Pretty Offensive -- Or Pretty Harmless?

Interview magazine is causing a stir with its latest issue featuring a fashion spread entitled, "Pretty Wasted," in which a number of supermodels -- Anja Rubik, Lily Donaldson, and Daria Strokous among them -- are shown passed out in dirty alleys and slumped on sidewalks, empty bottles of alcohol strewn around them, all in the name of fashion. "Elegance undone," the story reads. "Wearing their big night out like a badge of honor, fashion's wildest -- Anja, Edita, Daria, Andrea and Lily -- are the last to leave the party." Predictably, there has been outrage.
Isn't there always (and isn't that, of course, the intention?)

"Interview Magazine's Terrifying 'Pretty Wasted" Editorial Spread Raises Concerns over the Portrayal of Women in Media," ran the headline on Bustle, going so far as to cite the story as evidence that women have made zero progress towards equality in the last 50 years, which seems like just a bit of an exaggeration. "I'm a devoted advocate of gritty, avant-garde editorial spreads, but not at the cost of depicting women as weak, ailing, and ultimately helpless pawns in some dystopian world order," writes Bustle's Tyler Atwood. "After all, there are no men in the Interview spread." (And if there were?) "What's even more alarming is that these sexualized women are left unconscious in dark alleyways, among empty beer bottles and copious amounts of trash," writes Isabelle Khoo in the Huffington Post. A website called Fashion Scans Remastered, meanwhile, wondered "whether this editorial is supposed to be disturbing and dark or ironically funny and artsy, or just plain retarded," -- that's right: "retarded" -- while at the same time posting the spread in its entirety, offended, perhaps, but clearly not above cashing in on the web traffic-generating controversy.

In the Telegraph, former model Rebecca Pearson calls the images "frankly disturbing" in how they "make being unconscious look glamorous." She then absolves the models of any blame for helping create the images by claiming that "models are commodities... if you won't roll around in dirt or pretend to pass out against a drainpipe, you can be replaced. You are utterly expendable and not allowed to forget it." Of course, assuming that these particular women felt like they had no other choice than to take the (likely well-paid, certifiably much-discussed) job, or no opinions about its content, is ripe with misogyny in itself. Why is that we must always come to the defense of women by pitting them in the role of victims? Why must we assume they're being exploited -- rather than just doing a job they might actually enjoy? And why must we assume these women are the pawns for an expression of male hatred, as a professor quoted in Yahoo Style says: "These pictures look like they were created by people who hate women... that these pictures reinforce the message of our culture: human life is cheap, and women are merely props."

The photographer and stylist on this job were both men, as numerous outlets point out, as is the editor-in-chief of Interview. But I'm not sure "Pretty Wasted" as a whole indicates that any of these men "hate women," or believe that "human life is cheap." They're magazine makers in an industry celebrated for pushing boundaries. In fact, I'm not sure how these images would be different if they had been created by women -- and certainly, women in fashion have created their own set of controversial images. These issues have come up before. Like with the 2008 Vogue cover featuring LeBron James holding Gisele Bundchen in a pose that some said depicted an "animalistic black man ... and a beautiful white woman." Or the 2009 Vogue Paris fashion story showing a "pregnant" Lily Donaldson smoking while holding a (plastic) baby.

The plastic part here is key. Fashion is fantasy, and art often is, too. Don't artists regularly create work that could be called offensive, disgusting, provocative, or at the very least up for discussion? Ai Weiwei, Marcel Duchamp, Damien Hirst, anyone? What about putting said art in a magazine makes it so much more egregious? Magazine art is no less public than art that sits in a museum or gallery -- except, of course, that it's arguably more "lowbrow." Which makes this whole argument seem sort of classist to me, in addition to misogynistic.

Perhaps the spread is a commentary on party culture. Perhaps it's a cautionary tale. Or maybe it's just a series of provocative photos meant to do exactly as they have done -- and many works of art have done before them -- which is spark conversation. And is really hard to argue with that.