men. I’d argue that it doesn’t make a difference, though. Even if we think that black eye is the result of a catfight, it can just be read as a metaphor for the ways in which women police and attack each other as part of any number of social myths about the female experience. The beauty shots are still condoning and glamorizing those attacks. The ironic part is that the magazine calls its detractors sexist for thinking there’s something wrong with that.

      Also, thanks? 😛 I’ll post rants about things that get under my skin more often, haha.

      1. You’re right that it doesn’t really matter if they’re inflicted by a man or a woman in terms of how violent and wrong they are, but the thing about assuming it’s a man in our heteronormative world is that it immediately implies some kind of sexual motive. And I think that’s what disturbs me most, because like you say they seem to glorify rape culture and sexual abuse.

        It’s just really weird that someone sat in a meeting and came up with the idea for this shoot. I guess they’re probably getting a massive pat on the back right now, though, because whatever the opinions the magazine is getting a whole lot of free publicity out of it 🙁

        1. Yeah, and it’s a damn shame. That’s how these things keep happening: because it’s not about the message, it’s about the money.

  2. All I want from my beautiful wife is to be allowed to hold her, caress her, love her, and care for and about her. I hope that’s all she wants from me. I have a daughter, a granddaughter, and a great granddaughter and my hope in life is that they will always be safe and be loved in the most gentle of ways.

  3. I’m still in the trenches of trauma. Seeing images of violence provokes different emotions depending on the context of the photo. I look at the magazine photos and think about what an asinine move it was to give it the go. I look at the campaign photo and think about what my face must have looked like. 12’s depiction of violence-inflicted models serves no purpose other than to retaliate against victims. Sure, there’s the whole “everyone’s talking about it” argument, but that’s crap. Elephant dung piles of crap. “Everyone” (myself included) talking about it hasn’t put it into a permanent spotlight, or raised money for shelters, victim, and victims services. 1 out of 4 women will get breast cancer; 1 out of 4 women will be intimately violated: 1 is national and 1 is not.

    1. By “1 is national and 1 is not”, I mean, not that one isn’t a national problem, but that one gets national attention and has its own campaign with a vision to end the suffering, and the other is left up to the kindness of communities alone.

  4. […] matters of national concern, whether nationally recognized or […]

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