“If you haven’t decided what your child should be doing yet,” announces a Russian-language voiceover during the opening scene of Girl Model, “Then perhaps you can offer them a modeling career.”
The flaws in this line of thinking are likely obvious to anyone reading the subtitles. In affluent, English-speaking countries, the modeling industry is seen as something between a punch-line and a cautionary tale. To the parents of the bikini-clad hopefuls that this disembodied voice is addressing, though, it’s a valid opportunity. In rural, impoverished areas of Eastern Europe, information about the problematic nature of the industry isn’t widely available, and many families see a modeling contract as a golden ticket for their barely-pubescent daughters. They want them to move to cities and make money, and have been given no reason to distrust the Americans who promise to facilitate this.
When we first meet Nadya, 13, at the open call in question, she is a self-described “gray mouse” from Novosibirsk, who has recently graduated from sleeping in her grandmother’s bed to sleeping in her mother’s. Shortly after her first appearance on camera, Nadya, who has never been on an airplane before and does not speak Japanese or even English, will be sent to live independently in Tokyo and look for work as a model. She’s been promised at least two jobs and $8,000 in earnings, and with a “look” that is coveted in the Japanese market—long, straight naturally blonde hair; high cheekbones; and the requisite tall, lanky figure—she thinks it’s probable that she’ll get them.
Needless to say, things don’t go as planned. Because Nadya is so young, she doesn’t know how to navigate a large city on her own. Because she can’t communicate with most of the people around her, she can’t seek help. And, when it becomes clear that she’s being ripped off, she has no way of self-advocating.
One of the most surprising aspects of Girl Model is the fact that sexual exploitation is only a peripheral concern. It’s the economic exploitation that’s truly shocking. Although there are several oblique references to sex trafficking toward the end, by that point, the audience has been desensitized by the other ways in which models are degraded. They’re the ultimate exploited laborers, the urban proletariat with a strict waist-to-hip ratio of ten inches. Because there are so many young girls crossing so many borders, and navigating all the linguistic, cultural, and bureaucratic barriers associated with that progression, this kind of exploitation is extremely difficult to regulate.
Nadya’s story is contrasted with that of Ashley, the former model who scouted her. Ashley, who is in her early thirties, lives in a “glass house” in Connecticut with two hyper-realistic baby dolls, one male and one female. “I had a third,” Ashley says, “But I dissected it.” The gender of the unlucky one is never specified.
Through video diaries from the late 1990s, it’s gradually revealed that Ashley hated modeling and couldn’t wait to leave the industry. Over a decade after being sent to Tokyo at the slightly-less-egregious age of 17, she speaks hesitantly about how much she enjoys her flexible schedule and frequent opportunities for travel, but it never quite clicks why she remains in the business.
The implications of all of this are obvious to someone who’s read the synopsis, but perhaps less so to someone who’s seen the film. As another former model points out while driving Nadya to yet another casting, it’s difficult to gauge where this cycle begins, much less how it can be ended.