Hagai's Israeli Girls
In a TimeOut Israel interview (Gonshorovitch 2014) with Hagai the year 2014 was deemed as ‘the year of the girl’, where a new feminist ‘genre’ enables women artists to tackle the ‘ambivalent space between girlhood and adulthood, via references to body image, personal expression, success and beauty’. As a Dazed interviewer commented, ‘essentially, Hagai, who is often surprised to hear that people expect these girls to be covered up and conservative, is championing a generation of females exploring their sexuality, body ownership and the beauty of girl power amongst an uncertain political and social climate’ (Kane 2014). Apparently and as Berick-Aharony (2013) argues in her study on national and international representations of Israeli femininity within American and Israeli magazines, hyper-sexual, porno-chic media images of Israeli women are geopolitical texts, symbolising Western belonging, and hence also contributing to the Othering of veiled Muslim women. Indeed, the models Hagai chose to represent Israeliness (as suggested by the book’s title), the way she photographed them and the overall atmosphere of the photos, are anything but stereotypically middle-eastern.
As talk-backers repeatedly commented on-line, Hagai’s girls were all Jewish, secular and white (Ashkenazi). While most Israelis are more brown-skinned than white, the whiter Ashkenazim—Israelis who are descendants of immigrants from European countries, generally belong to the upper class and hence embody what is normatively considered beautiful (Mizrachi 2013, pp. 61-63). Similarly, although Hagai argued that she wanted to set her locations in ‘villages and places that are remote from Tel Aviv’, as if to indicate that her book captures the cultural diversity of Israel, in reality most pictures were taken in upscale suburbs around Tel Aviv, where Hagai herself grew up. As Berick-Aharony (2013), p. 12-13) found in her study, ‘by adhering to the western model of femininity, and at the same time defying fundamental (Muslim and Jewish) models of femininity, mainstream Israeli identity is redefined as western, modern and free’. In this respect, the ‘Western’ look and the hyper-sexualised feel of the images (which I discuss below) cannot be separated from the local setting that renders it meaningful. While neoliberalism is a global political rationality, and although it has permeated Israeli society at large, it is the secular middle class that claims ownership over it.
Another way in which Israeli Girls is linked to the global culture is through artistic practices and affiliations of Hagai herself, who identifies with a group of international artists interested in the ‘female gaze’ (Tamir 2014). This artistic movement is premised on a postfeminist sensibility ‘which celebrates individual choice, independence and modes of self-expression rooted in the consumer marketplace’ (Duffy 2015a, p. 3; see also Gill 2007; Smaill 2013). It ‘embraces femininity and sexuality’ (Murray 2015, p. 495) and packages it into popular media commodities for similarly self-confident, (post)feminist and creative women. In other words, it is created by and for young, white and privileged women producers of self via consumption (Murray 2015). The main subject- matter of works such as Hagai’s (or other artistic female iconic photographers she names as her sources of inspiration, including Petra Collins, Valerie Phillips or Gia Coppola) is young women and girls and their lifeworlds. Moreover, these works share what some have described as the selfie or Instagram aesthetics and thematic. Murray (2015, p. 495) associates this with ‘young girls in the blogosphere’ who construct ‘an image of themselves as a sexual fantasy, to be consumed online, and in the public domain’. Arguably, the trickling up of amateur selfie photography to an art form is part of a broader technological and organisational transformation within the artistic field that dismantled some of the traditional barriers women artists used to face. As Hagai explains, social media platforms have opened up more opportunities for creative women by enabling women-to-women networking. Another significant feature of the selfie amateur-looking ‘female gaze’ photography is how it blurs ‘the lines between documentary, fine art, and fashion’ (Murray 2015, p. 504). A good example in this respect is the American Apparel phenomenon, an American young fashion retailer best known for its ‘anti-marketing’, countercultural and hipster branding techniques that foreground ‘raw sexuality, anti-establishment and progressive’ sentiments (Manlow 2011, p. 89; see also Moor and Littler 2008; Murray 2015).
Hagai’s ‘female gaze’ is directed towards very young women in their early twenties, wearing cool 1980s-looking apparel and located in semisuburban settings, that ‘could have actually been photographed in a Michigan suburb’ (Tamir 2014). This is in direct reference to Sofia Coppola’s movie The Virgin Suicides, located in a Detroit suburb. As Hagai explains: ‘I was looking for girls who reminded me of what I used to look like when I was growing up. I shot all over the suburban parts of Tel Aviv and the centre of Israel, looking for places that didn’t have a distinct cultural outlook and reminded me more of those American teen films that I had seen growing up’ (Kane 2014). While the girls and locations are Israeli indeed, as explained above, there is nothing distinctively local about their looks or the contents of the photos more broadly. Thus while a Dazed reader commented: ‘Very cool. Though, would love to see a mix of Palestinian and Israeli women in a project’ and another sarcastically wrote ‘wow, more photos of hot girls not smiling and doing “cool” things like smoking—what a game changer because they’ve been chosen from a specific region of the earth. Give me a break’, it could also be argued that the potential value of these works lies in showing that Israel, too, is home to the ‘universal’ tall, fresh-looking white middle-class girl.