The TED Model Talk That Went Viral
Let’s set aside my issues with TED talks for the moment to… Oh OK, since you asked the $6,000 price ticket and the fact that TED is primarily geared towards the economically privileged (neo)liberal elite backslapping each other, ruthlessly networking and competing over who is the better human being makes me think that it’s a crock of shit. However, what really reaffirms my belief that TED is, on the whole, useless liberal bullshit, was this talk by an attractive 25 year-old model Cameron Russell, the Zipcar heiress
I found this talk not only insubstantial, but disingenuous, annoying and dangerous for several reasons.
Firstly, despite a rudimentary grasp of privilege politics and the wonderfully honest acknowledgment that her success as a model is entirely because she “won the genetic lottery” as a beautiful woman who is “tall… slender [and] white skinned”, Cameron takes pains to emphasize that modeling is a tough industry that she would discourage other women from joining. It’s modeling, she implies, and particularly the western world’s creation of an impossible notion of feminine perfection coupled with the oversexualization of young girls, which is in part responsible for the 53% of 13 year old American girls who are unhappy with their bodies, a figure which grows to 78% by the time they are 17.
There is nothing insightful or new about any of this information. The fact that our priorities are still wrapped around women’s self image in fact just reaffirms concepts of sexism and patriachy. When a model does NOT talk about beauty, looks or fashion, then we’re starting to make progress. But even the topic of this talk mockingly confirms that women in 21st century America have little to concern them other than body image, an absurd anomaly which Cameron seems to find both disturbing and sad – but proves simply by her presence.
The media and damaging representations of women are not new topics. They just sound startling coming from someone who is beautiful, rich and extremely privileged, who has “the deck of cards stacked in [her] favor”. Cameron emphasizes that her beauty and race has opened doors for her which she did not deserve nor ask for – as privilege is wont to do – but the acknowledgment that TED is one of those doors is ignored, along with any cognition of other factors at play in the strange tango of privilege politics: like family, wealth and connections.
However, the biggest problem I have with Cameron’s talk is that she is willingly participating in an industry which perpetuates inequalities, and is hence complicit in oppression. She’s painfully aware of all the terrible things the beauty industry does to young, western women’s body image – although she makes no mention of those outside America who may be suffering in different and no more insidious ways, perfectly highlighting the blithe Imperialist Americentric bias of TED. Cameron knows that fashion is a pointless, and pretty vile industry – yet she still participates in it despite having numerous options available to her as a well educated, intelligent young woman with connections. She will exploit fashion, as fashion uses her to exploit others. As Jamie Jamerson puts it over at Mamapop:
She’s a smart person with some good insights, but her message loses some kapow when she doesn’t address our future, or hers. Here are all the facts- is there a problem or isn’t there? Do we need to “accept the power of image” or challenge it? How does she reconcile her personal profit from a system she admits is built on racism? Or has she? CAMERON! I’m shaking my fist! Where are the final two minutes of your talk?! You were so close and then… nothing. Gone.
By refusing to bottomline her message, Cameron Russell’s talk fades into meaningless rhetoric, and in so doing highlights the hypocrisy of Liberals under Capitalism. In First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, Zizek deftly outlines the absurd cycle between Capitalism’s casualties (poverty, war, the ‘third world’, colonialism etc) and Capitalism’s desire to redeem itself by participating in a logic where “the very act of of egotist consumption already includes the price of its opposite” – most aptly demonstrated in the purchase of a pair of Tom’s shoes, which, we are told, will provide a needy child somewhere in the implied ‘third world’ with a pair of shoes as well. Not the same expensive pair of shoes that you bought. But a lesser kind inevitably produced by people working for minimum wage or less. Even if that person in the ‘third world’ could probably benefit from cholera medicine, access to clean water or education more, they will receive a pair of shoes so that the purchaser can thus alleviate their Capitalist guilt through consumption.
TED goes even further than Tom’s. If you’re someone who has benefited from Capitalism in any way, even simply by being born – if you’re a success, the top of the pile, the cream of the crop – you can alleviate your Liberal guilt by becoming a TED speaker, just like Cameron Russell! You too can participate in systems of oppression, and do so guilt free by openly speaking out against them, using them to your maximum advantage, and then saying vaguely that you’re trying to change something about them! You’re not quite sure what, but you’re open to suggestions using the perfectly democratic form of twitter (to which Cameron Russell failed to respond when I approached her with comments to see how she’d respond). As Cameron writes in CNN:
I am being handed press when good press for important issues is hard to come by. These outlets are the same outlets that spent two years not reporting a new drone base in Saudi Arabia while press in the UK covered it….
