A post and discussion over at Sparkle*Matrix, entitled "'even dead women can look sexy ...'", expresses the requisite horror and indignation over the America's Next Top Model photo shoot where the contestants were tasked to simulate dead, but sexy, poses. Sparklematrix links to a slideshow matched with the judges' comments, to swiftly expel any doubts as to the extremity of the theme. Suggestions of brutal rape are indeed unambiguously the subject of at least one scene (--with murder, suicide, and otherwise ghastly indeterminate deaths dominating the spread).
There is no denying that these photos are reprehensible in theme; but what is perhaps more important to recognize, especially since such themes will not be making their exit any time soon, is their particular mode of expression. For, and this is the essential point to grasp, the photograph is not actually their proper or original form of occurrence. Which is easily overlooked since the photos -- which sparklematrix reproduces as such -- are, ostensibly, the purpose or culmination of the episode, when, in fact, they are merely the terminal result, or excuse of sorts, for an entirely different procedure -- namely, their discussion.
The discussion, or critique, of the photos is, after all, the true force and focus of the episode -- and, arguably, of the impetus behind the show itself. One does not watch the show to see real models perform, but rather to see real models criticize provincial non-models who attempt to simulate, or emulate, the judges who critique them. The show, in this sense, both affirms and closes the gap between star and stargazer (if by extracting out from a banal crowd the one who just might be able to cross the line). So, this has to be kept in mind when the photograph -- which is only one moment in a long process --is extracted from the show and cited alone, as if the show itself is a magazine.
Now, despite even the star industry's genuine attempts to manufacture itself, to systematically produce a star, the winner usually can't actually cross that line. However, in attempting to do so, the question is posed of what distinguishes the performer from the audience. Is the distinction as absolute as it would otherwise seem? Are stars really and truly exceptional, or can anyone (within obvious strictures of course) become one with the right training, will, and opportunity? No show that poses this question ever offers a solution, but it is a profound problematic, and one that is otherwise raised in television and media studies, from the outside, so to speak. In any event, one is left suspended within a meaningful host of questions. For instance, one might otherwise think -- rather naively and with too strong a sense of a 'culture industry' that willfully distracts and manipulates an easily-read public -- that stars are really not too unlike stargazers, they lack talent, have always had privilege, and, well, anyone could do what they do if they only had the chance. Or, conversely, one might think that stars are in fact utterly talented and deserving of their station when, in fact, a good percentage of everyone could make it in their world and in the end it's mostly a matter of who you know, getting the right training, and stumbling into the right opportunities. Shows like America's Next Top Model permanently fail to answer this question while at the same time exploring it, however unintentionally.
In this vein, the photos in question ought to be the critical point of arrival rather than the point of departure. As the judges' commentary can attest, the focus of the episode is the photographs' production and subsequent critique. Indeed, it would be one thing to encounter these photographs in a magazine, and another thing to view the process -- however catered and sullied by industry logic -- that produces them. The remarks at Sparkle*Matrix do not, unfortunately, distinguish between the two. Which is to say, the point is that the aesthetic object is not, in this case, the art object proper (the photograph) but rather the procedures and customs informing its creation. The judgments and criticisms that usually follow a work, or at least remain to a certain extent detached from it, are here intermingled with it, as a guiding force informing the work itself at every step of the way. Criticism, in this sense, overshadows the work, rendering it comparably incidental -- which has the effect, moreover, of casting the photographs as delicate contrivances and effects of a critical procedure. Importantly, this procedure is split between the shoot itself -- the photographer's instructions and intercut commentary -- and the judges' later discussion, which by and large authorizes the earlier one, summons it, and cites it authoritatively. Likewise, as an audience, we are meant to take delight in the critique's expression, and even suspend judgment of the work until later, in order to hear the judges themselves, who are in many ways the true work itself.
If the production, criticism, discussion of the photographs is the true work, then what role, in terms of the artwork, do the photographs play? There is no easy answer to this question, because, simply, there is no center to the work. Instead, the photos and their judgment face-off, with variable respective importance, vis a vis the other. (This format applies to so many shows: Top Chef, Project Runway, Make Me a Supermodel, American Idol, the list could go on.) The work, in all of these shows, only achieves commodity form in the final moments, with the greater bulk of the programming alotted to the contingencies of production. Which is to say, in this format the traditional work (the photograph) assumes a different function: instead of being the object of a detached, focused attention, it organizes the criticisms themselves and serves as the alibi or motivation for their deployment. In formal terms, the work gathers up different strands of the aesthetic world in question and unites them in a sustained revelation. It would indeed be facile and naive to think that the purpose or essence of the show is simply to put a group of youthful naifs through improper tribulations, to then take delight in their predictably strenuous short-comings. It is much more complicated. Guest designers, guest judges, product placements, featured photographers, sponsoring publications, and even slyly wardrobed 'off-set' contestants all meet up and cohere around the photograph which is, hence, of both little and massive importance.
In this respect, the death poses and photos in question are particularly interesting -- primarily because, well, death literally has no pose. Death is the only position without pose; it is the opposite of pose. You 'lay as you fall', as they say. (It should also be noted that, contrary to a discussant at Sparkle*Matrix, masculine sexuality does find correspond form, in the war film, which aestheticizes death and corpses in all sorts of ways, most of which cannot be divorced from sexuality, atheticism, and the body.) To pose death is therefore the culmination of contrivance. To call one who attempts to do so a marionette is insulting, yes, but also astute. There is a long aesthetic history of stringing up corpses and playing them like a marionette (and this cannot be confined to feminine subjcts); which is also why death, the corpse, can be invoked as the condition, rather than opposite, of posing -- it is, after all, the ultimate, most pliant relaxation, a formlessness and laxity open to any rearrangement. 'Holding' difficult poses may, in the right descriptive register, suggest as much. And yet ... this generally innocent history -- a phrase I use with great reservation -- must be reconciled with the specific, contemporary implications of the photos -- which are easily connected, through genres that casually mix feminine sexuality and death, to cultural perceptions of women that produce real events and, statistically speaking, contribute to general, oppressive conditions.
But what I find ameliorative or tempering or difficult in the America's Next Top Model episode in question is the way in which the poses themselves are discussed as explicitly constructed and a matter of convention. Let's not forget that comparable documents are frequently publicized without the least suggestion that the image or message is less than natural, obvious, or authored. The America's Next Top Model format, by contrast, tediously discusses the crooks of arms, the awkward poses, the failures and deviations from the ideal image that is, hence, completely denaturalized and torn away from an aura of self-evidence or naturalism. From set to photo to judgment these images are rendered toothless in a way that can not be said for reproductions or citations of the image alone.
Which is not to say that the resultant portrait is by any means good or progressively deconstructive. On the contrary, it introduces a new technique of oppression, one that accomodates criticism, makes it its own, and puts it in the service of a more expansive apparatus -- a whole industry and milieu of actors (most of which seem to 'hide' behind the photo). Accordingly, these kinds of shows call for a new form of critique that must look beyond traditional forms and works -- here, the photograph -- and see behind them a more complicated expression. Still, it remains an open and largely unanswered question to what extent these formats' self-demystifications introduce new, perhaps more sinister forms of mystification, and to what extent these self-demystifications do manage to temper or dismantle the violence they choose to depict.