A digital supermodel gave me style advice and feminism took a back seat

It’s award season: the Grammys and BAFTAs happened yesterday and the Oscars and the Brits are just around the corner. Celebs ahoy!! Yes, celebrities but also something slightly disturbing: digital supermodels who have clearly never heard of feminism.

Scrolling Twitter last night, enjoying red carpet looks and catching up on some mindless gossip, my thumb hovered over an image of a very striking model called Shudu. A statuesque, dark skinned, goddess who was offering to be my stylist.

Shudu the digital model in pink.

Shudu is the world’s first digital supermodel. She has been featured in campaigns by the likes of Fenty, Balmain and Ellesse. In this instance she is EE’s style guru, charming Pixel 3 owners (and slightly freaking them out in my case) into buying clothes.

Intrigued by Shudu’s offer, I clicked and a chat started. She showed me four red carpet looks and I selected Cate Blanchett as my muse. Shudu was able to find a very similar dress to Cate’s floor length sensation, for a fraction of the price. She added a pair of strappy shoes ‘to complete the look’ and gave me the option to buy. I didn’t, of course. I wonder if anyone did…

Shudu’s creator, fashion photographer, Cameron James Wilson, based her looks on a Barbie doll. You really have to wonder why the fashion industry is embracing this virtual Barbie shape when it has long been criticised for promoting unrealistic body images. Is this a temporary relapse?….

Shudu isn’t alone….meet Lil Miquela

Lil Miquela is an Instagrammer and singer who has 1.5m followers and similar streams on her Spotify singles. Completely computer generated she is a fake pop star / influencer.

In the world of ‘influencers’ reality and human connection are bread and butter. We’re all sold to by ‘real’ people who generate a kind of authenticity that consumers want from their favourite brands. With Lil Miquela it’s all fake and yet she’s winning people over with her cool looks and everyday ‘snaps’.

Digital models could set feminism back decades

Shudu and Lil Miquela are sex objects selling products. They choose clothes, give advice, write songs and have arguments with other digital AI personas. They appear sentient and yet they are controlled. It’s a male fantasy!

Lil Miquela is racially non-specific, while Shudu shows up for an under-represented minority of dark skinned models. However, isn’t any gain undermined by the objectification of a black woman for profit? Controlled by a man and exploited by brands.

‘But it’s not real’, I hear you cry. Ok, so give it a few years and these avatars will look more convincing. At the moment there is something waxy about their complexions. In time, however, digital models will be indistinguishable from their human counterparts and then the ethics get tricky.

Just because it’s fake, it doesn’t make it okay

We’re not talking about fictional cartoon characters who enact stories for the sake of entertainment. These are ‘replicants’ who are designed to be as real as possible: role models, influencers who set trends and sell products.

And yet they lack something crucial – agency. They cannot object. I am not concerned for their feelings – I know they are CGIs – but should a man be controlling a woman? How does that fit with feminism? Just because they are not real women, should we encourage a role play of the very thing women have been fighting against for centuries?

The more money brands can make from using CGI models who don’t have to be transported, fed, paid and appeased, the more we will be exposed to them. Perfectly toned, bright skinned, youthful denizens of style telling us how to live and what to wear through a veil of augmented life experience.

Female identified avatars won’t have stretch marks!

Maybe we’ll get to a compromise where digital female models can only be controlled by women, acting out a female perspective which closely reflects that of its creator. That way there’s no conflict. But then what’s the point in having the avatar at all!? Why not just have the real woman?

You know the answer. She won’t look as good! She’ll have that pesky layer of subcutaneous fat that women insist on carrying about. The inconvenient water retention at certain times of the month. She’ll have an opinion and refuse to wear some clothes. There will be breakouts, which need to be photoshopped and stretch marks on her thighs. Oh and most annoyingly, she’ll want to be paid.

Letitia Wright is a human voice worth hearing

The truth is that the only reason to pursue digital influencers and models is for profit. And as long as that’s the motivation we have to be really careful. Will fashion houses adapt their digital models to suit consumer interest? A sort of virtual eugenics?

The future of digital modelling is fraught with ethical potholes, which must be navigated carefully if we are to avoid writing off years of progress.

For now I won’t be taking Shudu’s advice but I would most certainly listen to what Letitia Wright has to say. When she won the Rising Star BAFTA last night she spoke about her depression and emotional struggles. Watch her very human, vulnerable and inspiring speech here.