Sautéing Babies in Talk

Oliviero Toscani has struck again. Last year, Chatterbox chided the Italian photographer for his Benetton ad campaign featuring inmates on death row. (See “United Killers of Benetton” and “Benetton and Newsweek: A Chatterbox Investigation.”) It just didn’t seem right that moral outrage about the death penalty should be channeled toward the selling of high-necked mohair sweaters, Peruvian folk ponchos, and Lycra-lined lace panties. Now Toscani has weighed in with a fashion shoot for the March issue of Talk headlined, “The Baby Accessory.” This time, Toscani is doing journalism, not advertising (though with fashion shoots it’s often hard to tell the difference), and instead of harnessing moral outrage, Toscani seems to be courting it. “They’re not just for cribs and strollers anymore,” reads the subhead. “Today’s fashions call for baby-skin softness and gurgling smiles–infant as this season’s pashmina. Divine!” The photos show a gorgeous brunette lounging on a black couch, playing the piano, and assuming various other poses while outfitted by Prada, Chanel, Versace, Givenchy, Hermes, and an infant of unknown origin. Sprinkled throughout are quotations from Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care on the general theme that looking after a baby is a breeze. In one photo, our brunette has playfully seated her toy baby in a pot situated over two burners on a stovetop. With that wicked gleam in her eye, she might just turn them on!

Obviously, on some level, the photo spread is intended as a goof. By rendering in literal terms a familiar offensive convention (i.e., glossy magazines treating the babies of celebrities and other Fabulous People as cunning objets), Toscani is committing parody, or at least irony, oui? (The presence on a coffee table in one photo of Petronius’ Satyricon is a big hint.) Fashion, after all, is practically required to challenge bourgeois values–all of them, that is, except the sacred core value of material consumption. Chatterbox will not be goaded here into becoming Dr. Laura “I am my kids’ mom” Schlessinger.

Still, only a fool would deny that irony can enable seriously bad behavior. What is suggested with a wink the first time out is done in earnest the fourth or the 12th time. So when the notion of child neglect or outright abuse is presented, ironically, as chic, it isn’t crazy to draw a line and to wonder why Toscani doesn’t see it. Perhaps because Toscani senses that a child who grows up abused or neglected stands a better chance of growing up to commit homicide, inhabit death row, and be fabulously photogenic.