Princeton’s Model Memoirs literature class whips up hue and cry from Havard

Reading time 4 min.

Some intellectuals argue that models may be genetically gifted for putting on designer clothes and strutting their silhouettes down the catwalk, but they are not intelligent, much less could they make for the best writers. But prestigious American University Princeton may beg to differ, dispelling the “dumb model” stereotype… And in the process the internationally acclaimed university has whipped up a hue and cry over one of its new courses for the 2009-2010 semester: “Model Memoirs: The Life Stories of International Fashion Models”.

Accused by thier rival Harvard of fostering pop culture, the university has defended itself by saying that the course “Explores the life-writing of American, African, and Asian women in the fashion industry as a launching point for thinking about race, gender, and class.” Who knows, may be the course will change people’s perception about models or just bring a new appreciation to the people behind what the French aptly term as “Haute Couture”. Among the biographies chosen are the best sellers written by the Sudanese supermodel Alek Wek and Somali model Waris Dirie.

You might be among the persons who think that models aren’t so smart (No finger pointing here)… well think again! Today’s models have great careers beyond the runway, and some like Alek Wek, Irina Pantaeva and Waris Dirie are accomplished authors. Their respective successes are so immense that they will soon be the subject of a course at the prestigious Princeton university.

This semester, the Ivy League university has a new course in its Comparative Literature and African-American Studies department. Under the theme “Model Memoirs: The Life Stories of International Fashion Models”, the course is based on memoirs written by models and other fashion insiders.

Since the announcement of the course, several media have criticized the university whilst accusing it of wasting expensive tuition on “academic fluff”. Princeton university’s historical rival, Havard, has been especially vociferous. Harvard believes that Princeton is indulging in pop culture to attract students to modern literature despite the fact that Harvard did raise the bid for pop-cultural relevance in announcing that they will include the study of The Wire, a successful TV show on crime in Baltimore.


Meanwhile, Princeton has defended its choice through its website. According to the university, the course “Explores the life-writing of American, African, and Asian women in the fashion industry as a launching point for thinking about race, gender, and class.

How do ethnicity and femininity intersect? How are authenticity and difference commodified? How do women construct identities through narrative and negotiate their relationships to their bodies, families, and nations? This course will include guest lectures by fashion editors and models; discussions of contemporary television programs, global fashion, and cultural studies; and student self-narratives about their relationships with cultural standards of beauty, whether vexed or not.”

Their sample reading list includes:

Alek Wek, Alek: From Sudanese Refugee to International Supermodel

Irina Pantaeva, Siberian Dream

Jillian Shanebrook, Model: Life Behind the Makeup

Waris Dirie, Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad

Mary Gaitskill, Veronica

Linda Welters and Abby Lillethun, The Fashion Reader

The university’s choice was further defended by the University Press Club, the Ink. The student paper adds that “models often get unfairly pegged as airheads, and it might be similarly tempting to write off this class as academic fluff. But there’s always been plenty of discussion in the ivory tower about Beauty (its meaning, its evolution, its relation to Truth – ask an art history friend).”

When it comes to human beauty, it’s hard to deny that models have played a role in defining and communicating the concept’s changing standards. Discussing what that role is, exactly, is likely a big part of the class. But even putting aside such high-minded academic concerns, there’s much that could be compelling about hearing the stories of women often paid to be mute projections of some larger feminine ideal”.

Whatever people think of the course, the controversy did help sell the course. It was fully booked within days of the announcement. As for the students, they will be graded on papers, oral presentations and class participation. Which, let’s be honest, is a not a bad way of learning literature.

I can think of more painful ways of learning literature (the Russian gulag comes to mind or even the Namibian concentration camps). But seriously, how could they even start talking about gender equality when there is not a single male model on the list? Methinks that male models would have brought that gender balance to the discussion… hint, hint.

The Other Afrik  The Other Afrik is an alternative and multi-faceted information source from Afrik-News' panel of experts. Contributions include : opinions, reviews, essays, satires, research, culture and entertainment news, interviews, news, information, info, opinion, africa, african-american, europe, united states, international, caribbean, america, middle east, black, France, U.K.
Natacha Mikolo
Natacha Mikolo is a communications and marketing professional and is an avid entertainment contributor for various panafrican medias. A real world citizen, born in Congo Brazzaville and currently living in France, Natacha has also lived in Cuba, Zimbabwe, Congo and England. She considers herself at home wherever there is great food, music, WiFi and, of course, people to write about.
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