Diversity Casting and Commercial vs. High-End Markets

Jezebel asked us last week, "What happens when a kid with Down syndrome models for Target?" The answer seems to be, "You get a Target ad with some cute kids." There’s much you could say about the Target ad (which I’m focusing on instead a Nordstrom catalog from last year that features the same model, because it’s more recent): It’s progressive casting, made more so by the companies not calling attention to the casting with some sort of pride campaign. (You could argue that with the advent of media-watchdog bloggers, the company could predict that people would notice without them rolling out the PR machine, but still.) Modeling is about visibility, so to have an under-visible group represented is outstanding—for all the cries about the lack of casting diversity in ethnicity and body size, you only rarely hear about the need for models with varying levels of ability. You could also critique it by pointing out that this is a child model; where are the adult models with Down syndrome? (The only other model I know of with Down syndrome is Taya Kennedy, who is 14 months old, which makes claims about her being an “inspiration” who is “taking the modeling world by storm” a hair overblown, as adorable as she is.)

It’s not hard to like the Target and Nordstrom campaigns, even as they prompt questions about corporate motivation, brand messaging, and tokenism. But what really interests me here is the question posed toward the end of the Jezebel article: Would we see a model with Downs syndrome in a haute couture campaign? Sociologist Ashley Mears’ study of the modeling industry, Pricing Beauty, indicates the answer is a resounding no. And the reasoning lies within the rules of how high fashion embraces unconventional beauty, not the industry’s wholesale rejection of it.

In Pricing Beauty, Mears delves into the reverse economics of modeling: Commercial clients (catalogs, retailers, low-end advertising) pay models well but are low in prestige; editorial clients (high-end magazines, couture campaigns, fashion shows) pay models little or no money but are considered prestigious and can eventually lead to a model getting “the big one”—superstardom, or at least a massive high-end campaign that will bring in the enormous paychecks. Models can cross over from one to the other, but in general there’s a delineation between editorial and commercial models, with commercial models being the conventionally pretty “girl next door” types (think Christie Brinkley) and editorial models being edgier, more unconventional, more provocative (think Agyness Deyn). Given this, at first it would seem that editorial outlets would be a better fit for models outside the mainstream, like models with Down syndrome. But as Mears points out regarding the greater availability of jobs for non-white models in commercial outlets, there’s a counterintuitive force at work with diversity. The commercial markets, which rely upon directly appealing to consumers instead of tastemakers, are carefully calibrated to appeal to the demographics of the people actually buying the goods, making it inherently more diverse. “The catalog market is where fashion embraces ethnic representation,” Mears argues, going against “the popular associations between artists and virtues of liberalism and cosmopolitanism” versus that of “the catalog shoppers of ‘middle America’ [who] are commonly accused of parochialism and intolerance.”

High fashion prides itself on embracing people outside the mainstream: Totally tattooed Zombie Boy, transgender icon Amanda Lepore, and albino Shaun Ross have all modeled haute couture, but the idea behind their campaigns has hardly been to provoke discussion about, say, transgender issues or the (formerly) working-class stigma of tattoos. The idea is that they embody something the brand would like to highlight about their own image—usually something approximating “edge,” a word that came up over and over again in Mears’ interviews with industry insiders. The models’ unusual looks become a marketing tool, not a tool for the company to generate good feelings about tolerance and inclusion. Their looks may be unusual, but they still fit within some fairly comfortable confines: Zombie Boy is white with classic bone structure, Amanda Lepore has an hourglass figure, and both of them are self-made in their exaggeratedly conspicuous qualities.

Compare that with people with Down syndrome: They’re not “self-made” in what sets them apart from the mainstream, prompting all sorts of reactions ranging from protection to pity (though the same could be said of Ross), and more to the point, their physical qualities exclude them from being singled out by the world of high fashion. People with Down syndrome are far shorter than average, with stockier, rounder bodies and shorter limbs—i.e. pretty much the exact opposite of fashion models. In contrast, people with conditions that make them good candidates for modeling—Marfan syndrome, for example, or androgen insensitivity syndrome—are reputedly overrepresented in modeling, though I haven’t found any hard proof of this. As a Jezebel commenter points out, if there were ever to be a woman with Down syndrome who was 5’11”, lanky, and narrow-hipped, the fashion industry would be all over her. I actually don’t think that’s true, but the idea stands: Fashion wants to celebrate outsiders as long as they fit certain criteria.

