We ran a profile recently of model, activist, and Model Alliance founder Sara Ziff, who is a very smart woman. There was one thing she said about the attitude of the fashion industry that particularly resonated with me, because it was very true.
“In the fashion industry I feel like it’s cool to be blasé, you know everything is super chill. You don’t care about anything too much because it’s not cool to be very direct and take issue with bad behavior that in any other industry, would be totally unacceptable or even maybe criminal.”
I thought of her saying that about 15 times yesterday while reading New York’s Terry Richardson profile. While there are many things I find disturbing about their portrayal of an overgrown baby with muttonchops and bad taste in sandwiches, most of which has already been said, it was the way the interview obsesses over splitting both readers and victims into two camps that I found particularly problematic. On the one hand you have those who see Terry as a “predator,” on the other those who see him as an “artist.” And in one camp you have the chill girls, in the other the prudes. You can probably guess which New York paints Ziff into.
This weird phenomenon might be heightened in the fashion industry, but it’s not limited to it. Back when the Village Voice ran a stomach-churning story on the past sexual crimes of R Kelly, Lena Dunham responded on Twitter in a way almost identical to how Ziff described modeling. “There’s still a sense that being down with the predatory behavior of guys makes you chill,” she tweeted, “a girl with a sense of humor, a girl who can hang.”
She was attacked at the time for taking issue with the actions of R Kelly while being down to be shot by Terry (he had shot Dunham for V magazine’s February 2012 issue,) because the sentiment is equally applicable to the reprehensible actions of both men. When the V shoot came out there was also a sense that there was a bit of mutual backscratching going on, though perhaps less consciously on the part of Dunham. Shooting Lena Dunham aligned Richardson with the feminist crew. Being shot by Richardson made Dunham look edgy and unpredictable. (I’m not blaming Lena – V reaped more benefit than her, and this was nothing compared to the mutual cock-sucking that went into this NY mag piece.)
Worse still is when it’s not just the media fueling this divide – it’s girls themselves. In a since-deleted post on Tumblr last year pink-haired, free-spirited fashion darling Charlotte Free wrote of the Terry Richardson allegations surfacing at the time:
“Terry likes to do sexy stuff, that’s his shit. If you don’t wanna be part of it, make it clear in the beginning. Don’t willingly blow the man and get all mad and ashamed later…I hate when girls say ‘but he asked me to.’ You should have said no then, stupid bitch! There’s plenty of other girls waiting in line, so he’s not forcing you to do shit. When you make a choice you have to live with it — unless someone got you fucked up against your will.”
Okay so there’s a fair amount of victim-blaming going on here, which is bad enough. But there’s also a sense that if you’re not here for the super fun party, you can go home to your sweatpants and Pinterest board. Hey, I won’t lie, Richardson’s description of his studio shenanigans kind of sounds like a blast if it wasn’t for that sexual assault stuff. “It was a happening, there was energy, it was fun, it was exciting, making these strong images, and that’s what it was. People collaborating and exploring sexuality and taking pictures.” If only “exploring sexuality” didn’t mean jacking off into a 19-year-old’s face.
It’s a sad paradox that while the Tumblr generation is one liberally minded and culturally clued-up, it’s also easily shrunken down to a babble of uninformed killjoys and an addiction to the comment section. Terry reduces his dissenters to “the internet.” New York says they reject the “sophisticated titillation” of Terry’s earlier work. The takeaway is that women who reject Terry’s work are women who just don’t get art. Even the title suggests you have to make a choice between whether Richardson is a predator or an artist. If you choose the former, it’s because you don’t get it. And if you’re a 19-year-old model presented with making that choice in Richardson’s studio while he’s poking you with a giant boner, it’s also because you’re a prude. You’ve arrived at Terryworld, and you’re too much of a pearl-clutcher to get on the roller coaster.
This “Old Terry” thing really annoys me too. Nostalgia is so strong an emotion that it often makes us miss things we haven’t even experienced. It’s why I have probably watched the “Video Games” video on YouTube 283 times even though I’m not American and don’t really like Lana Del Rey, and why History in Pictures has over a million Twitter followers, and why everyone’s obsessed with scrunchies. It’s basically the lowest common denominator of mood-evokers, and it’s used to exemplary effect by Richardson and Wallace. And by his freewheeling, shaman-cleansed assistant (and also, a fact NY mag conveniently omitted, rumored girlfriend) Alex Bolotow.
“There was something exciting about being involved in something that feels just really freeing,” she says in her defense of her boss/boyfriend, “like, ‘Oh, I’m totally expressing myself, and this is great.’ I remember being like, ‘I’m just glad to be alive in a time when this is happening.’” Get it? In the past art was provocative, wild, gritty, and just inevitably ended up with everyone having a grand old orgy. Now it’s just James Franco wearing a shirt covered in his own selfies.
Terry Richardson is a sexual predator. But that doesn’t say anything about women who aren’t down with it.
Activist Sara Ziff on Her Fight to Empower the Garment Workers and Models That Fashion Exploits
A Horrifying Timeline of Terry Richardson Allegations, From Trash Cans to Tampon Tea [Updated]
Terry Richardson Responds to Claims of Sexual Misconduct [Updated]