Girl Model Documentary: Exploitation or Opportunity?

A new documentary explores alleged market exploitation of the powerless, a theme so repeatedly appealing to documentarians. This one, “Girl Model,” caught my attention because it focuses on a facet of the fashion and modeling industries. It’s the story of a 13-year-old Russian girl who is an aspiring model, along with several complicated, hardened model recruiters, one of whom actually initiated this documentary effort. Apparently, young female Russian models are in demand in Japanese advertising. They are recruited in Russia and sent off, willy-nilly to Japan to fend for themselves in the strange, unregulated, exploitative world of fashion modeling  But such narratives should trigger some viewer skepticism, in my opinion.

Opportunity offers risk and reward. People take risks to escape poverty, to build a better life. Even people who are age 13. Hopefully, I will get an opportunity to view this documentary.  I hope the film explores the circumstances that would motivate a 13-year-old, Nadya, who describes herself as a “gray mouse, an ordinary country girl,” to travel mostly unaided to a foreign land in hopes of becoming a successful fashion model. What circumstances is she escaping? Every time a market opportunity for the impoverished of the world is condemned as exploitative, my question is always: compared to what? I understand that the available employment opportunity at hand may be far less than acceptable to a comfortable, middle-class American. But to the impoverished, that opportunity, with all its seemingly harsh, cruel circumstances, may be the chance for a better life, so I don’t think we should so quickly condemn or prohibit it.

In the narrative, Nadya leaves her home in Siberia, travels to Japan, is picked up by a modeling firm called Noah Models, and auditions for various modeling jobs. She’s homesick and at the whim of the harsh, bewildering meat market world of model casting calls.

When Nadya first arrived at the airport in Tokyo, she was expected to find her way to the agency on her own, with just an address on a slip of paper. She didn’t speak the language, didn’t know how to get there or even how to figure it out. She didn’t know who to ask or where to turn and hadn’t ever traveled abroad before.

Despite such stressful and, reportedly, less than financially rewarding circumstances, Nadya decides to continue her pursuit of a modeling career. A reviewer calls that decision “the saddest part.” Which brings me to a more specific critique: the fashion industry isn’t nice, so get over it. By all accounts, it’s competitive, backstabbing and, well, harsh. If you have to be 5’9” and a size “0” to land posh modeling gigs, and you decide you don’t like that, maybe that isn’t the job for you. But, in a week that brought the political “war against women” meme, perhaps we should better respect the ability of young female models and their families to make their own decisions, even decisions we may dislike.