You’ve probably seen “The World’s First Digital Supermodel” headlines being blasted around the internet over the last several months. “Shudu Gram” was the first of her kind – an entirely digital avatar created by photographer Cameron-James Wilson, and has racked up a hefty 137k followers. Until March this year, Wilson had not revealed that Shudu was entirely computer-generated; with some followers believing the model was real. Shudu isn’t the only digitalised woman flooding our feeds, with influencer Lil Miquela’s notoriety growing since her inception in April 2016. For the first two years, no one was sure who/what/where Lil Miquela had come from, until it was discovered that Brud (a mysterious L.A-based start-up) had created her. Lil Miquela, who is apparently 19 years old despite never having been born, has also recorded and released a song called “Not Mine”, which has nearly 1.5 million plays on Spotify and a digital fan base that most influencers would envy.
So, is this all just a weird PR stunt? Performance art? A commentary on society? Maybe that’s what the creators intended, but these CGI models have damaging consequences. As if women didn’t already have enough unrealistic beauty standards pushed upon them, we are now expected to contend with robots.
Shudu’s fame grew when Fenty Beauty reposted an image of her, sparking controversy, with a viral tweet commenting “a white photographer figured out a way to profit off black women without ever having to pay one”.
A white photographer figured out a way to profit off of black women without ever having to pay one. Now pls, tell me how our economic system is in no way built on and quite frankly reliant on racism and misogyny 🤧🤔 https://t.co/k7tDc7cXLL
— Glodan ✨💛✨ (@hodayum) 27 February 2018
Wilson, in an interview with Harper’s Bazaar, spoke on the controversy: “There’s a big kind of movement with dark skin models,” Wilson told the magazine, adding “So, she represents them and is inspired by them.” Some are praising him for his artistry, but they’d be wrong; this is simply another example of white men profiting off black women, jumping on a “trend” for capitalistic gains. The lack of representation and diversity in the industry isn’t going to be solved by a CGI model created through the lens of a white man. It can only be solved by hiring real black models.
The line becomes even more blurred with Lil Miquela, whose internet personality has been moulded into that of a “woke” millennial, known to support the Black Lives Matter movement and Trans rights. An Instagram caption of hers reads: “I’m not sure I can comfortably identify as a woman of colour,” and another states “‘Brown’ was a choice made by a corporation. ‘Woman’ was an option on a computer screen.”
If you’ve got a headache by now, I don’t blame you. The twisted realities being spun by Bud et al are complicated and distracting. Because, without all the noise and PR stunts, one simple fact remains – corporations are profiting off “idealised” CGI creations and adding to institutionalised sexism and racism that’s making women feel like they’re never enough.
Scrolling through the comments on Lil Miquela’s posts is worrying, as sandwiched between the inevitable “are you a robot?” and “I don’t get it?” comments, there are also young girls asking “why are you so pretty?”
Suggesting that these computer-generated models aren’t damaging because they’re not real is short-sighted, and doesn’t undo the core issue that these robots are perpetuating sexist beauty standards with their every post. Both ‘women’ are predictably slim, tall and conventionally beautiful.
Professor Renee Engeln succinctly expressed why the rise of virtual models is bad:“There is no world in which this is good for women’s health. The idea that women are going to be comparing themselves to women who…are literally inhuman strikes me as some kind of joke that isn’t very funny”.
We can’t compete with robots who don’t have blemishes, don’t age, don’t eat and don’t get ill.
So, before you press follow or like a campaign featuring virtual models, please think about the message being sent – why choose and pay a real model (like, an actual human who works and earns a living) to collab with Prada when you could conjure one up digitally? For me, this is just another instance of men trying to play God with how women look.
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