Terry Richardson ... loved for his ‘buzz generating’ work.
It’s tough being a hipster these days. Once loved for their oversized glasses and majestic beards, things just aren’t what they used to be after mainstream folks started weighing in on irony.
Recently, Jezebel’s Lindy West wrote about the rise of ‘hipster racism’ – a phenomenon spearheaded by “educated, middle-class white people” who feel the itch to prove they are “not racist by acting as casually racist as possible”. The idea rests on the fundamental belief that anything wrapped up in enough irony will somehow transcend from ‘utterly repulsive’ to’ funny’ – rendering ‘jokes’ like, “I want to look aboriginal” (at a spray tan studio) or “Wait. I’m going to be a total Asian right now” (while taking Instagram food photos) regrettably ‘acceptable’ in certain social circles.
But race isn’t the only social taboo subjected to the hipster whitewash. Overt sexism, while shunned in theory, has also found its way into unexpected corners of our culture in recent years. We may be getting better at spotting garden variety misogynists (thanks to this helpful guide by one strident feminist), but what happens when the perpetrator is embraced by the ‘in groups’ of our society?
Richardson and his famous 'thumbs-up' pose.
Take Terry Richardson, for example. Considered something of a genius among the publishing circle, the 46-year-old photographer is known as much for his 70s basement porn aesthetics as his ‘edgy’ fashion campaigns for clients like Miu Miu, Sisley and Tom Ford.
Magazine editors love him for his ‘buzz generating’ work, and celebrities can’t get enough of posing with him – or as him – in his trademark thumbs-up portraits. It’s as if mesmerised by his Stephen King glasses and porn star mo, the world has turned him into a kind of countercultural hero – conveniently ignoring his proclivity for ‘tampon tea’, spontaneous nudity and a track record of alleged sexual misconducts.
If nothing else, Richardson’s continued popularity serves as a true testament to the power of irony. Here is a rich, white, powerful guy who would’ve been sent packing his bags in any other industry – but as someone who has built his entire persona on sexual deviance and kitsch; he has somehow managed to relocate himself to an entirely separate moral universe. What’s more, anyone who criticises his ‘art’ is forced to ask themselves, “Is this an endorsement of sexism or ... a parody of it?”
It’s worth noting that Richardson insists he “wouldn’t ask someone to do anything he won’t first do himself”. Not that he was the one performing fellatio from a garbage can while wearing a diamond ‘slut’ tiara. (That was Alex, his former intern). Nor was he the one photographed eating a foot long Sub from the crotch of Jersey Shore’s Mike ‘The Situation’ while other men looked on and laughed (That was model Bar Refaeli).
But if we have any shred of doubt on whether ‘Uncle Terry’ is, in fact, a textbook misogynist, it’s because so many people seem to ‘get’ his work. Designers and editors are happily playing co-conspirators – landing him cover after cover in magazines like Harper’s Bazaar, GQ and Vogue. And did we mention his girlfriend is Audrey Gelman, 26, press secretary for Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer? (AKA hipster feminist icon and Girls creator Lena Dunham’s best friend) *insert multiple exclamation points*.
So why is Richardson’s brand of ironic sexism tolerated by so many smart, influential women? Susan J. Douglas, author of Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that feminism’s work is done, believes it comes down to the surprisingly persuasive power of ‘misogyny with a wink’.
“For the media savvy [generation], irony means that you can look as if you are not seduced by the mass media, while being seduced by [it] ... [and] wearing a knowing smirk,” writes Douglas. In this sense, the pleasure of ‘admiring’ someone like Richardson actually comes from “the feeling that you are reading against the grain”.
It’s a catch 22 for women: Could it be that we’ve been putting up with seemingly misogynistic behaviour to prove that we are above it all? Douglas seems to think so. At the heart of “enlightened sexism” is the argument that “women have made plenty of progress because of feminism – indeed full equality has allegedly been achieved – so now it’s okay, even amusing, to resurrect sexist stereotypes of girls and women.” After all, argue the sceptics, “these images can’t possibly undermine women’s equality at this late date.”
This would probably explain the curious revival of lady hating in the guise of ‘ironic humour’ in recent years. Just take a look at the charming label printed on the chinos sold by British clothing company Madhouse. Underneath the standard washing instruction was the additional option: “'Or give it to your woman: It's her job.” (As journalist Emma Barnett discovered and tweeted in horror back in March)
And then there were the less subtle versions on last season’s Topman T-shirts. The multinational chain store released one T-shirt slogan that reads, “Nice girlfriend: What breed is she?” and another that attempted to peddle what can only be described as “domestic violence chic”:
Perhaps it's no surprises that a social media storm ensued. But then again, sexism has a way of sneaking up on you in the darndest places. Just ask the people who have never even heard of Terry Richardson – they are probably too busy reading more culturally refined publications – like GQ, Harpers Bazaar, or Vogue.