(Addendum to my original post: I’m ambivalent about posting this entry; but I’ve learned that when something deeply moves me, to honor the feelings. There’s something there, even if the story/stories I’m hearing or feeling differ from the all the people in the know. Especially on social media, which is where this particular bit of offense got it’s legs and ran, especially among the politically correct, the liberals, the feminists, the social justice crusaders, who know better.
Today, I ran across a term that’s become ideologically popular, “intersectionality.” From what I’ve read, the term started as a divisive term among feminists. Yet, intersectonality was precisely what I was trying to get to in the following, and the narratives woven in this photo, which are many and strikingly complex, have been flattened by social media and the self-righteous. Returning to the photo, I’m even more convinced that if the thought police hadn’t gotten the upper hand, this particular composition, either intentionally or unintentionally, provides a singularly brilliant portrait on intersections of race, gender, and, most important, class and labor relations.
Thanks to the taste police, that dialogue has been shut down.
All that remains on the Russian website is a privileged white woman staring into the camera. Irony much?)
During the 2012 Republican Convention, Clint Eastwood famously lectured an empty chair.
The evening could not have been a better scripted summary of the Republican party’s seeming raison d’être — structural patriarchy monopolizing the stage and lecturing into thin air, remarkably emblematized by Eastwood’s tortuous rambling to a chair.
To see these moments as simply a bizarre Republican convention moment missed the larger point: the status quo is stubborn, and not likely to leave the stage, even when it’s a dying animal.
That seemed the implication of Mr. Eastwood’s soliloquy, an unintentional satirical performance of the status quo, in the theater of convention politics.
This past week, we had another chair moment, one whose implications and social perspective were even more stunning.
There was no laughter. The photo caused massive controversy, the wounds it touched were too deep. Meanwhile the photo’s deepest revelations of pain and subordination seemed too subtle for the most devout of our thought police, the ones yelling ‘foul-play’ the loudest.
The ones who sit in earnest well intention with just enough information to give them moral superiority, yet apparently not enough experience to dive deeper into the narrative.
Feminists (men and women) were out in droves on my Facebook feed, the predictable social media suspects were ranting about the nasty inhumanity of it all.
I paint with broad brush strokes, so please indulge me.
I first saw the photo on The Guardian. I thought it was a brilliant and insightful critique; I posted so on my Facebook page. According to The Guardian, the photo’s subject “Zhukova . . . defended the image in a statement: ‘This photograph, which has been published completely out of context, is of an art work intended specifically as a commentary on gender and racial politics. I utterly abhor racism, and would like to apologise to anyone who has been offended by this image.’”
I took Zhukova at her word as reported in the article, and her claim corresponded to how I originally read the photo.
The din that transpired on social media left my head in a blur. I wasn’t sure who the artist was. I was not certain if the original work in question was the chair or the photo. I originally thought the photo was the object d’art, but it was the chair.
My concern is for the photo.
Because of my work, I find the photo extremely compelling, be it a conscious or unconscious product.
In my mind, the photo emerges as a kind of emblematic revelation that few are taking seriously because the chair has been summarily dismissed as sexist and racist. End of story in this version. Move on to the next controversy du jour for offense consumption.
Unfortunately, it’s not the end of the story. The stories inhabiting the photo reflect deeply engrained collective ways of being. Erasing them in an ideological triumph of personal offense won’t make them go away: repression exacerbates the problem. Moreover, this easy dismissal seemed to me indicative of class privilege. Some of the loudest and most virulent voices on my feed were the same old players: white feminists, and the sympathetic to feminists white male, proving yet again their social sensitivity.
Not a single sex worker in the lot. Nada.
The photo is a not so humorous comedy of errors, the racist — sexist chair being the morally objectionable fulcrum, the photo an egregious editorial decision.
Though photo stands was a horrible editorial choice for a fashion magazine, its composition and elements still demand consideration: its contortions scream for our attention, like a bad dream that we take to our therapist for interpretation. Or a compulsive fantasy that leaves the imagination senseless to all else, until mitigated by art or intimacy. It’s a cultural snapshot, a compendium of class-gender-race references, folded into an image with proliferating implications, none of which are being unfolded by the “holier than stilettos,” as I referred to them on my Facebook page, in a quite conscious metaphorical swipe.
The following is only illustrative, representing the salient features that I believe are being buried under political correctness.
The photo’s most abhorrent feature is the privileged white woman sitting on the dehumanized, fetishized, sexualized black female mannequin, white privilege comfortably bolstered by exploitation of the black woman — it’s a straightforward racist narrative. It is also the racism implicit in the exotic other, a trope too long populating the collective imagination, and still unshakably rampant in popular culture: the sexualized exotic.
The exotic other transverses gender, as I hear over and over. The black male or female as highly sexualized and existing for the consumption of white pleasure is so old and deeply woven into the collective unconscious, that I don’t need to elaborate it here. Google if you need. If we can understand the sexualized, fetishized, and dehumanized other as being gender neutral, and a function of deeper social anxieties and realities, perhaps you’ll allow me to enlarge the interpretive lens. Let’s assume that race is one construct buttressing the class system, privilege and economic power being the invisible, ubiquitous culprit. As Toni Morrison writes, “[t]here is no topic on anybody’s table which does not involve black people. . . . And when that disappears in time, then they have to do what they have been avoiding, which is talk about poor people.” Race and gender are the most obvious constructs that keep the economic status quo self-perpetuating, but without a broader lens, we diminish what’s at issue.
