There are some acts of evil, so evil and damaging, so sick and depraved that they are off limits. Society reports on the news, provides cops to hunt down perpetrators, jails to lock them up in for currently inadequate amounts of time, physicians to heal and counsellors to understand. That is where our involvement ends – in a purely legal and therapeutic way. Occasionally a writer takes on a subject in a negative way towards the doer of evil, and aims their light into the darkest of crevices. By knowing evil we can both know ourselves and be comforted in the machinery of the world, or else outraged and moved to action.
The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold is a case in point. Sebold’s masterpiece is not unchallenging or easy reading; it deals with the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl, Susie Salmon, by her neighbor, George Harvey. Susie narrates the novel from Heaven, Sebold using the first person as a tool to drag us further into identifying ourselves with Susie as she uses life after death to observe her friends and family reaction to her passing. It is a work of love and activism. It asks us the questions we never want to think about: who are we to others after we die, who are the monsters, and why are the attacks of these monsters inexplicable. The very nature of evil is exposed right to its very unlovely bones, just as Susie’s bones are eventually exposed in the narrative. The Lovely Bones strips the human condition bare. It is not a novel of titillation, it is no sick but beautifully written Lolita (Nabokov, 1955). In fact it is everything that Lolita is not. Lolita has sympathy for the devil, with Nabokov glorying in the details of the protagonist, Humbert Humbert’s grotesque and criminal pedophiliac fixation on the little 12 year old girl. Lolita, the victim remains barely developed as a character, her suffering is not as important to Nabokov as that of his terrible monster of a protagonist, and when she dies before him there is a deep sense of Humbert Humbert being let off the hook, being given an ‘out’, even though he was arrested and jailed.
The book is a work of dysfunctional perverted eroticism, thinly disguised as a character study of a truly mundanely evil man who is motivated by sexually abusing little girls. It is a well written but desperately sick fantasy played out in words. I barely made it through the first chapter. I forced myself to read on out of a desire to read that which I knew from the start I was going to detest and inevitably pan. Alice’s Susie has literally all the power after her death, she has an omnipresent view of the world below which is so unfairly going on without her. Lolita is strangely portrayed as seducing Humbert, leading myself and many other people who read and are not sick disgusting individuals to wonder about Nabokov’s motivations. The reader is being gaslit by Nabokov and his unreliable narrator, his is not a story of the love which survives, but instead of the innocence that dies.
Which brings me to our modern times cut-price Lolita story which is threatening, quite rightly, to bring down an entire international fashion house, Balenciaga. It is somewhat fitting comment on our modern times that instead of an artistic endeavor well done yet depraved, it instead revolves around some sketchily dressed cuddly toys, dressed for a night at a fetish club, looking somewhat reminiscent (under the kink get up) of a certain street’s inhabitants whose neighborhood delights taught children their abc’s and 123’s. These creatures look more apt to be teaching the bdsm’s and the 69s, which is all well and good for overpriced tat, if they were marketed by pretty young things old enough to be dabbling in such niche sexual pursuits. Instead they were put in the hands of young children, and that is, my friends, unforgivable. Nobody with half a brain would have thought this was even vaguely acceptable.
Before I go any further, I hasten to add that my area of expertise is culture and literature, not fashion. No one ever accused me of being fashionable. I have my own somewhat quirky sense of style. No dresses. No skirts. No pretty. No glitter. I enjoy playing with androgyne sensibilities, and besides, who doesn’t love a good pocket. For me clothes are meant for practical purposes, and like most people, I like to look like ‘myself’. I would no more pay attention to the workings of a high fashion, vastly expensive brand of clothes than I would, say, the inner workings of the diamond business. Purchasing style, ready made, out of the box, according to social conventions set by Anna Wintour and her alarmingly frozen faced bunch of cronies, would not interest me, even if I had more money to spend than Croesus or Kanye West or any other instagrammed up the wazoo dedicated follower of fashion.
Fashion breeds contempt and egomania, just look at Kanye and his incipient egomania, fueled partly by some seriously intense anti-semetic sentiments that he appears to harbor. Adidas dropped him, he was made persona non grata to some extent, and he lost money. I observed some whining about his apple pay being suspended, and moved on by the whole mess. Besides, those shoes of his are damn ugly and the clothes cut for a strangely proportioned giant with vast shoulders and bizarrely long skinny arms . They look like something a strung-out lego person would wear for shits and giggles, and they still could not walk in those ridiculous 1000 dollar galoshes that the young seem to have persuaded themselves look cool…or something. It is wearing money, an overt show of what you have got to waste, but when it is innocence and children’s safety being laid to waste, the situation is a little more desperate.
