It isn’t often that a newspaper or magazine article makes me really angry. As someone who writes a lot about the way women are depicted in the media, I sometimes have to make a conscious decision not to explode, to ignore the sinking feeling in my stomach, the beating heart and the clenched fists and the cartoonish throbbing temple vein, because, let’s face it, if I wrote a response post to everything I read and didn’t like, I wouldn’t get anything done at all. Instead, I spend most of my working day trying to forget about Melanie Phillips, and it’s a tactic that actually seems to work quite well when it comes to my general personal wellbeing. If I didn’t, I’d just pace around my flat, fuming, which is what most of the internet seems to be doing most of the time already. They don’t need me to add to the festering cesspit of rage.
Except this time. I’m definitely not the first person whose ‘angry-button’ has been pushed by the Guardian’s Culture Editor Alex Needham’s recent column about Kate Moss (this is not a euphemism for my clitoris, BTW). By the looks of the tweets and comments, most of the readers have been appalled. For those of you who, like me, aren’t constantly plugged into the internet zeitgeist and are as yet unaware of the storm surrounding the piece, allow me to provide you with a little back story (internet creatives and news junkies can just skip this bit.)
So, earlier this week Vanity Fair published a rare interview with Moss, in which the model, who is well-known for her circumspection, is unusually frank about the early years of her career. Moss was still a skinny, gangly teenager when she was plucked from mediocrity in Croydon and catapulted to superstardom. She was barely an adult, almost still a child, when she did her first topless photo shoot, with Corinne Day for The Face. In the interview, she talks about how uncomfortable this made her: ‘I see a 16-year-old now, and to ask her to take her clothes off would feel really weird. But they were like, If you don’t do it, then we’re not going to book you again. So I’d lock myself in the toilet and cry and then come out and do it. I never felt very comfortable about it. There’s a lot of boobs. I hated my boobs! Because I was flat-chested. And I had a big mole on one. That picture of me running down the beach—I’ll never forget doing that, because I made the hairdresser, who was the only man on the shoot, turn his back.’
Of course, we’re all well aware of the exploitation of models that goes on in the fashion industry. We’ve seen the documentaries, read the editorials. We have seen the photographs of emaciated little girls with limbs that look as though they could snap, their undernourished pre-pubescent bodies. We know all of this. And yet, because Moss is Moss, the supermodel, the superstar, the cipher, we forget that she is also a person, an adult woman who was a young girl once. A young girl who was essentially blackmailed into taking her clothes off. Perhaps this is why the soundbite, and the subsequent image of Moss locked in the toilet crying, is so heartbreakingly powerful. Guess what, folks? Kate Moss is one of the most successful women on the planet, but she is also a human being, and it happened to her, too.
This isn’t the only the only revelation Moss made during the interview. It also turns out that the famous Calvin Klein campaign she did in 1992 with Mark Wahlberg gave her a nervous breakdown. “It didn’t feel like me at all. I felt really bad about straddling this buff guy. I didn’t like it. I couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks. I thought I was going to die. I went to the doctor, and he said, ‘I’ll give you some Valium,’ and Francesca Sorrenti, thank God, said, ‘You’re not taking that.’ It was just anxiety. Nobody takes care of you mentally. There’s a massive pressure to do what you have to do. I was really little, and I was going to work with Steven Meisel. It was just really weird—a stretch limo coming to pick you up from work. I didn’t like it. But it was work, and I had to do it.”
I don’t know about you guys, but the combination of the phrase ‘I was really little’ with the words ‘I had to do it’ made me feel a tad sick. I imagine, though, that it also did others, and that that is one of the reasons Alex Needham’s column, in which he says that Moss ‘took one for the team’ was received with such a resounding chorus of ‘WTF?’ As a piece of writing, it is so staggeringly insensitive, so riddled with indifference towards the pain experienced by this young girl, that I am actually finding myself questioning his suitability as a paid member of staff for a liberal progressive newspaper.
