The male gaze in fashion

Ada Quek takes on the many issues at the core of the fashion industry, with specific detail on the trend of sexualising child stars.

Photo: Flickr

The Harvey Weinstein scandal opened up more explicit discussions about the problems in the fashion and film industry. Both industries are deeply intertwined, with fashion lending advice and products to the film industry, and the film industry giving fashion a brilliant platform for exposure and promotion. However, I would specifically like to talk about Weinstein, and how his relationship with fashion allowed him to get away with his terrible acts for so long.

Weinstein and fashion do not seem to be a natural match; fashion is a female-dominated industry, with huge importance placed on appearances and presentations, and Weinstein was known as leering and disheveled. There are countless articles slamming women about not looking as poised and dignified on the red carpet, yet the fact that Weinstein, in the words of Amy Larocca, is “excused from the realm of expected behaviour” shows the privilege of men being able to disregard rules and live by their own. Weinstein’s close ties with fashion started with the nascence of the film industry — the placement of the first movie stars, such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Renée Zellweger, helped Vogue to dramatically increase their sales as Miramax’s success, the American film company operated by the Weinsteins, put its covers in the spotlight. Needless to say, being an actress on Vogue’s covers would cement a more lucrative and long-term career in such a competitive and cut-throat industry. With the intertwining of Weinstein and Vogue, one sees Weinstein’s growth in power and invincibility, and so it is no surprise that young actresses and models would not want to risk offending (read: rejecting his sexual harassment) such a powerful man at the expense of their careers.

Hence, for something as often feminised as the world of fashion, it is ironic but not surprising, that the fashion industry is shaped by the male gaze. In a recent (and iconic) video released by Vogue, which shows two of the most powerful and enigmatic female icons of the fashion and film industry, Anna Wintour and Meryl Streep (coincidentally the inspiration for this article), in which the latter candidly states, “We want girls to be free, we want them to be proud, we want them to be female… you put them in danger by not informing them about the male gaze and how it works on young girls”. This statement is not made lightly. Models and actors are enticed with passion, fame, and fortune, and yet are often subjected to unexpected consequences and danger.

The interaction between fashion and society is dynamic and tightly intertwined, and one irrevocably influences the other. Society’s desires and goals strongly impact fashion, and the role of fashion in moulding the way society thinks and behaves is also crystal clear. Gucci’s decision to go fur-free from its Spring-Summer ’18 collection onwards is a reflection of a higher ethical consideration and a nod to technology (in being able to replicate the look, feel, and practical qualities of fur). Gucci’s decision will undoubtedly spark a change in the fur consumption in the fashion industry, which is estimated to be about £30.2 billion annually. Likewise, the male gaze on younger players in the fashion industry shapes how society views them, and thus interacts with them.

For those confused about what the male gaze entails, it is the act of portraying the world and its subjects, especially women, in an objectifying and sexualised manner, and we see this a lot in the world of fashion. The controversial Marc Jacobs ‘Oh, Lola!’ advertisement featured an underaged Dakota Fanning in a white/ baby pink, sheer polka dotted dress — evoking associations with innocence and purity — staring coyly at the camera with a giant perfume bottle in between her legs. The ‘artistic’ direction of this advertisement closely follows Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, which is about an older man’s sexual relationship with a child, explicitly confined by Jacobs’ view of Fanning in this advertisement as a “contemporary Lolita, seductive yet sweet”. The familiar adage of “sex sells” might just seem like another business tactic, but is “sex (between a young girl and a man old enough to be her grandfather) sells” a value that should be accepted and promoted in mainstream media? The dissemination of such an image in magazines, billboards in malls, train stations, and on buildings, and across the Internet on online magazines, blogs, and several pages of Google images, is extremely problematic. This leads to widespread consumption of the image, and hence increases the normalisation of sexualising children, which apart from evoking instincts to retch, is extremely problematic, because it is basically advocating paedophilia, especially by an extremely prominent fashion brand that interacts with and influences countless young girls (and other people). In other words, it spreads the notion that looking at children in a sexual way is okay). This might allow more advertisements to advocate it, leading to more normalisation of paedophilia.

The male gaze is not only directed at girls — it is an entrenched part of the fashion and media industry that even affects boys. The 26 year old model Ali Michael publicly directed a message on her Instastory to Finn Wolfhard, another child actor in Stranger Things, to “hit (her) up in 4 years”. Although she is technically proposing a relationship when he is of legal age, the fact that she is seeing him in a certain way when he is not at a legal age illustrates her sexual attraction to Wolfhard. This calls to mind instances of young girls getting cat-called or verbally preyed on by comments of “Wait till you turn 16/18.”. During a ComicCon panel interview, the interviewer Patton Oswalt made direct sexual comments to Wolfhard about his last name being “the greatest porn name ever”, and told him to not appear in anything called “Stranger Thongs”, disguised as jokes. Wolfhard and his co-stars all appeared visibly uncomfortable at the comments, which escalated  to the point that Wolfhard explicitly told Oswalt to stop. Another disturbing instance of Wolfhard having to call out adults is when he told them to stop calling him ‘Daddy’, a sexualised term used to refer to one’s partner. In the film and fashion industry, children are already in places of vulnerability and look towards the more experienced adults for guidance and protection, yet we see that such figures of authority rarely fulfil those roles, and instead, abuse their powers and make the industry even more dangerous for children, as we see from the countless stories of paedophilia in such industries, such as the surfacing of sexual harassment of younger actors by Wolfhard’s ex-agent Tyler Grasham and Kevin Spacey.

However, despite the deeply entrenched male gaze in fashion (and also the media), perhaps there is a lighter side, in that we acknowledge this problem and are taking steps towards solving the problem. The strong friendship that Anna Wintour and Harvey Weinstein forged in the late 1900s which fused the fashion and film industry so tightly did not cloud the former’s condemnation of the latter, as Wintour called Weinstein’s behaviour “appalling and unacceptable”. The model Cameron Russell has begun sharing stories about sexual abuse of young models in the fashion industry on her Instagram, and encouraged others to contribute their stories to force the industry to acknowledge the scope of this problem, instead of ignoring it like it has done for decades. Hence, it is arguable that this generation, and generations after that, are unafraid to call out the problems in such industries due to their interconnectedness to the Internet and all its broadcasting power. From countless, unforgiving tweets shaming sexual predators to powerful articles exposing powerful people, we have moved on from, as Meryl Streep would say, “the past” where “locker-room talk (and) just the way men are”, and onto a better future.



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