Balenciaga’s holiday campaign should never have made it past whatever passes for leadership in this troubled fashion house. Presumably ad campaigns of this size employ storyboards, creative oversight, a lot of planning and set up of the vision being portrayed. Someone, somewhere in the process should have taken a look at the idea of posing children with bondage bears and said, “Fucking hell, boss, there is no way we can do this! How about elves. Or horses, everyone likes white horses. Snow? How about some snow. This is meant to be the holiday season, not a season in hell!” It appears that no one who was involved in signing off on this abortion of a campaign had the wit or wherewithal to pull the plug on the bondage bears being posed with children. I find this curious. Perhaps instead of a lack of oversight, it was instead a kind of modern rendering of Humbert Humbert’s terrible predicament; and if Balenciaga didn’t want the audience to think this, then perhaps they should not have posed children with sexually perverted bondage bears. Before anyone tries to wiggle out of it by suggesting these are not bondage bears, let me describe them. A purple monster who may or may not be meant to remind us of a famous beloved childhood monster, yet wearing a leather harness and a village people hat instead of a tee-shirt and shorts. The other looks like a similar beloved childhood character, just different enough to not get backlash from the brand it appears to be ‘inspired by’, with a bull ring through his nose and wearing..well…it would have been better if he was wearing nothing. Instead this potentially sweet creature is apparently depicted as a cute cuddly thing… with extra steps towards his eventual coming out of the closet as a fuzzy furry dedicated kink club voyeur. See where the problem is? Considering the ‘furry’ community is full of fetish, kinks and has been accused of links to pedophilia, these bears become a very problematic emblem for any child to be posing with. These are not child’s toys. These are symptoms of a sickened and disturbed society which does not seek to protect children nearly enough from the perversions of others.
The whole mess goes from bad to worse. Another campaign, this time, thankfully featuring a grown woman wearing not very much considering they are meant to be hawking clothes, not sex, dropped on the 21st November. This time there was a prominently displayed a copy of documents taken from the Supreme Court case United States v. Williams. It was a ruling that upheld the PROTECT Act, which strengthened child pornography law. Something is rotten in the House of Balenciaga. This was not a feeling which was assuaged when I noticed in the same photo as the court case copy, was a book about the art of Michael Borremans. Borremans’ art depicts some very troubling images of children being castrated and otherwise unclothed and in horrendous poses playing with fire and dismembered limbs. He is a very talented fine artist…with very disturbing subject matter. When the inclusion of this book of his art works is added to the court documents and the bondage bears, it does not paint a very good picture. In fact it is so immensely disturbing I considered not writing this piece at all. On the bright side, as of today, when I checked, the bears were no longer for sale in the Balenciaga online store. Of course Balenciaga dealt with the scandal as any large rich organization would: by issuing apologies on social media, strongly worded statements defending themselves and shifting blame, and by suing someone else they reckon is to blame for the debacle. The set creator is getting sued, Balenciaga ‘stand(s) for children’s safety and wellbeing’ according to their statement, and I guess some very rich people are hoping all of this goes away when the next big story hits.
Someone is going to take the fall, and watching all the little creeps scurry around trying to exit the sinking ship is akin to watching ants run away from a stream of water that threatens to destroy them. The photographer, Gabriele Galimberti, has distanced himself from the images he shot, but did not set up. He wrote: “I am not in a position to comment on Balenciaga’s choices, but I must stress that I was not entitled in whatsoever manner to neither chose the products, nor the models, nor the combination of the same. As a photographer, I was only and solely requested to lit the given scene, and take the shots according to my signature style.” In short “I was told to do it Guv. Just following orders” appears to be taken as being adequate to excuse him from fault. He could see what he was shooting with his own two eyes, and if he was any kind of decent human being should have refused point blank to take the damn photos. So where does the buck stop? The parents of the children? Balenciaga, the photographer? The set designer? Or modern culture? Balenciaga is suing the set designer and the company that formulated the campaign. This little dance macabre between the rich and untouchable is of little interest. People will get sued, someone will have their career destroyed, but probably not the right person or people, and this will blow over.
Those influencers and models who make so much money from the fashion mess are staying strangely silent. Kim Kardashian has a partnership with the brand that makes her a lot of money. She commented inadequately but has not distanced herself completely. Bella Hadid and Nicole Kidman both starred in the Spring ’23 campaign for Balenciaga but have remained utterly silent on the matter. Isabelle Huppert, the French actress, was involved in the campaign but has also not said a word to date. Their silence is akin to complicity and approval. If they are outraged, then say so, and put their sponsorship where their morals are, and cancel their involvement with the company.
Balenciaga’s ‘in black’ app remains available for download on the apple app store, but Twitter is being threatened for allowing freedom of speech. It is worth noting that twitter is cracking down on accounts that have content which is suspect for being linked to, or pushing sexual material of a paedo nature. I can barely write this without my mouth filling with vomit. How on earth could that photographer shoot those photos of the children with the bondage bears without feeling similarly sick? How can they abdicate responsibility? I will never understand. The writing is on the wall: those that influence public opinion are not cool with free speech, but they are fine with excusing the inexcusable behavior of a company that should have known better. Just say that Balenciaga failed to adequately supervise the shoots, this material was allowed out there, the fact remains that these bags were made in the first place, and everybody knows cute fluffy bears appeal to children. Mixing things which appeal to children and bondage is never a good idea. The bags should never have got off the design board in the first place.
