Sex sells. It’s one of the biggest truisms in a capitalist market, period, but it’s doubly true when it comes to the fashion and entertainment industry. At this point, it’s nearly impossible to get anyone to argue, in good faith, that making people think about sex is an ineffective way to get them to buy magazines, clothes, movies, and music. But creepiness and outright sexual predation? In recent years, there’s been a trend of having models in photographs who are depicted less as sexually powerful and more as weak, vulnerable, or even victimized. These images have been coupled with a torrent of accusations of abuse and manipulation in the photography industry, with models and other female employees being pressured into non-consensual sexual situations.
But is the tide finally turning? This week, two of the hands-down biggest creeps in the fashion and entertainment industry, Dov Charney and Terry Richardson, started to finally feel the repercussions for treating their industry like a pervy hunting ground. Charney was ousted as CEO of American Apparel, which has been struggling in recent years. Richardson, who is a celebrated photographer and video director, was the subject of a profile in New York magazine that, despite being something of a whitewash, prompted a strong backlash from the likes of Jezebel, Buzzfeed, and yes, The Daily Beast, that put the heat on Richardson.
Allegations that these two men are abusive and predatory have gone on for years now. In 2004, Dov Charney actually had an employee come in and perform oral sex on him during an interview with Jane reporter Claudine Ko. Apparently that wasn’t weird enough to satisfy him, so he later masturbated in front of her while she tried to interview him. Unsurprisingly, a man like that quickly racked up a series of sexual harassment lawsuits, many of which were settled out of court. Other mostly young, impressionable women seemed eager to line up to play Charney’s degrading little sex games, usually with clear-cut hopes that they would get rewarded with more work, or at the very least have the rent paid on their New York apartment.
Richardson has also been the subject of relentless sexual abuse talk. Multiple models have come forward with stories of Richardson bullying them into having sexual encounters with him when they thought they were simply there to be photographed. Richardson blows these allegations off by suggesting that the women knew what they were getting into. He told Benjamin Wallace of New York magazine that it was the fault of agents and bookers for not warning the models what is expected of them if you do a Richardson shoot.
However, as one agent told Wallace, the notion that you should expect Richardson to start demanding oral sex and handjobs the second you walk in the door is an experience that is reserved for only the lowest women on the totem pole who don’t really possess the ability to say no to one of the world’s top fashion photographers, lest they attract the ire of their respective agency. “Kate Moss wasn’t asked to grab a hard dick,” the agent complained. “But these other girls, the 19-year-old girl from Whereverville, should be the one to say, ‘I don’t think this is a good idea?’” It’s an important distinction. The fact that people who are in a position to tell Richardson where to shove it aren’t subjected to the “Uncle Terry” treatment should tell you all you need to know about how necessary sexually harassing models is to achieve his “art.”
So how have Dov Charney and Terry Richardson managed to survive for so long while doing things that would get Joe Schmoe cubical worker fired within seconds? Disturbingly, it’s because both of these men have made being a disgusting creep central to their own image. This isn’t the typical story of the sexual predator who puts forward a public face of a wholesome family man while he secretly intimidates and harasses women; Richardson and Charney embraced their “pervert” image, coupling it with an aesthetic that plays with the idea of coercion and abuse.
Indeed, TMZ recently released a video that was supposed to stay unreleased that Terry Richardson filmed for Lady Gaga and R. Kelly’s already kind of creepy song “Do What You Want”, and the video reads like a celebration of sexual assault. Kelly has been the focus of multiple sexual assault accusations, many of which he ended up settling out of court, which makes it all the more disturbing to put him in a video where Kelly is depicted as a doctor coercing a patient into sex and even saying, “I’m putting you under, and when you wake up, you’re going to be pregnant.”
Charney and Richardson have gotten away with all this because they flaunt an image of being creepy perverts who are indifferent to the typical notions of consent. They’ve been able to convince people for a long time that the creepy predator act is transgressive, or even subversive, and therefore should be regarded as hip instead of pathetic and gross. That this strategy has worked for so long is a testament to how much our culture still sees women as toys for the amusement of men.
But there is nothing subversive or cool about being a grabby creep. How subversive or hip can your behavior really be when it’s so frequently associated with Tevas-wearing frat boys? Good ol’ boys with oversized belt buckles and record collections that haven’t been updated since the ’60s know how to slap a waitress on the ass. Over-tanned and heavily hair-gelled steroid-sucking lunkheads are perfectly capable of trying to bully women into giving them oral sex. The bottom-feeders that share “creepshots” on Reddit and slouch around in Crocs on the weekend are all about eroticizing women’s degradation. Preening Wall Street stockbrokers who wouldn’t know “cool” if it came bundled up with cash and a side of cocaine know how to lure naïve young women into coercive sexual situations. Sexually predatory behavior doesn’t become daring and cool just because you dress it up in tattoos and a flannel shirt. It’s the same old creepiness that it ever was.
Luckily, recent events suggest that the public is finally beginning to realize this. Charney was reportedly forced out of American Apparel not only for his “salacious behavior,” but also because his company is on the rocks, not making nearly as much money as they thought they would following years of rapid expansion. Seems the predator-in-the-basement aesthetic of their ads, depicting young, vulnerable-looking jailbait, is actually turning customers off instead of exciting them. Charney had to go because his pervy vision that he thought was so killer instead smells quite a bit like failure.
Richardson is a slightly different story, because when he isn’t being horrible, his photos and videos can often be witty, engrossing, sexy in a non-coercive way, and even beautiful. (His utterly non-creepy video for Beyonce’s “XO” is a wonder to behold.) But the creepy “Uncle Terry” pedo act is beginning to wear awfully thin. Richardson makes his money in industries that are dominated by female consumers, such as fashion and pop music. All this negative attention for his sexual predation can’t be helping him, which is why so many fashion companies are now hesitant to admit that they might be interested in hiring Richardson in the future. Most women, even the hip ones, know the dirty old uncle thing is too reminiscent of dirty old uncles to ever actually be cool.