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‘Girl Model’ Re-connects Media Literacy to its Beating Heart

The problem… is that when 12-15 year old girls are placed inside a marketplace of adults that sexualizes them and treats them as disposable goods, there’s an infinite potential for the situation to go awry. –David Redmon

There’s a danger when you spend a long, long time in the media literacy game. A distinct danger. I’m guilty of it, but so are others I hear and read, and I’m referring not only to media lit mavens but also to “media theorists” in general. You spend such immeasurable amounts of time decoding and deconstructing images, signs, and symbols that it becomes second nature to you. More quixotically, the whole enterprise is marked by a feeling of swimming upstream against cultural norms about how to interact with “simple entertainment” and ephemeral texts such as print ads and other artifacts that one shouldn’t “take too seriously.”

Nothing wrong with any of that. In fact, one could say those last two sentences describe the goals of media literacy education and critical media literacy respectively.

What’s difficult to notice—at least for me—is the degree to which such training, training that results in the “habits of mind” we hope to nurture in youth, is so thoroughly based upon going from the specific to the general. We interrogate junk food pitches, Super Bowl ads, and “swimsuit issues” for the grand embedded values that are betrayed by a particular phrase, pose, or color scheme. And there’s tremendous merit in such an approach because over the long haul students grasp the “mediated” nature of society, of their beliefs about themselves, about life itself.

But what about going from the general to the specific—moving from a “class” of media messages to the referent itself… original, individual, and intensely real?

Well, that’s something that Girl Model, a documentary released on home video today by First Run Features, does, and does spectacularly. Its premise is disarmingly simple, perhaps because we are so used to Reality TV’s one-chosen-from-many and follow-your-dreams-to-stardom tropes that it seems commonplace: we accompany thirteen-year-old Nadya Vall as she’s plucked from mega-obscurity—hey, she lives in Siberia!—to sign a modeling contract, and then whisked away to groovy Japan, the land that all geeks know is the source of a disproportionate amount of the planet’s coolness.

The problem, aside from the contextual one alluded to in the above press kit quote from documentarian David Redmond (who co-directed with Ashley Sabin), is that Nadya’s story is not a happy one, let alone a happy-go-lucky one. Moreover, she’s not presented as an exception, but the rule. Here, take a look at the trailer…

Now, do systems that exploit and objectify images also do the same regarding their real-world counterparts? An ideological approach might claim that my separation of the two is naïve, but in practical terms I think the relationship between them is complex. Obviously “celebrity” models would not be treated with the same casual disdain as the teen girls depicted here. On the other hand, one could argue that the common perception of what it means to be a “successful model”–that is, our thoroughly mediated view of the profession–is one that precisely supports a high-gloss factory farm operation like that shown in Girl Model. In this sense, the societal (and clearly global) celebration of cover girls does not simply provide a lofty but laudable goal for female youth but in fact serves as the “bait” that makes the entire operation function so well. Not getting the breaks you deserve despite giving up your education and whatever personal goals you had before a modeling career surfaced as a possibility? No problem–just keep “dreaming big” and “working hard”; in short, don’t question the big picture, just try harder to land closer to the top of the heap.

Again, in media literacy we rarely look at the industries, especially those in Earth’s far-flung corners, that don’t impact humanity through abstractions (media messages) but through concrete business practices. Simply put, you forget the individuals behind the images, or if they’re considered at all, it might be with the assumption that they are giddily complicit in the media apparatus that often treats them like so many interchangeable parts.

And the value of Girl Model is that is doesn’t let you forget teens like Nadya, may never let you, actually. Definitely suitable for secondary students and clocking in at an efficient 77 minutes, Girl Model is succinct but hardly breezy. It’s not trying to be.

Oh, and in case you recognize the name of the distributor, First Run, that could be because of last year’s Pink Ribbons, Inc., which was perhaps the finest media literacy doc I saw in 2012 (for reasons I discussed here). This is more than a nice coincidence, though. While that film took a hard look at the lives of older women struggling with breast cancer and how compassion and good intentions are bent to serve corporate agendas, Girl Model examines the other end of the age spectrum, where youthful aspiration is used as a cheap lubricant in machines that crank out beauty for our snacking pleasure.

About Peter Gutierrez