Lack of oversight is not equal to lack of culpability, but I suspect once the legal dance is done, someone will get smacked on the wrist for this, and Balenciaga’s world of the emperor’s new clothes will continue just the same. After all, it has to – people get immensely rich off the machinations of a company only the ultra rich can afford to buy from. Their lack of moral compass and care for the most vulnerable means nothing in the face of very big bucks. They can buy forgiveness and most certainly will. Those up in the mansions in the Hollywood Hills will not lose a moments sleep over this. It will be dismissed and maneuvered around and everything carry on just the same. Somewhere, some big ad mogul is laughing and rubbing their hands at all this free publicity.
As the old adage goes, no publicity is bad publicity. When people are talking about a brand, and controversy is stirred up at least they are being talked about and thought of. Some concerns are just too big to cancel. After all, what is the average person going to do? Boycott Balenciaga? None of the people I know can afford to patronize the company anyway. They must make perfume, which is the entry level purchase that most average people make from these huge fashion houses. Losing a few perfume sales is hardly going to trouble them, and to be frank, anyone who would buy from this company that wishes it was edgy and instead just sells pre-packaged rebellion for the rich and famous. This is not just subjecting models to cruel and unusual punishment shooting photos of them in their wares during blizzards and in mud. This is not mere subversiveness to try and sell their phony rebellion to the too rich and dumb to have an idea of how to be subversive themselves, so they pick it up off a shelf, bespoke, made to measure and wear it like a badge of dishonor they have failed to even earn.
There are some things which are not edgy, not subversive, not even interesting. All they are is mundanely evil, and dangerous to the most vulnerable. I would suggest that there are some hard drives which need checking, some awkward questions that need answering. If Nabokov was alive today, I would suggest going and seeing what he had in his collection of private images. Just because people are creative, just because they are talented and worshipped like modern Kings and Queens by us plebs does not mean they should be above the law. Bad things happen to vulnerable people. bad things happen and are encouraged by ‘art’ which condones and titillates. Freedom of expression is not without the need to condemn roundly any overtly criminally dangerous tendencies and behaviors.
Surely as a society we can draw the line between art and crime, between rebellion and abuse, between legitimate expressions of adult sexuality and dangerous shaming of that consensual behavior, and things which put children in danger? Are we all so dumb in this modern age where information is at our fingertips and nobody needs to learn or think deeply about anything, that we fail to draw lines where lines need to be drawn in fear of offending someone with a kink? Are we all so scared of being cancelled or being seen as not open-minded that an advert like the bondage bears one makes it to publication without being pulled? In the end the bigger an organization is, the more power they have the more corrupt they become. Even the mega rich, especially eh mega rich, need to be held accountable for their actions. Pleading ignorance is just cowardly. An apology ceases to mean anything when it becomes a gaslighting excuse, and I for one, am sick of it. I could have had more sympathy if someone meaningful from Balenciaga, with whom the buck should have stopped for this campaign, admitted to fucked up royally, and took themselves off for some child safeguarding training, but then culpability is only for the little people. People like you and me who can’t sue and buy our way out of hot water.
I am starting to wonder if things were not better when stuff was taboo. After all what thrill is there to the out there and openly exhibited. BDSM is better off in clubs with names like ‘torture garden’ and practiced by sad old men who pay young women to beat the hell out of their wrinkled old asses. After all, no one would care in the slightest if it was adults and aimed at adult buyers, but when the oral compass gets so dangerously out of whack with basic safety, (what should be) legality and decency, then we get situations like this one. Of course there is a way around this for Balenciaga and its rich and beautiful patrons. A little heavy duty legal action, some denial and ignoring of the issue, radio silence until it blows over, and we will all go back to oohing and ahhing over some pretty youngish thing (hopefully not too young) wearing one of their ugly frocks to some meaningless out-moded event. Or not. Personally I am oohing and ahhing over a pair of levi jeans, in the perfect washed out grey, half price on Amazon yesterday, and hoping that somehow society can work its way out of this bizarre combination of overly permissive and overtly restrictive attitude towards anyone who fails to show the correct package of carefully woke beliefs.
Part of the reason all this will be smoothed over is that the kink-meisters and furry freaks have taken over the asylum and we are all meant to just nod and smile while the world is subjected to the over-normalization of sexual paraphillia. It puts me right off my pumpkin spiced cup of tea. Call me a prude…no please do…I much prefer it to being thought of as the kind of girl too scared to speak up and say when the bondage bears are brought into the room. Anything but cowardice, and that, I suspect is how this advert was not nixxed at the start. Too many people were too scared to draw a line in the sand between healthy adult human sexuality….and some seriously damaging involving of children into a fashion set that children should have been nowhere near. We will see, but I doubt we will see anything like true culpability or apology. I am just waiting on the next excuse. I fear it will not be anything close to being enough.