'Shanghai Dreamers': Dangerous or Thoughtful?

Tuesday, August 31, 2010 / 8:14 PM

The Atlantic recently compiled some thoughts and links about Dior's new "Shanghai Dreamers" campaign. In the ads, white Dior models stand amongst groups of Chinese models. "And no, your eyes have not deceived you," writes Jenny Zhang for The Guardian: the Chinese models within each ad are all identical - a mere copy-and-pasted image, repeated dozens of times to produce an eerie composite of clones.

So what does this say? That all Chinese people look alike? That, as Madelenine O'Dea writes for ARTINFO, "the Chinese are a featureless mass, while Dior (and the west) represent individuality"? That Chinese people aren't beautiful? That there are too many of us?

Chinese photographer and ad artist Quentin Shih is on the defense though, brushing off the accusations of racism that have been shot his way. Shih says his art is meant to be a dialogue between 20th century Chinese fashion and Western Haute Couture: "I don't think the Chinese models are in some way demeaning. The Dior model for me is also a 'model' - I mean she stands there only to represent the clothes, not herself and not a western people."

Photographer Quentin Shih in front of his "Stranger in a Glass Box"
photographs. The "Stranger" series was Shih's first photos for Dior.
There are two ways to really look at it then: the first being in line with reactions like those of Zhang's and O'Dea's; the second, as The Atlantic points out, is that the campaign is "'clueless,' not racist." Shih is a Chinese artist whose purpose isn't to make a political or social comment about China's role in the world. In fact, Shih has done photos for Dior before, posing top Chinese model Du Juan in Dior couture and in a glass box for a series called "Stranger in a Glass Box." Shih treads dangerous ground this time around though by including only white models as the representation of glamour. But that's not so much his own personal fault as it is that of the fashion industry as a whole. After all, Shih adds, "I was not lucky enough to shoot a Chinese model wearing Dior - if I did I would have put her in my work."

So who supplied the models? In this case, we should be lashing out at the industry and not the photographer. Sure, the ads are in poor taste when you thoughtfully consider the critiques it has drawn, but this should serve as a jumping off point for a greater conversation about the definition of beauty in popular culture. Who defines it? Why do we adhere to it?

The stereotype created by the beauty industry persists because of the media's biased representation of women. The industry's tendency to feature a single type of look creates a one-dimensional idea of beauty that is idealized as a model of perfection in America. An important aspect about the average woman that the media fails to accurately represent is the rich racial diversity present in society. Caucasian women are portrayed as being a dominant example of beauty, which is an inaccurate illustration of American women as a whole.

Children of diverse races do not see themselves reflected in the mainstream media, creating a belief that a single type of woman, one who mirrors light-skinned Barbie dolls, defines beauty in America. In the Youtube short documentary "Kiri Davis: A Girl Like Me," Jennifer, an eighteen-year-old African-American girl, observes, "When I was younger, I used to have a lot of dolls but most of them were just white dolls with long straight hair that I would comb and I would wish I was just like that Barbie doll."

Though Barbie was originally intended to empower and motivate young girls into pursuing a wide range of professions, the unattainable image of beauty and perfection created an opposite effect. For light-skinned girls, Barbie represented a standard to aspire to, whereas for dark-skinned girls, achieving that look was physically impossible. Despite a slow progression toward representing minority races amongst dolls, the lasting impression left by Barbie is still prevalent in the minds of many.

Beauty, as defined by the industry, is presented as something to be desired, so women continue to chase after the dream in hopes of being seen as “beautiful.” The fault in this one-sided representation is also due to fashion designers, who are boxed into a single look on their runways. Designers and companies are more concerned with the profits they are making rather than the effect they are leaving. Diversity is not as important to the fashion industry because the images of tall, thin models has done its job in selling products for so long that change is not seen as urgent.

But as long as we continue to buy products in order to attain a certain look, the industry will continue to thrive exactly the way it is.

So who should we be aiming our torches and pitchforks at with "Shanghai Dreamers"? Shih, the Dior company or ourselves?

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  1. Your post reminded me of a comment that was directed at my [Chinese] friend and me as we were crossing the street. A guy was coming the other direction and said, "Ooh, beautiful Japanese women." I disregarded the comment at first, thinking he wasn't talking to us, although he looked right at us. Then I realized he was talking about us. I just said, "oh" as we passed him, and then my friend and I burst out laughing because it was a strange comment/reaction. The fact that he called out our race (as incorrect as he was) showed that he was one of *those* guys who like Asian girls because they're Asian. Ick.

  2. I had a conversation with someone at the library once that went like this:

    guy: "Are you Korean?"
    me: "No, Chinese."
    guy: "Oh, same thing."
    me: "...No."

  3. Racist? No. Depends on your take because "art is subjective".

  4. As always, wonderful digression into the realms of sociological weirdness/culture sadness. Go team Art with a capital "a".