Sunday, May 25, 2008

Starving and copying

Virginia Heffernan's NYT column today focuses on thinspiration videos--some of which, at least, can be read as both pro- and anti-anorexia, depending on the audience. They involve a lot of copying and repurposing of existing images in ways that the originals did not intend and might violently reject, and yet one might argue that they also expose truths about mainstream culture and its demands to regulate female bodies. They are transformative, even without explicit commentary explaining their relationship to the original; they also use copying in order to speak in the videomaker's own voice, however disturbing that voice sounds. Some relevant bits:

Thinspo videos profess a range of ideologies, often pressing morbid images into double service, as both goads and deterrents to anorexia.

Thinspiration videos are a cryptic art with rigid rules, as much a formula as a form. As listless, pounding or archly chipper music plays, still photos of one wraith after another surface and fade. ... The soundtracks to thinspiration videos, some of which feature songs explicitly about starvation, are not subtle. Skeleton, you are my friend. I will sacrifice all I have in life. Bones are beautiful. Hey, baby, can you bleed like me?

Filmmakers are reticent with commentary. If they explain their images in any way, it’s with oddly peppy title cards (“Enjoy!” “Thanks for watching!”) or a series of unsigned quotations, compiled as if for a commonplace book. A thinspiration auteur makes her voice heard almost exclusively through these cards .... I’ve never seen a thinspo video with a voice-over or even moving images.

Shooting photos just for a video is also rare. Instead, thinspiration consists of personal, archival and file photos (some taken from Photobucket and other photo-sharing sites) that have been inventively sequenced and edited, often using the so-called Ken Burns effect of pressing in on significant details. ...

[M]any thinspo sites make explicit their opposition to popular culture, approvingly offering images of women deemed “too skinny by media standards.”

.... The second influence [along with women's confessional literature] ... is the so-called recuts: videos that take existing photography and film and use music and new juxtapositions to create a story that’s at odds with a master narrative. (An example: the fictional trailers that tease out a gay, “Brokeback Mountain” plot from virtually every mainstream blockbuster.) Film of runway shows, as it appears on fashion Web sites, presents the models as confident, beautiful, “fierce,” where the same roll, in the hands of a thinspo filmmaker, can make them look disfigured and diseased.

... [W]hat seems most significant about the thinspiration videos is that they’re not propaganda or even entertainment, but an effort, however misguided, at art. One thinspiration filmmaker whose YouTube screen name is “hungryhell,” and who spoke on condition of anonymity to keep her struggles with bulimia private from people who know her, emphasized to me in an e-mail message that her work “represents what I have been feeling at that time in particular.” She added, “The songs I use . . . say exactly what I need to but can’t figure out how.”

Hungryhell’s films are intricate, many of them augmenting the thinspo formula with collage, typography, still lifes, art photography and even painting. I asked her how she does it. “Putting it together is not hard,” she wrote back, explaining that she uses Windows Movie Maker software. “When I am feeling something, it just all comes together.”

When Shirley Manson wrote "Bleed Like Me," she was offering a message about human universals and empathy. But that's not the message that everyone received; some who fetishize suffering saw in it a reflection of their own commitments, and that's how they used it. I can't say that I'm happy that pop culture can so easily be put in the service of thinspiration. But that's a problem with the culture at large, not confined to the people who make the videos.

No comments: