This photo by Tyler Shields, of Glee actress Heather Morris, caused a stir. An article in Shine makes this point:
Moral compass rule: You just shouldn't use deeply painful subjects like violence, abuse, or slavery (ahem, Vogue Italia) to sell your surface, expensive product. If that doesn't work, make-up artists, designers, photographers, and ad execs should consider this: bruises, burns, and scrapes don't make people want to buy things.I agree, but are we not becoming too moralistic? In any case, I don't think moralists should worry. Here is why:
Tyler Shields is playing with heavy visual codes. I propose to define something as being x-"code" if it works in the context it is exported to. Clearly the code here is (domestic) abuse. Shields' photo above is not really code. Why not? He flirts with violence but he's out of context. He presents a mug-shot version of an attractive, white, young woman with a black eye. Heather Morris, the model, looks straight into the camera with an almost defiant expression. Though beaten, she remains coldly composed, as if to put beyond any doubt that she is in control. Which is why her face doesn't export.*
Either Shields is oblivious to abuse-code or he wasted Morris' time -you are not dumb to try code without some subversive idea. Had he used a black or a Latino female subject, his photo would've been fuzzier (momentarily, I defer to analyze whether fuzzier is better or worse). Shields should've couched Morris how to feel a bit under her skin the drag of existential humiliation that comes with brutality, falling to the unyielding pull of poverty & addiction, until there is little left of her self-esteem to even look straight at the camera.
Just to complicate things a bit. How about this one?
A gleeful Rhianna looks at the camera. She exhibits her -still visible- shiner under a bit of mascara. Whereas the received mark of violence is confined to police mug-shots, Rhianna turns it upside down: Bruise now becomes makeup, a redefinition -rather, incorporation- of code. Violence is met with a resoluteness of a different kind. Absorbed by beauty -not glamor- brutality is deprived of its ominous stigma. A long shot from Tyler Shields' bruised Barbie.
* Morris' self-conscious shot brings to mind actors' uncanny ability to feign emotions. How matter-of-factly an expression of credible hair-rising fear suddenly turns into a happy face.