#MeToo and the male fantasy fashion robot

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By Professor John Bryson, Professor of Enterprise and Economic Geography
Department of Strategy and International Business, University of Birmingham


On the one hand, digital supermodels would remove the physical and emotional exploitation experienced by many models. On the other hand, employment opportunities for those wanting to enter fashion modelling would be destroyed

The #MeToo movement has led to an important heavily-localised, but increasingly international, movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault. To date, the emphasis has been predominantly on addressing the issues faced for actors, but there is another side to this movement that is beginning to transform the world of fashion modelling.

The world of a fashion model is one filled with glamour, but also one in which women are mostly placed in positions that are controlled and exploited by men. It is a world where horrendous stories of abuse are beginning to emerge.

New York Fashion Week (February 2018) was the first time that models were provided with private changing rooms. Prior to this, models had to strip in front of photographers, agents and anyone who happened to be lurking backstage. During London Fashion Week (September 2018), Edie Campbell, the fashion model who has modelled for Burberry, Chanel and Alexander McQueen since she was 15, also called for models to be provided with private changing rooms.

The rise of computer-generated supermodels

There is another side to this. The application of the #MeToo movement to the world of fashion comes at a time when some companies are beginning to replace fashion models with computer-generated models. In April 2017, celebrity photographer Cameron-James Wilson, created the first digital supermodel, Shudu Gram. ‘Her’ Instagram account currently has 145,000 followers. This raises some interesting questions: What does one call a digitally generated image created by a white male photographer? Is this an image, a woman, an exploitation of the female body, a male fantasy?

In September 2018, Balmain, the French fashion house, introduced three “beautiful diverse” additions to its group of influencer models that this company calls the ‘Balmain Army’ – these models are virtual avatars. This application of artificial intelligence in the form of computer-generated models with personalities and created lifestyles has the potential to transform the world of fashion modelling. This would bring the need for models to have private changing rooms to an end – perhaps they would only need private computers.

AI in modelling and the #MeToo movement

What role do fashion models play in consumer culture, and can this role by performed by computers? This is a complex question and one that needs an open discussion across social sciences, media and politics. On the one hand, digital supermodels would remove the physical and emotional exploitation experienced by many models. On the other hand, employment opportunities for those wanting to enter fashion modelling would be destroyed and replaced by a need for computer programmers who understand fashion and the female body? An odd combination.

There is another more dangerous aspect to this. There will come a time, when it will become impossible to distinguish between the digital model and the human. The digital model will be carefully crafted and controlled to sell fashion. It will be controlled, perhaps, predominately by men and targeted at female consumers.

Unrealistic body expectations

Possibly the most disturbing aspect of this is that soon some adolescents may try to shape their own bodies and fashion to mirror something that isn’t a real person, but a digitally-created fantasy. This would perpetuate a new form of size zero, but this time copying a body that could never exist.

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All of this suggests that the introduction of digital supermodels should not be considered as a trivial development, but one that has the potential to produce all types of perverse consequences. It is timely to consider these, and for the fashion industry and government to begin to develop guidelines that will mean that consumers will always know when a fashion model is real or fantasy. I am not in favour of regulation driving out innovation, but innovations in digital fashion models need to be reviewed; it is time to consider guidelines and regulations now.


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