Words: Ellie June Goodman
Feature image: via Shudu Gram
A photograph of a stunning mode is re-posted on Fenty Beauty’s Instagram. A bright-eyed, young influencer is invited to Prada’s A/W18 show to take over their Insta stories. Seems like the typical online world of fashion and beauty, right? Yet, neither of these women are living humans.
The women I refer to are Shudu Gram and Miquela Sousa and are both are CGI masterpieces, created solely to exist on Instagram. They have become a fashion world phenomena with Shudu recently reaching 111k followers and Miquela a stratospheric 1.1m. It’s no surprise that there is now such buzz around virtual models and influencers. But, what does their existence mean for fashion and internet culture in 2018?
The popularity of these two virtual goddesses is certainly controversial; whilst they do champion diversity and representation in beauty as the two biggest CGI models on Instagram, it has been argued that they could be taking away work from real POC models. Additionally, since it came to light recently that the creator of Shudu (a black model whose appearance inspired by the South African Ndebele people and other dark-skinned models) is a white man from Britain, there have been calls of exploitation of black and POC aesthetics. In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar Shudu’s creator, Cameron-James Wilson, explained: “She represents a lot of the real models of today,” continuing on to say, “There’s a big kind of movement with dark skin models, so she represents them and is inspired by them.”
But is Shudu a celebration of black beauty, or, does Wilson’s phrasing suggest that blackness is a trend that is being cashed-in on? Why didn’t the photographer and artist just work with a black model? Why create a fake one? Wilson says that Shudu was created as his version of the most beautiful woman, and, that her existence is intended to empower and complement black women rather than replace or retract from them. He added that her appearance is inspired by another Fenty model, Duckie Thot, who has spoken out about her struggle to find work due to her dark skin, sparking further controversy. While anger towards a white man’s version of black womanhood and the risk of real POC models losing work as a result of it is understandable, this is also, at its core, artwork and therefore should be respected for its intent as well as critiqued when it misses the mark.
Perhaps, however, as brands see a dark-skinned woman garnering literal hundreds of thousands of followers online, despite the fact that she doesn’t even real-world-exist, they might then be more inclusive in their casting for campaigns and runways, the latter of which a CGI model would struggle to take part in, let’s be honest. Maybe, as Dazed fashion editor Dominic Cadogan wrote, it should be celebrated that a dark-skinned black woman (real or not) is gaining popularity in an industry that traditionally favours white beauty.
The same could be said for Miquela. If a young, Spanish-Brazilian woman in America can be invited to a Prada show and become an international fashion influencer, shouldn’t this be lauded as an achievement? Is she not building the profile of women of a similar background, increasing demand for them in the industry? Does it even matter if she’s not real?
They’re the two most followed, most in-demand computer-generated Instagram personalities, and neither of them are white – that seems pretty great to me.
That said, the two have literally been created to fit an already established mould of what beauty is. How does this affect the young women that follow them on Instagram, perhaps not totally aware of their lack of authenticity? Both have perfect skin, plump lips, wide eyes, and would fit into any sample size clothing without worry. So many of the comments on the Instagram posts of both are along the lines of “are you even real?” followed by heart-eyes emojis. I don’t want to go around discrediting the youth of today, but there are a lot of very young Instagram users who may come across either of these profiles and be led to believe that these are very real women. As we know, this has been a problem in fashion via airbrushing for years, but at least airbrushed models are human and therefore fallible – whether through their actions or anything else – these CGI women are absolutely without flaw. It seems dangerous that young women see this and think that this is how they need to be to gain followers or be loved or successful is worrying.
On the other hand, we have models who appear perfect already, but they fuck up. They say misguided things, get caught taking illegal drugs and offend people daily – although these women appear perfect they are not. They unwittingly become role models to young girls who look up to them, but their human nature means they make mistakes and cannot always be a beacon of perfection. CGI women who have no risk of making unfortunate mistakes could be the perfect role models for today’s younger generations, not to be led astray by too much partying or an accidental racial slur. It is a little bit weird, though, to think about children looking up to an algorithm as an idol. Maybe that’s just 2018?
Either way, I’m not entirely sure exactly how I feel about these virtual models and influencers. There is so much to be said on either side thus the conversation is only just beginning. Whilst I appreciate the art here, I also understand its fallibility and the controversial part it plays in diversity, representation and perpetuating existing standards of beauty that we could all do without.
Essentially, this is all playing out on Instagram – a social media outlet that is not well-known for its representations of reality – so maybe we should be taking it all in with a pinch of salt, right?
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