Case in point: Aimee Mullins, an athlete and fashion model who had both legs amputated below the knee in infancy. Her personal tale is inspiring (thanks to Sally McGraw for pointing me toward The Moth podcast, a storytelling event at which Mullins shares her story), especially in the ways she uses herself as an example for younger amputees who refuse to be limited in what they can do. But let’s not forget that Mullins is trim, conventionally attractive, and, depending upon which prosthetics she’s wearing, can be anywhere from 5’8” to 6’1”. I point this out not to take away from her accomplishments (she was president of the Women’s Sports Foundation and has done wonderful advocacy work, and even beside that, working with high-end designers as a model is an accomplishment) but rather to point out that it’s not just anyone who’s singled out for a pair of handmade Alexander McQueen prosthetic legs. High fashion embraced Mullins for the same reason they embrace anyone: She had “It,” and she fit the predetermined criteria. You can argue that’s progressive (I’d find it pandering to hire a woman to model your brand simply because she wears prosthetics), or you can argue it’s a self-serving way for the fashion industry to get a really eye-catching campaign. Hell, you can argue it’s both. But either way, the “look” comes first, well before the clothes before the model is wearing, and certainly before the model herself.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Target, a mainstream retailer known for aiming toward working- and middle-class consumers with an eye on the “creative class” through its collaborations with high-end designers like Missoni. (It’s also important to note that the influential viewers of Target ads are the people buying the clothes, while the influential viewers of a Vogue fashion spread are other stylemakers. Target has to satisfy you and me; Vogue does not.) Undoubtedly Target knew it would curry favor from a wide swath of its consumers by nonchalantly casting a model with Down syndrome. Progressives would like it, special needs advocates would like it, the “family values” camp would like it. What’s not to like? It’s a cute little blond kid in a leather jacket. And when one-third of a company’s customers have children, it’s a pretty savvy move to translate family values into something appealing to both lefty-progressives and right-wing-anti-choicers (numbers are hard to come by, but in two separate reports 29% of parents who knew their child would be born with Down syndrome chose to terminate the pregnancy, turning visibility of children with Down syndrome into a potentially political statement). Inclusion can safely become a part of Target’s brand. High fashion, on the other hand, has little investment in family values. (Nordstrom is a higher-end retailer, but it’s still distinctly commercial; it ain’t Dolce & Gabbana.)

The more skeptical among us might raise an eyebrow and mutter something about Target employing tokenism. But I don’t really think that’s the case here.
As Mears writes in Pricing Beauty, “[Tokens] do the work of legitimizing exclusion.” That is, nearly every fashion show will use one black model, because, hey, they’re not racist, right? It’s the fashion-world equivalent of “Some of my best friends are black.” But people with disabilities are even more invisible than racial minorities. (Or rather, some racial minorities. You don’t hear a lot of clamoring about the lack of American Indian models.) There’s been some progress made in entertainment—Glee and American Horror Story both use actors with Down syndrome, and though I haven’t watched either show, I’ve heard there’s at least a nominal effort to make their characters more than just Girl With Disability. Overall, though, it’s not like our culture is exactly overflowing with representations of disabled people—so their absence isn’t noticed, unlike the absence of brown-skinned people from all-white casting lineups.

In the end, Target did something good. I’m a firm believer in being diligent about companies’ motivations if we’re to retain our agency over what we buy and why we buy it—see also my hedging on MAC Cosmetics—but that doesn’t mean we should overlook the times companies get things right, especially when they’re not exploiting that as a marketing tool (yet). High fashion might believe it’s progressive, but much of the time it only looks progressive, while the actual inching forward of diverse representations happens at the lower end of the market. I’ve always thought that Will & Grace could be credited with a good deal of the sea change in the attitude toward gays and lesbians in the past 20 years (literally nobody was out in my high school when I graduated in 1994, for example). Here was a gay character being brought into America’s living room and being shown as funny, smart, likable, moral—Gays! They’re Just Like Us! And it’s not like Will & Grace was exactly highbrow TV; its middle-market sensibility was what made it work as a diversity tool. I see the same thing happening with Target, and in fact I wonder if by calling attention to it here I’m doing the opposite of what should be happening when a cute kid with Down syndrome is cast in a mainstream ad. After all, he’s just a cute kid with a floppy haircut in an orange T-shirt—and isn’t that the point?