Woah, there, a bit strong, no? No, actually, I don’t think it is. And this is why. Needham’s statement ‘blackmailing someone, especially someone so young, into taking their clothes off would not be something one could defend – which no doubt makes what I am about to say sound even worse. But here goes: this wasn’t any old topless shoot, but one which changed the course of fashion history’ actually implies that the exploitation of young women is sometimes justified when it happens in the pursuit of high art or the cultural zeitgeist. Conveniently ignoring the fact that when the pictures were taken, Moss wasn’t ‘the face of the ’90s’, but a skinny teenage girl who cried because she was made to take her clothes off, Needham continues by saying that Moss’ skinny frame ‘seemed to encapsulate the euphoria of those long-distant times.’
Euphoria? Really? A teenage girl weeping in a loo doesn’t sound that euphoric to me.
While Needham was poncing about at some rave or whatever the hell he and his triangular shaped head were up to in the ’90s (and yes, I am going ad hom, because let’s face it, if Needham can write a whole column in a broadsheet newspaper telling a woman that her opinions about her own teenage tits are off the mark, then I can say that his head is shaped like a tortilla chip), Kate Moss was a lonely, hungry teenager, far away from home. That her exploitation, that the use of her body for photographs for which her consent was clearly lacking, should be held up by a journalist as a worthy sacrifice in the name of art, is arrogance of the highest order. It is also, considering the cultural climate in which these words have emerged, somewhat sickening.
It is fitting that these words should come about at a time where Britain is grappling with a paedophile scandal the likes of which have never been seen before. The newspapers are full of articles about institutional cover ups, about how the media in this country turned a blind eye (and in some cases, actively enabled) the exploitation of young girls. In a week where 14 year old Elle Fanning was hailed by the Daily Mail for her ‘womanly curves’, where that newspaper can simultaneously campaign against the sexualisation of young girls and leer, Humbert Humbert like, at their youthful bodies in cocktail dresses because they are ‘all grown up’. At a time like this, Needham feels it appropriate to justify Moss’ exploitation in the name of art. Have I got it right? The teenage girls exploited and molested by Jimmy Savile are victims, but a young Kate Moss’ tits are fair game? Because it’s for art? For culture?
That the culture editor of a newspaper website could write the words ‘No one should be coerced into doing something they don’t want to, but without nude models, art history as we know it wouldn’t exist’, is profoundly shocking to me, not least because it betrays a complete lack of knowledge or understanding of the art and culture this fool is supposed to be editing. This article is one of those rare occasions where I can say, with real confidence, ‘I know better than you, sir.’ Needham cites Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe as an example of how a naked woman changed the art world, but look at the power balance in that painting. A woman sits, naked, with two men fully clothed. I could not have chosen a better image to represent the objectified status of women in visual culture had I tried.
Clearly Needham has some research to do. That women have always suffered in order for men to make art is not news to anyone. The ballerinas of Degas were child prostitutes. Elizabeth Siddal nearly died while modelling Ophelia for Millais. I cite but two examples here. It’s no wonder that, in 1914, Mary Richardson walked into the National Gallery and slashed the Rokeby Venus in protest.
Because naked is what woman have always been, as far as art is concerned. The fact that Needham can sit there, on his culture throne, and pontificate about a young girl’s body like that demonstrates that very little has actually changed. Young girls are still being coerced into taking their clothes off in the name of art, but that transaction is OK, because, oh! look at the results! Doesn’t she look so beautiful in the picture, hanging there like that?
That Needham clearly doesn’t know enough about art history to be a culture editor is not the only reason that this article made me angry. It’s the timing. The timing, and the fact that he is behaving like a pompous arse in telling Moss how she should think and feel. Clearly she is common property now, and therefore no longer entitled to an opinion.
Having worked at The Face, it’s tiredly predictable that Needham should want to protect his old magazine, and, being as he is still on the periphery of the fashion industry, it’s not inconceivable that he might bump into Moss at a party somewhere. In which case, I hope she douses him in cold, cold champagne, not just on behalf of her teenage self, but on behalf of all the young girls who have been stripped, exploited, molested, coerced and hounded in pursuit of a good photograph or an old pervert’s twisted gratification. We need summary justice in the form of public embarrassment, and Moss should be the one to deliver it. It’s time Needham took one for the team.