Because of my work, when I first saw this photo, I immediately saw (or projected) the systemic Madonna – Whore trope, which is an economic and class structure, not a race or moral issue. Race narratives often obscure class narratives; morality stories give authority to these class structures, leaving the whore socially invisible. In this particular photo, race, class, and morality strikingly collide: the well-bred white girl is the Madonna, the black woman is the sexualized, fetishized, dehumanized doll on which privilege asserts its moral high ground and economic comfort, embodied by Zhukova and her princess countenance.
The dehumanized fetish doll, i.e., the underclass strikingly typified in the bound, black exotic other, supports the class system’s comfort and morality, typified in Zhukova’s unsullied demeanor. But there’s an important caveat here, because Zhukova herself unintentionally emerges as one dimensional, a passive, cosmetically flawless, asexual creature whose existence and comfort depends on the bound, fierce, sexualized woman on whom she sits. One commentator wrote on a Marie Claire blog, “[e]ven if the skintone was [sic] different, the photograph would still be offensive. Women seem to be the brunt of society, and no one deserves to be sat on,” the implication being that what is at risk isn’t necessarily race, but something deeper. Unfortunately, the writer stopped here.
The photo is a snapshot of the status quo, a construction dominating all women: in its specificity, art carries a universal message, arguably then, this photo unintentionally rises to the level of meaningful cultural artifact, a rendering of a near universal invisible system that casts women one dimensionally, be it Madonna or Whore.
Let’s draw the interpretive lens back a few more inches.
The photo’s most powerful character is the one who remains invisible; the narrator-photographer, the one framing this story. Who frames this picture? Who frames this woman of privilege, the dehumanized fetish object on whom she sits, and who has the most to gain by remaining unseen while flattening out these two embodied cultural constructs? I would argue that patriarchy’s invisible structure dictates the overriding narrative, a structure which still knows only two ways to understand women: the Madonna and the Whore. The safe women is rendered asexual, obsequious to norms, a mannequin of civilized milquetoast engagement; her counterpart is the fierce, sexual being full of so much strength that she must be strapped down, controlled, and made plastic in sacrifice to the anemic caricature who sits on her.
I’m going further than expected, so I beg your indulgence, just a bit longer. No, I am not black. But I have still been that woman who has been strapped down by economics and class privilege, the one who has taken care of other women’s homes, other women’s children, other women’s men, a familiar trope in the “black” experience.
Defending the photo, an African-American woman wrote in The Guardian comments section on Facebook, “Don’t tell me how to feel.”
Indeed. Please don’t tell a woman who has sold sex how to feel about a photo with an objectified, fetishized, plastic doll who is portrayed as a comfortable chair for a privileged woman.
“Don’t tell me how to feel.” I know how I have felt and what I have experienced, and this photo captures it.
Yet the taste police are doing just that, telling me how to feel, informing me of the photo’s real racist and sexist meaning, all in the name of moral indignation.
No human is a mannequin of privilege or subjugation, rather, they are part of a system of nefarious cultural forces that seeks to support itself through flattening narrative histories, the repression of what doesn’t support its world view, and good old morality, which usually does little more than temporarily displace our cultural demons.
Narratives that love to create victims, narratives that repress histories for a moral greater good which is no greater good, just an indignant posturing that conveniently buries a poignant snapshot of how far we haven’t come.
From where I sit, in my warm apartment, on a comfortable couch, listening to patriarchy’s sexual repression in between the moments I take to wrestle amateur stories from my imagination’s rough waters, this photo stunningly captures multiple realities, including the vapid weakness of privilege, which is as much of a trap as being an objectified fantasy object. There’s nothing to admire in a woman who reclines and finds comfort on another woman’s plasticized pain, a woman whose raison d’être is blankly staring in Stepford perfection waiting to be consumed by camera and audience while reclining on the depiction of another woman’s exploitation.
The social censure of the narrative changes nothing, and, like sexual repression, makes the problem worse. Because of the social media outrage, the photo has been cropped, all that remains on the Russian site is a beautiful white woman of immense privilege sitting in serene beauty with a pair of stilettos bizarrely waving in the air next to her. Society’s invisible woman remains, quite literally, invisible again. She’s not even allowed her plastic pain in all its objectified glory, because she offended the taste police, who know better for us all.
To the taste police I say: fuck your moral indignation. You’re now literally talking to an empty chair, pontificating like Clint Eastwood, lecturing me about my feelings, and the feelings of those who have been radically objectified, flouting your censoring status quo, successfully eliding any alternative narratives in your the shrill of well intentioned empathy. I would love to know more about your personal experiences of radical objectification, but for the time being, you have shut that dialogue down, and made me suspect of you, whom I now see as a privileged animal, protests not withstanding.
Meanwhile, Zhukova is getting all kinds of flack from the feminists for this editorial faux pas. She’s not even the chair’s artist. Dasha’s a woman sitting in a photo who has a billionaire boyfriend, a woman more than likely rendered for what she is, a trophy, probably psychologically miserable for it, but materially comfortable in her gilded cage, and getting shit because the thought police have a story and they are sticking to it, morality forbidding a deeper dive into meaning.
The chair’s artist is Bjarne Melgaard, a white male who describes himself as “a worn out faggot,” an artist who relishes controversy, and who gets mixed critical reviews.
I’ve not been able to find out who took the photo: no surprise that the most important player in this photo narrative remains conspicuously invisible.
‘Bench of Memory at Slavery’s Gateway,’ an interview with Toni Morrison, published in The New York Times, July 8, 2008.
‘Russian Fashion Site Apologizes for Outrageous Chair Modeled After Black Woman: Apologies are apologies, but we can’t unsee this one,” Llana Satanstein: http://www.marieclaire.com/fashion/buro-24-7-chair-dasha-zhukova?src=spr_TWITTER&spr_id=1449_40959396
‘The chair man: meet Bjarne Melgaard, the artist behind the Dasha Zhukova seat.’