By Dr Sophie King-Hill, Senior Research Fellow, Health Services Management Centre and David Russell, Community Safety & Justice Manager
Warning: Contains discussion of child abuse themes.
Fashion house Balenciaga has never shied away from controversy in its 103 years in the fashion industry. However, their recent advertising campaigns appear to have gone a step too far. The campaigns have triggered controversy worldwide due to their adverts showing prepubescent children holding teddy bears dressed in BDSM style clothing. One picture shows a teenager with a bruised face and sporting a teddy in BDSM clothing with apparent ‘panda eyes’ a reference used to depict a violent sexual act. These young children are positioned against the backdrop of suggestive props such as duct tape, references to satanism, wine glasses and phallic imagery. These are paralleled with images in a second advertising campaign of theirs that includes visual references to a supreme court decision on whether child pornography was in violation of the first amendment, a book by Michael Borremans – an artist known for depicting injured and castrated children.
Balenciaga have publicly apologised for the images and stated they are “wholly inconsistent” with their values. However, the question that needs to be raised is, is an apology for causing offence enough, or does more need to be done to fully acknowledge the wider damage that this advertising campaign has done. Giving a mainstream platform to the glamourisation of child sexual abuse, and the subsequent damage and negative impact that this has caused, needs considering and recognising.
Shock to sell tactics are renowned within the fashion scene, with many designers including the late Alexander McQueen creating controversial and hard hitting visuals to vocalise anarchism and violence, and ultimately to sell products. But at what stage does ‘shock to sell’ go too far?
The images created by Balenciaga appear to have subliminal meanings that can be interpreted in a range of ways, including suggesting that BDSM culture is suitable for children; paedophilia should be acknowledged within freedom of speech; and overall seems to suggest that child sexual abuse has a place in fashion.
The mutual exclusivity of sex and children
It is first useful to consider why any discussion of children, especially those that are pre-pubescent, alongside sex makes wider society uncomfortable. Young children especially are viewed as being the representations of innocence that needs to be protected. On the other hand, representations of sex are often coupled with shame and is sex is viewed as being firmly within the adult domain, especially in relation to BDSM practices which are complex and require a firm knowledge of consent, safety and permission. Although there is a place for consensual adults fulfilling their sexual desires and fetishes there is a clear and definitive line to the tolerance of pro-abusive fantasies and a culture that endorses sexual violence. This Balenciaga campaign clearly conflicts with ‘normal’ social perceptions, as it depicts and implies links between young children, sex, violence and BDSM. This imagery seemingly goes one step further than the sexualisation of children and appears to have much darker undertones in the parallel references to child abuse alongside BDSM.
An apology is not enough this time, consideration must be given to the significant impact the campaign has had on both children and wider society. The images created by the campaign could be considered to be on the periphery of category C indecent imagery, placing suggestive and abusive material into a mainstream tolerance of taboo material. Rather than thinking about how offensive the content is, serious consideration needs to be given to the message wider society receives in relation to survivors of child sexual abuse by placing an expensive and desirable label on the harm they have experienced, and appearing to frame it as ‘controversial’ and ‘edgy’.
The issue is clear, it’s not just controversial and it’s not just offensive, it is damaging and harmful.
One in 20 children are believed to experience sexual abuse in the UK every year. Each survivor of abuse has their own experiences, often including pain, humiliation and trauma. There is nothing glamorous or desirable about the trauma a child experiences in this situation. Charities such as the NSPCC, the Lucy Faithfull Foundation and Barnardos consistently campaign to raise public perception and awareness on child sexual abuse, both within the spheres of prevention and recovery. There are also campaigns working within prevention approaches that support individuals that self-disclose they have a sexual interest in children and that seek intervention prior to harming a child. The images portrayed in Balenciaga’s campaign appear to make mockery of this work in creating and distributing material that could be utilised in a harmful or fantastical manner in the name of fashion and selling.
Fashion houses are no stranger to campaigns with questionable ethics and morals that appear to poke fun as those that are less fortunate or are underpinned by glamourising discrimination. Often brands quickly apologise and then continued to thrive.
The sobering truth is that despite the damage that has been done to children and young people through producing these images, the brand has gained notoriety and publicity on a huge scale due to this. It will take time to fully understand the impact that these adverts have had on Balenciaga as a brand, whether this will ultimately enhance their sales or whether this was just one step too far.
There are no shortages of shocking images in the public sphere that are intended to raise awareness of hard-hitting issues. But there is a stark moral, ethical and damaging impact when these images are not being used with the intention of ‘shock to tell’ but being used as ‘shock to sell’.
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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.