You're scrolling through Instagram, and pause at a photo from one of your favorite fashion labels. A young, beautiful Black woman stares back at you seductively, her brown skin glistening in the sun. You marvel at her clothes that perfectly hug her symmetrical, hourglass figure and admire her taste in jewelry - wait a minute, is her palm the same color as her arm? Now that you think about it, the light against her skin is pixel-perfect, and her features look like a Barbie dolls'...
She's not real. She's a virtual influencer - the biggest trend in the fashion and marketing industry right now.
In a world where illusion has already overlapped with reality in the fashion, beauty, and entertainment world, marketing agencies have brought the term 'unreal beauty' to a whole new level with virtual modeling. According to virtualhumans.org, a website documenting the industry,
<body-quote>"A virtual influencer is a digital character created in computer graphics software, then given a personality defined by a first-person view of the world, and made accessible on media platforms for the sake of influence."<body-quote></body-quote></body-quote>
Lil' Miquela, arguably the most famous virtual influencer in the U.S, had closed a $125 million investment round led by Spark Capital last January. Seemingly out of nowhere, virtual influencers have become the future of ads, fashion, and commerce. And they're here to stay; digital humans are projected to be as commonplace as real influencers on social media.
One benefit to the virtual influencer movement is the relief it gives brands from cooperating with real influencer-personalities, avoiding the scandals that typically follow. Companies can now bring in large amounts of revenue without interacting with real models. In the game of cutting corners and increasing profits, creating virtual models/influencers with high business potential and no risks (and during a pandemic!) is a no-brainer.
"Virtual influencers, while fake, have real business potential," says Christopher Travers, founder of virtualhumans.org. "They are cheaper to work with than humans in the long term, are 100% controllable, can appear in many places at once, and, most importantly, they never age or die."
So is it really a coincidence that "the worlds' first digital model" is that of a dark-skinned Black woman?
Meet Shudu Gram - a young, South African model with dark, luminous skin and doll-like features. Her favorite statement pieces include Africa-shaped earrings, traditional African gowns, and iindzila, the neck rings associated with the Ndebele people of South Africa. She's received praise on her Instagram posts from accounts celebrating women of color, with hashtags like #BlackIsBeautiful, #melanin, and #blackgirlsrock. Her creator, however - Cameron-James Wilson - is a 30-year-old white male photographer from Weymouth, Dorset, England. Since her first appearance in 2017, she's closed two partnerships with Fenty Beauty and Balmain and has been featured on Vogue and Cosmopolitan.
Many folks took Wilson's direction and jumped onto the train of making Black female influencers. Virtual influencers like Aliza, Ivaany & more, sport box braids & afros, use Black Twitter slang, and even quote Solange. They've also posted for #BlackLivesMatter (as did most companies last summer), exclaiming their disbelief and sadness to their thousands of followers over the racial injustice happening.
White capitalists have found ways to make profits off of Black folks (our bodies, our labor, our creativity, our movements…) since our very emancipation. Racial capitalism, a term coined by late professor and social activist Cedric J. Robinson, is defined as the process of deriving social and economic value from racial identity. From blackface minstrelsy in the 19th century to the TV tropes we see today that descended from that era, the entertainment industry is no stranger to this concept of profiting at the expense of Black folks.
However, we've more recently seen racial capitalism play out in less obvious ways. Brands and companies notoriously use token Blacks and Black cultural slang to appear inclusive and trendy.
"Our preoccupation with diversity has caused a shift in the dynamics of valuing race," says Nancy Leong in her article on the subject, featured in the Harvard Law Review. "Nonwhiteness has acquired a unique value because, in many contexts, it signals the presence of the prized characteristic of diversity… [The] irony is that [this] diversity rationale values nonwhiteness in terms of its worth to white people," giving white people the power to determine the value of nonwhiteness.
Folks who support virtual models like Shudu and Aliza (what they are calling virtual humans of color) claim that they prove cultural diversity and inclusivity as future norms of the industry. But one can't help but wonder how much of these diversity efforts stem from the economic capital of appealing to a young marketable audience that is multicultural and values racial inclusion. As Gen Z is predicted to consist of more and more people of color, virtual humans reflect these traits to appear more relatable.
Except here's the thing; A "virtual human of color" doesn't have the very real experiences of the marginalized groups it "represents." In fact, it has no agency or autonomy whatsoever. Being as though virtual influencers are CGI based, they are entirely programmable and cannot act on their own. Meaning they are programmed solely to create profit for their parent company.
The only thing Shudu represents is the fetishization of Black women from lands deemed exotic by colonizers, and a white man's successful effort to flatten the real-life experience of Black womanhood into a digital project turned marketing tactic that "stands out from the crowd" as Wilson suggested in a recent interview. To imply that these 3D rendered models could at all represent these complex groups who historically have been fetishized, alienated, exploited, and otherwise capitalized off of, erases their lived experiences and instead boils it down to something profitable for white men to digest and take advantage of yet again. You don't have to consider the lived experiences of women who look like Shudu and Aliza when using their image because they don't have lived experiences - conveniently erasing any sort of accountability from white corporations. They literally program these dolls (who look like the folks that would probably take issue with their performative diversity campaigns) to say and do exactly what would bring their company the most revenue, even if it is at the expense of the real marginalized community they call themselves portraying or 'representing.'
It's deeper than tokenized representation and "Black is beautiful" trends. It is important that we do not carry out the oppressors' vision in the virtual world, that we do not participate in or encourage racial capitalism in the digital realm or outside of it. As Travers from virtualhumans.org stated, "Virtual humans are the next massive storytelling opportunity." Whose story do we want to tell? Whose story gets to be told? The oppressor (those who've historically controlled the narrative) cannot ever do real justice to the voices and artistic representations of the oppressed (those who've historically been excluded from the narrative).
So how do we decolonize virtual modeling? The first step could be to actively center Black women in the creative process.
Model turned entrepreneur Sinead Bovell believes AI will eventually take her job, something she admits with distaste. "We human models have worked really hard to have our stories heard, and our authentic experiences considered… We've mobilized in groups…to advocate for social issues and push back on exclusivity in the fashion industry," says Bovell, "Now that we are finally starting to see changes in the industry, digital models can just land the jobs that we took risks for. Or worse, brands can just create CGIs that champion causes instead of actually having to invest in those causes themselves."
However, as she also considers herself to be a "futurist," she's positioning herself as someone who could provide a unique perspective to the creators of these artificially-intelligent models. As the "model who talks tech," she keeps herself informed on emerging technology and has a passion for "bridging the gap between young entrepreneurs and the digital future." Bringing in real Black female models such as Sinead to provide data to the new force of AI influencers could not only offer new exciting opportunities for Black female models & professionals in the industry but also allow for us to play an integral part in the creation of these virtual models, and their impact.
Furthermore, why not give real Black women creative agency over these dolls, on and off-screen? Shudu herself has worked with Black female designers, including Semhal Nasreddin of SoulSky, Claude Kameni of laviebyck, and Olay Nael of mianak. Her parent company, The Digiitals, has also partnered with writer and Ph.D. candidate Ama Badu to help write Shudu's background story and provide an authentic voice.
"Fragments of other characters I had met through my life long exploration of African literature started piecing themselves together, [and] I could also see part of myself in Shudu. I knew I wanted to help compose her narrative," says Badu, "At the forefront of my mind was making her authentic. Shudu is real to me, [and] I want her to be real to everyone else too."
This, to me, is a step in the right direction. I say, let Black women reclaim our stories in the virtual world, and not let others tell it with their flat, inauthentic renditions of us.