Lindsay Lohan and Kanye West Straddle Line Between Violent Porn and Risque Entertainment

Sexualized images of women in pain--often beaten or dead--are nothing new. The fashion world has a disturbing obsession with the theme, and advertising and music videos are also guilty.

Noted scumbag (who often moonlights as a fashion photographer) Terry Richardson recently did a shoot with actress Lindsay Lohan. The photos depict her looking vulnerable and seductive with a gun in her head. His concept isn’t unique--in 2010 Tyler Shields did very a similar gunplay shoot with Lohan, who posed with a pistol in her mouth and blood splattered on the wall. [Trigger warning for all the links and images in this article. Many are also NSFW.]  

Some photos from Richardson and Shields: 



A few weeks ago, Erykah Badu released “The First Time” with The Flaming Lips, accompanied by an incredibly controversial music video. Now I’ve always admired Ms. Badu--she’s beautiful, strong, and incredibly talented. In most of her videos, graphic art, and music, she’s a powerful and compelling force. However, in every bit of this video she (and her sister, who posed for many of the shots) are minimized and objectified.

First, she’s the only naked one; none of the men strip down. Many of the shots of her in the tub are from a high angle, making her seem small and vulnerable. Her makeup suggests she’s been hit in the face. Then of course there’s the “blood,” followed by the “semen.” Also there’s the fact she allegedly didn’t agree to the final product.

Obviously this is not the only time a music video has glamorized violence against women. Kanye West’s “Monster” video featured women’s severed heads and limp, dead bodies. Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” video features an extended scene of sexualized violence, followed by flashes of dead female bodies though the rest of the video. Even though Gaga’s abusive boyfriend dies in the end and West’s video features some dead men, overall the videos glamorize the injured or dead women by simultaneously emphasizing their sexuality and utter helplessness.

I get it: art is meant to provoke. Often it's supposed to make us uncomfortable and elicit emotion, and in so doing challenge our assumptions and force us to see something in a new light. These images don’t do that. While they’re arguably harmful, they aren’t terribly unique—themes of eroticized violence against women are everywhere. Need some examples?

There's the infamous Dolce and Gabbana ad that suggests gang rape: 

 

The Wrangler murdered women ads:


Duncan Quinn suits: 


Victim of Beauty spread featuring images like this: 


 America’s Next Top Model murdered women shoot:

 

There's also the deadly pillow fight and women so hurt they can't walk, the Pirelli calander chock full of implied violence and rape, another slideshow of glamorous women in pain, and the ever-controversial PETA's misguided violence survivor ad. Then there’s the games like “Hunting for Bambi,” “RapeLay,” and “Grand Theft Auto,” all of which allow or encourage murdering or assaulting women. 

That’s just a small sampling. As a strong proponent of free speech who delights in the controversial, I struggle a bit here. I’ve heard the argument that violent imagery can help certain people work through personal traumas or forbidden desires. I’m not so sure about the catharsis argument, but humans are incredibly complex creatures and if these types of images can help, so be it. What disturbs me is not so much the fact that these images exist, but that they are so incredibly mainstream.

Although we might quibble over specific examples, most of us would agree that images of violence should not be used in a way that titillates and glamorizes the very real suffering of women worldwide. (Men also face abuse, but that’s another article.) Yes, artists should be free to create as they damn well please, but they must understand they are not operating in a vacuum. Even when you're paid to provoke, you're still not immune from causing harm. Images like these normalize violence and exacerbate the pain of victims. 

So why do photographers and other artists continue to find eroticized brutality compelling enough to keep producing these images? Besides sparking an emotional reaction, art usually has a message--so what are these artists trying to say? I assume most believe violence against women is bad, but continue to use these themes because they know the powerful combination of sex and violence will grab more attention.

I (really don't) hate to break it to you, but this isn’t artistic or provocative: it’s pandering and lazy. We’ve seen it all before. You really want to do something different, something edgy, something authentic? Explore themes of sexual violence in a respectful, nuanced way that doesn’t make harming women erotic. Show the real ugliness of it. If it’s beauty you’re trying to capture, feel free to glamorize people into bondage or S and M—just emphasize the consent component. We journalists try to adhere to the code "minimize harm," and artists should as well.