By Rachael Liberman
When high-end retailer Barneys New York decided to remove their controversial window display on July 22nd, media outlets were literally handed a story that involved high fashion, violence against women, corporate marketing, and artistic integrity. Instead, many outlets, including the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune, abandoned a cultural critique and ran what the AP wire distributed. As a consequence, what could have been a discussion and inquiry into the social condition of gender and violence was abandoned. Was this lack of a greater context intentional? Were these news outlets understaffed and unable to devote more time to this story? While these questions, among others, reveal the complexity of the journalism industry, what still remains is the fact that this story has been buried, along with the potential for prompting public debate.
Of course, reader comments from news stories and blogs reveal that, although this issue did not become “mainstream,” there was undeniable interest in these displays of women being murdered – including “blood” splattered on the sparkling window and mannequins altered in positions of lapsed mortality. Many of the feminist blogs, including BUST and Feministing, included many reader responses that varied from postmodern acceptance to radical objection. One reader, “Hannah,” from the BUST website wrote, “It goes way beyond selling dresses. There’s a pattern in the fashion industry of using dead of tortured women to sell fashion and the scary thing is that it totally works as a marketing tool. The fact that this picture sells means that women and men look at these gory displays and think ‘wow, that’s racy and chic’ instead of ‘wow, that’s messed up’.” While many readers responded with a similar critique, others defended the window display as a work of progressive art and felt that those who found it offensive were too sensitive.
But perhaps I’m being too hard on news outlets. After all, how could they have been inspired to write about violence against women when the AP and UPI decided not to give the mannequins a gender? Instead, the lead reads as, “The luxury retailer Barneys New York has removed a window display that made it appear blood-splattered mannequins were fending off attackers.” Are they assuming that all mannequins are female? Did the expensive gowns fail to explicitly state that they were female? Or was this an attempt to refrain from a larger discussion? In the end, intentionality is difficult to trace within an industry suffering from the bureaucracies of political economy. We will never know if there was a group of reporters that begged their editors to pursue this story with a cultural and critical angle. What we do know is that another episode of violence against women in the fashion industry has gone unchallenged in a larger arena. Yes, this display was eventually taken down. But why was it put up in the first place?