Should I tell stories like these instead of my own? I don’t feel like I have the authority or experience to do so.
How can we change this cycle? The rise of the Internet and the camera phone have started to change what stories are accessible. And we now have the ability to build more participatory media structures. The Internet often comes up with good answers to difficult questions. So I ask: How can we build media platforms accessible to a diversity of content creators?
The problem is that Cameron doesn’t have anything to say, and it’s not for her to ask to change any cycle when she is invested in maintaining that cycle. She can ask how to change it because she wants to ‘help’ people… but doesn’t quite know how, what, where or why, but “like many young people” is convinced she has “the potential to make a positive impact in the world.” She qualifies this with:
… if I speak from a platform that relies on how I look, I worry that I will not have made room for anyone else to come after me. I will have reinforced that beauty and race and privilege get you a news story [or a TED talk]. The schoolteacher without adequate support, the domestic worker without rights, they won’t be up there with me.
But Cameron is relying on her looks, race and privilege, even as she suggests that this is OK because she’s aware of it and wants to help ‘us’ – “the schoolteacher without adequate support, the domestic worker without rights” – using the first person plural to indicate that we, together, lesser humans deprived of her privilege, without the platform of beauty, white skin and a rich family, can be enabled by her grace, humility and strength in continuing to work in an industry which would crush women not quite as clued in as she to the hypocritical dynamics of privilege politics. In this sense, Cameron reconfigures herself as a postmodern White Savior, someone who knows all the tricky contradictions inherent in the politics of Liberalism, but is still convinced that her unique self and the attributes she won in the genetic lottery (oh, and her press) are what we western women may need to empower and enable us all.
TED reinforced this when they accepted her nomination to become a speaker, over and above a marginalized voice, someone who is non-white, someone who is from the LGBTQ community, someone who, perhaps, is from an impoverished background, and can distinguish between the privilege afforded them by aesthetics, and that by other factors.
The delicate balance between sincerity and hypocrisy is one which threatens every left-winger making a living from their beliefs. Do we condemn the left wing commentator for picking up a paycheck for blasting out their beliefs every week in print? Do we denounce Tim Wise for being the outspoken opponent of racism and white privilege, for being the speaker of choice on this subject, over and above, perhaps, other writers, who may or may not be people of color? The issue is further complicated by our absolute complicity in Capitalism. We live in a system which relies on the oppression of others for our own personal gain and advancement. We cannot perceivably “leave” Capitalism – well, not without a great deal of money, or on the opposite end of the spectrum, massive sacrifice. When right wing commentators sneer at Reebok wearing activists and their iPhones and Macbooks, they seem to imply that everyone who finds oppression objectionable should be confined to communicating via a chalkboard wearing a hair vest. They conveniently ignore the fact that our effectiveness in communication – indeed, our ability to live, not just conveniently, but live at all – is dependent, and not in a good way, upon Capitalist products.
To condemn Cameron Russell would be to ignore the ways in which we all exploit the system for sometimes necessary personal gain (stripping, writing Hollywood scripts), sometimes narcissistic and damaging personal gain (CEO’s of exploitative multinational companies, stripping, writing Hollywood scripts) and seek minor efforts at redemption (renouncing stripping, renouncing Hollywood, renouncing neoliberalism, shopping at Wholefoods, giving to Planned Parenthood, pitying Haitians and throwing them ten bucks via the Red Cross etc) which only eventually imply our guilt.
Cameron Russell’s true gift is that she is an amazing example of the necessary duplicity of Liberalism and its dark self, neoliberalism. Cameron Russell highlights its paradoxical nature: the appropriation, domestication and commodification of radical ideas, thus rendering those ideas little more than breaths in the wind. Yes, a diversity of voices, as she identifies, is needed, but access to those voices should not be controlled by a privileged elite, nor should that elite be responsible for eliciting those voices. That’s not change: that’s a continuation of the status quo. To really enact change, Cameron Russell would simply step down and instead of her voice, she would allow anothers to be heard. By continuing to try and control the narrative, Cameron makes the concept of radical Revolution seem not necessary, but absolutely inevitable.
Ruth Fowler is a journalist and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. She’s the author of Girl Undressed. She can be followed on Twitter at @fowlerruth.