We’ve all heard about Stalin’s practice of not only liquidating his political rivals with a bullet to the back of the neck or an icepick through the skull, but also erasing them from photographs, as if they had never existed in the first place. This practice seemed so bizarre to the Western world back then that George Orwell felt inspired to caricature the phenomenon in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which party functionary Winston Smith “disappears” printed evidence of unwanted persons and facts “down the memory hole.”
Once such an idea gets put out into the world, it takes on a life of its own and is bound to spring up anywhere. This month, the Ikea company has enhanced Stalin’s “disappearing” technique to new heights by essentially deleting an entire gender. The company’s latest catalogue for the Saudi Arabian market is pretty much identical to the Swedish original, but with one whopping difference: To make the catalogue more culturally appropriate, the editors have erased or even transgendered all the female models that appear upon its pages.
Now you see her - and now you don't.
Several of the women have simply been erased from the ads, Soviet-style. In one case, a seated woman with short hair who is shown from behind has been subtly transformed into a man. A couple of pictures showing a room full of people have been emptied entirely.
Why the purge of female figures? I don’t know when you last had an Ikea catalogue in your hands, but you cant take my word for it that the images there are about as tame as you can get. The models are always attractive, modern young people shown enjoying their new self-assembled furniture. But the images grate on Saudi sensibilities, where it’s not only blasphemy to depict the Prophet Mohamed in any form, but where showing images of lightly dressed women can trigger a visit from the religious police.
Now you see her...
...and now you don't.
When asked about the purge, Ikea spokesperson Sara Carlsson told the Swedish newspaper DN:
We will never accept any form of discrimination. Of course the Ikea company supports human rights for all people. That is rooted in the Ikea concept and is essential to our code of conduct.
When pressed to explain how these wonderfully progressive sentiments fit in with the purge of female models, she merely replied.
I am not at all aware of this matter and I haven’t seen [the catalogue]. I can only say that the Ikea company stands for equal opportunities and basic rights for all people. Unfortunately I can’t respond to why it looks as it does.
Ikea underlined its commitment to human rights last week by removing an image from its Russian website that was reminiscent of the Pussy Riot punk collective currently appealing their two year sentence for "hooliganism."
Ikea thought this image was too icky for its Russian customers.
If Orwell could be inspired by Stalin’s deletion of individual persons from the visual record, I’d like to see what a contemporary novelist could do with Ikea’s deletion of half of humanity.