It may seem like a clever move to self-deprecatingly refer to your own article as a "lousy blog post", but it doesn't mean the phrase does not ring true. If there is one set of ads I would purge from all the internets given the chance (and the POWER), it is the marketing campaign spat forth by American Apparel. They look like the stalkerish photos taken by serial killers and kidnappers, or else they have contorted models into poses that look not merely painful but even injurious, or else they have weird classist vibes that I try very hard not to ponder at any length. They are train wrecks, and so naturally I can't not look at them.
Which is also why I read Nathan Rabin's recent AV Club post: "Death by sexy: a middle-aged man in an Eat Pray Love promotional T-shirt auditions to be an American Apparel model."
I thought there might be some small bit of revelation in it, some piece of information that could illuminate a corner of the world. And there was, but not in the way I wanted.
Our Author dresses in his worst clothes. He makes fun of the female models while praising their looks, and ignores the male models entirely. He describes the aesthetic of AA ads as being uncomfortably close to child pornography, but appears to have no problem finding this sexually appealing. He talks at length to one hopeful model in particular -- and this is where my bit of revelation comes in.
Martha (a pseudonym) is seventeen, and has been modeling for four years. Let that math sink in a little bit. She is described as "Giddy with the hubris of youth," but she's not the one throwing Greek tragedy terms around and attending modeling auditions as a whimsical prank.
No, Martha is here to get paid. She doesn't model full-time, as she's soon to be a senior in high school, but her mom's been unemployed for two years and modeling helps pay the rent every month.
Let's be clear: this girl is helping keep a roof over her family's head.
Mr. Rabin doesn't care.
He wants to talk about her photos:
She then rifled through her portfolio. It was remarkable how different she looked in each photo. Her fresh-faced, well-scrubbed look of pure Americana was eminently mutable. It was as if her face and body were unformed and unfinished and could only be completed by a stylist and photographer fitting her into their predetermined vision. She could be whoever they wanted her to be.
In short, she's a good model. This is her job. Our Author, who is in no financial straits himself and who has already admitted his own inability to look like anything other than what he is (a writer), nonetheless feels perfectly comfortable looking down on this girl:
She noted sadly that Abercrombie & Fitch wanted to buy one of her photographs, but she didn’t have the rights to the photos they wanted to buy; those were held, I suppose, by the photographers who took them or the modeling agency or the clients that bought them.“Shit, man. I could have been an Abercrombie & Fitch model,” she muttered.
I tried to console her. “Eh, I’ve done a lot of campaigns with them. They’re not so great.” But she did not pick up on my sarcasm.
This girl is hard up. She is at a crossroads of several systems that have let her down: the crappy economy, the copyright system that allows other people (very probably male people) to hold the rights to images of her body, images that could have eased the financial burden on herself and her mother.
Meanwhile, over in the Land of Astonishing Narcisissm, Our Author is sad she doesn't laugh at his joke.
This erasure of Martha and her human experience is a colossal failure on the part of Our Author, both as a writer and as a human being. The whole post started with this paragraph:
It’s hard not to be moved by the print ad’s haunting images of desperation and sadness. Who were these emaciated young people with their gaunt flesh squeezed into gold lamé leggings, their dead eyes pleading for mercy and compassion? Why did a major chain choose advertising redolent of child pornography from the '70s? Were these runaways all right? Had Charney forced them into lives of prostitution, drug dealing, and pornography? Should I purchase American Apparel clothing, or report its owners and advertisers to the proper authorities?
There seems to be some acknowledgment here that American Apparel models are victims of systemic failure. And -- how lucky for his story! -- the intrepid journalist's impression that AA models look desperate and hungry proves to be actually true in real life. This narrative arc should write itself: "I thought Americal Apparel models looked desperate and exploited -- turns out, they are actually desperate and exploited."
But Our Author seems to forget all his concern for these models as soon as he actually meets on in person.
Is that whole early paragraph just a joke? There is a huge disconnect between Our Author's empathetic response to the pictures early on, and his total disregard of Martha (not to mention all the other models auditioning, who barely rate a description). What exactly is supposed to be the purpose of this piece? Rabin claims that he "wanted to experience the weirdness of an open call for American Apparel models firsthand." But we don't hear about anything particularly weird -- unless your definition of weird includes Nathan Rabin, a bald white dude who likes movies.
This is what happens once Our Author's number gets called for the audition:
The gentleman strained mightily to force a smile and nervously asked, “Do you have any questions for us?”
Yes! Now was my chance to uncover the location of the underage models being kept in cages and forced to be sexy 20 to 23 hours a day! I was in a position to demand answers! I was going to take this whole house of cards down with me and expose the shocking, scintillating, titillating truth.
But “Uh, no, I guess not” was all that came stumbling out of my mouth.
It's funny because . . . because exploitation is funny? Because women in cages are funny? Because a journalist failing to be a journalist is funny? Because there is a gap between Our Author's lurid imaginings of being a writerly hero rescuing sexy teens and his actual ineffective behavior? Because disappointment on every level is hilarious, apparently?
At press time, the most recent comment was: "Nobody cares and this is a shitty story." Which sums it up pretty well.