If you’re at all interested in issues of race, class, gender and how they’re depicted in the media, then you need to read Victoria’s Secret model Cameron Russell‘s incredible editorial on pretty privilege.
Cameron recently gave a popular TEDx talk. But while she hoped the talk (key ideas: “Image is powerful” and “Image is superficial”) would inspire more conversations about the modeling world and media, it instead spawned even more opportunities for Cameron herself. Wanting to clarify her intention, her editorial for CNN takes on her own privilege as a white, conventionally attractive woman. She writes:
The real way that I became a model is that I won a genetic lottery, and I am the recipient of a legacy. What do I mean by legacy? Well, for the past few centuries we have defined beauty not just as health and youth and symmetry that we’re biologically programmed to admire, but also as tall, slender figures, and femininity and white skin. And this is a legacy that was built for me, and it’s a legacy that I’ve been cashing in on.
Cameron discusses how, apart from being a pretty and attractive 25-year-old model, she’s not a particularly accomplished person. But, in the wake of her TED talk, she was barraged with media requests. Disappointed, she illustrates how the media’s desire to tell her (pretty, white) story just reinforces the system of privilege she was trying to illuminate.
Like many young people I believe I have potential to make a positive impact in the world. But if I speak from a platform that relies on how I look, I worry that I will not have made room for anyone else to come after me. I will have reinforced that beauty and race and privilege get you a news story. The schoolteacher without adequate support, the domestic worker without rights, they won’t be up there with me.
So what do I do? I am being handed press when good press for important issues is hard to come by. These outlets are the same outlets that spent two years not reporting a new drone base in Saudi Arabia while press in the UK covered it.
I give her major props for continuing to critique the media and all of the outlets who want to give her attention and adulation. Cameron is right to question the press she’s given, and I’m glad she took the opportunity to speak out in her own way (via an editorial) rather than in a book or on a TV show or on NPR, all things she says she was offered. She says, of our current media climate:
How can we change this cycle? The rise of the Internet and the camera phone have started to change what stories are accessible. And we now have the ability to build more participatory media structures. The Internet often comes up with good answers to difficult questions. So I ask: How can we build media platforms accessible to a diversity of content creators?
She’s totally right: we DO have the ability to build more participatory media structures with the technology we have access to (although, who has access to technology is another issue of privilege). How can we do this? How do we create a media that tells the stories of the non-pretty, the non-white, the non-thin, the non-rich, the disabled, the disenfranchised, the different? I, personally, don’t know. But I’m glad Cameron is asking these questions.
It’s gratifying to hear someone outside of academia talking about race, class, and privilege in an honest, easy-to-understand way. What she has to say isn’t necessarily something new, but it sure is interesting to hear it from the perspective of someone inside the bubble, if you will. I really hope she’ll continue to speak and write about this issue and other, similar, ones. Because her voice is important. And the more people who hear it, the more voices that can join in the discussion.
Photo: Jeff Grossman/WENN