Speaking of fashion shows, I got a call to cover the week long Pakistan fashion week that happened in Karachi last week for a European channel. While I didn’t write the pitch, I understood what it was. It began with “Under the shadow of the Taliban…” You get the point.
I took the assignment because I’m a broke freelancer trying to get started, and if nothing else, it makes for some field notes. I’m interested in the process of “professionalization” in the MSM and what that extracts. The question is this: Given the framing, how far can one go in reworking a story? It’s the master’s house and master’s tools question, the tension between individual agency and the discursive networks in which we become subjects and enact ourselves.
Here’s a bit of what I wrote in a prior blogpost, funnily enough, before I knew that I would be covering a fashion show shortly:
So, for example with Pakistan, the story is quite simply, the Taliban. Now, the stories around that can be of basically two types: 1) follow the narrative straight. These are stories about the latest statements, advances, losses, and crisis instigated by the Taliban and the Army or government’s response to them, or the US aiding monetarily or militarily that fight -or- 2) seemingly disrupt the narrative. These are the stories that are about a brewery in Murree or a high-end fashion show in Lahore, or a sex toys factory in Karachi. The implicit story arc is: Yes, Pakistan has the Taliban and they’re all Muslim, but look, they’ve got fashion and sex and alcohol too! The story works by juxtaposing the broader ‘truth’ of what is Pakistan with local exceptions (alcohol, fashion, sex). But, at heart, it’s a reinforcing maneouvre because really, they’re only newsworthy precisely because they function as exceptions to the larger rule, Taliban.
This story finally didn’t run. They wanted a “conservative” criticizing the event and well, the ubiquity of the story made it unnecessary for them to run it. But, as you can see in the video below, the framing is the key issue, and once the frame is the Taliban, there’s little room for maneouvring. The script you see here is the result of an initial script I wrote, that was re-written (not by me), and which I in turn, changed in places during the final voiceover.
Pakistan’s Fashionistas Defy Taliban –AP
KARACHI, Pakistan — Some women strode the catwalk in vicious spiked bracelets and body armor. Others had their heads covered, burqa-style, but with shoulders — and tattoos — exposed. Male models wore long, Islamic robes as well as shorts and sequined T-shirts.
As surging militant violence grabs headlines around the world, Pakistan’s top designers and models are taking part in the country’s first-ever fashion week. While the mix of couture and high-street fashions would not have been out of place in Milan or New York, many designers reflected the turmoil, contradictions and tensions coursing through the society.
Islamic robes? really? Oh wait, I get it. It’s an Islamic country (duh) and they’re wearing robe like things. Islamic + robe = Islamic robes! TaDA! The MSM is as sharp as ever.
AP is a newswire service, so this story is not a singular event. It was multiplied and amplified many times over. Some examples include: NYT, CBS, Boston.com, NPR, Forbes, and The Guardian. As an unscientific measure, there are 59,900 web hits for “Pakistan’s Fashionistas Defy Taliban,” the headline for the AP story, a veritable echo chamber reverberating with a singular message. Undoubtedly, not all of them are AP’s story, but even if one accounts for that by taking out a few thousand, that still leaves the mass of repetitions. As Goebbels said, “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is born in mind constantly: it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.”
But there is no singular propagandist here. It occurs on a technical plane. As Adorno and Horkheimer argued,
Interested parties like to explain the culture industry in technological terms. Its millions of participants, they argue, demand reproduction processes which inevitably lead to the use of standard products to meet the same needs at countless locations….In reality, a cycle of manipulation and retroactive need is unifying the system ever more tightly. What is not mentioned is that the basis on which technology is gaining power over society is the power of those whose economic position in society is strongest. Technical rationality today is the rationality of domination. (emphasis added)
The headline also topped stories written by others:
Pakistan’s Fashionistas Defy Taliban –Telegraph (UK)
Bare shoulders, backless gowns and pouting models are wowing Pakistan’s glitterati as Karachi fashion week shows the world a different side of the Taliban-troubled nation.
While women in much of Muslim, conservative Pakistan opt for headscarves over baggy shalwar khamis or even burkas, on the catwalks of financial capital Karachi, designers are exposing midriffs and flashing cleavage.
‘Fashion Week’ First for Pakistan –BBC
Pakistan is hosting its first ever fashion week in the city of Karachi against a backdrop of heavy security.
Around 30 Pakistani designers are taking part in the event which ends on Saturday.
The shows are taking place in the luxury Marriott hotel. Last year, the hotel’s branch in the capital Islamabad was devastated by a massive truck bomb.
Of course the truck bomb at the Marriott happened neither in Karachi -if we are going to be so concerned about being there and experience- nor did it have anything to do with a fashion show. But, kudos still to Elettra Neysmith of the BBC. It takes a full five paragraphs before we get to the obligatory ‘Pakistan is conservative’ line, and even here, the article attempts to dispel the idea that all of Pakistan is wearing a burqa:
While women in much of Muslim, conservative Pakistan wear headscarves and baggy shalwar-kameez (pyjama and long tunic), in the financial hub of Karachi, jeans and T-shirts are more likely to be seen.
Five Days of Fashion Show the Flip Side of Coin that is Pakistan –Daily Times (Lahore-based daily)
In a country fighting a bloody war against itself, Pakistan organised its first fashion week, with an elite segment of society scoring a “victory of sorts” – as CNN described it – to assert itself to Pakistan and the world in bold colours and striking poses. The international network’s description of the five-day celebrations of style sums up the organisers’ aim magnificently: “A model strikes a pose, shows a side of Pakistan the world rarely sees… with some of the attitude you may expect from the world of high fashion.”
The entire story is CNN’s video script for the fashion show. Note the circulation here: an international media outlet, CNN, reports the story which then gets mirrored back for local consumption in a national daily. We see ourselves as others see us?
A critique on Counterpunch: Moderns, Models and Martyrs.