The Digital Dream Girl and the Land of False Imagery

Human beings are exposed to false realities so frequently that identity becomes distorted.
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When Shudu (pictured above) appeared on Instagram in 2017, people appreciated her beauty. Her account has over 180K followers and climbing. If you look through the thread of comments on her posts, you will read people’s surprised reactions to the fact that she is a 3D rendering. Shudu is not real.

She sent a wave of anger across the “Twitter-sphere” because, even though she is not human, Shudu is becoming an influencer for the Black modeling community. Her creator, Cameron-James Wilson, does not see Shudu as a replacement for real models, though.

“I think that the creation of Shudu should be appreciated as the beautiful piece of digital artwork that it is, but certainly not a sign of where the industry is headed. We’re making such strides in the fashion industry in the way of diversity and inclusion, and we have such amazing real models to work with — ones who definitely cannot be replaced by a digital version.” — Cameron-James Wilson

Despite Wilson’s belief, he has solidified Shudu’s inauguration as the first digital supermodel. The problem is not that she is a 3D digitation, but that she is a hauntingly life-like creation. Her presence on Instagram now expands her reality into the world taunting the human mind’s obsession with false imagery.

Fake it to make it

Human beings are exposed to false realities so frequently that identity becomes distorted. We fake a lot of things in our lives; moods, relationships, diets, exercise, our social lives, orgasms, etc. We have become close friends with our “Ideal” self and untethered from our “Real” self.

Where do we see this happening?

1 — Social Media

Social media is a global phenomenon, enhancing the way humans communicate their worlds, leading to a plethora of positive interactions with close friends, brands, celebrities, and entrepreneurs.

It also creates a false version of its end-users — a digital avatar of who we desire to be rather than our genuine personhood. The images and comments we post online tend to be hyper-perfectionistic. We alter photos to make our waist look thinner, “stage” organic poses of our hair in the wind, or force a boyfriend to re-propose as to capture that unbelievable moment with an Instagram filter.

People are obsessed with falsity on social media. It’s all part of the fun. Many of those celebrities we follow will hire a marketing manager to run their accounts and generate buzz.

Ruby Rose as Batwoman — © REUTERS/THE CW

Actress Ruby Rose (Batwoman) recently took a stand against the corrupt nature of social media. She felt that her online presence was “curating a fake world” for her fans by allowing comments and “likes” to dictate the way she dresses. Quickly becoming self-aware of its influence, she limited her use of Instagram and Twitter.

As powerful a communication tool social media can be, it has hindered authentic human interaction. Rather than talk to someone in person or call them on the phone, we hide behind a slew of witty text messages or DMs.

When AOL became mainstream, I found out the screen names of girls in my class who I was interested in and started a conversation with them safe behind my computer monitor. I was too scared to converse in person. In an AOL chat, I had time to think of my responses and tailor them to what I thought would impress girls. I portrayed a false self.

2 — Photography

“You can’t make the family Christmas photo this year? That’s okay; we’ll Photoshop you in.” — Your Grandma

A picture used to be worth a thousand words, but now it is worth only one — edited.

Ever since Photoshop became a verb, people have realized that celebrity pictures in magazines get altered. After all, how can Madonna still look the same now as she did in the 80s?

Even though people are aware the images have been touched up, they still worship their celebrity crushes on the cover — their tight abs, thinned out thighs and expanded busts. Knowing that the images are fake does not stop our inner desire to physically look like Ryan Gosling or Eva Mendes, for example. Our “Ideal” selves take over, and we purchase the magazine when in line to buy groceries.

Here is the problem with false images in photography. They set unrealistic expectations of body image. With editing software, you can change anything in a photo, including the story.

There is an ongoing debate on whether photojournalism is a fabricated art-form or editorial work. The responsibilities and ethics are different between the two.

World-renowned National Geographic photographer, Steve McCurry, received heat for touching up some of his infamous photos like the one below.

Afghan Girl © National Geographic — Comparison photo provided by Kshitaj Nadij

This was a big deal because McCurry is quoted stating:

“I want to just capture life as it is without really interfering and I want it to reflect reality, actually.”

If photojournalism is to be that honest, should photos go through an enhancement editor at all? McCurry believes they should.

“I think that [Photoshop] shouldn’t add or subtract things. I think that Photoshop is a tool to color correct and to do various sharpening and what not. Obviously everybody does that. That’s a tool that everybody uses. […] Color balance, everybody does that. I think as far as adding or subtracting things, that’s not something that needs to be done or should be done. — Steve McCurry

Shudu’s creator, Cameron-James Wilson, would disagree with McCurry on this thought process. He believes that any adjustment to a photo makes it a fantasy.

“As soon as you start to retouch a photo, it becomes fantasy, it’s not real. We need to get it out of our heads that just because something is labeled as a photo makes it any more real than a digital creation. In some ways, digital creations can be more accurate to real life because you have to put in so much realism.” — Cameron-James Wilson

Humans are fascinated by stories. Whether or not McCurry’s photos are staged and altered, people still love the stories they tell. Manipulated photos allow viewers to come up with their own interpretation. So, in essence, it is all art. It is also challenging for photojournalists to “capture life as it really is,” which is why McCurry no longer considers himself a photojournalist, but a visual storyteller. Do you see the “alternative facts” at play?

3 — Pop Culture

John Hughes’ Weird Science

The Digital Dream Girl existed long before Shudu. It must have been a boyhood fantasy for John Hughes who introduced the world to Weird Science, a movie about two teenagers who bring a digital supermodel to life.

Pop Culture emphasizes men’s obsession with fake women within film and television, particularly.

Heart Beats Club

The film Her tells the story of a man who falls in love with his operating system, an Alexa-like feature with much more advanced capabilities around human interaction. His obsession with what is unreal pulls him out of a depression. Studies show that social interaction is beneficial for fighting depression, yet in Her, it is Joaquin Phoenixes’ non-human connection that saves him.

The film dives into the unexplored territory of human and AI relationships, something that is on the rise as technology advances. The scary thing about these types of relationships is that the big tech companies like Google are manufacturing them. Even Googles Search is disingenuous — displaying top results from high-paying companies with better SEO (search engine optimization) rather than the most authentic ones relating to your query.

“Give people the illusion of free choice while architecting the menu so that they win, no matter what you choose.” — Tristan Harris former Google Ethicist

The fifth season of the Netflix show, Black Mirror, takes false reality into an extreme setting with an episode titled, “Striking Vipers.” Two male friends connect in a VR version of a “Street Fighter-Like” game and end up playing as characters of the opposite sex. The virtual reality feels so real that they have sex as their characters, creating a compulsive obsession with the fantasy. It completely distorts their ability to have healthy sexual relationships outside of the game.

Pop Culture speaks within a false context. There are writers for every reality show making the title “The Real World” solid comedic undertone.

4 — DeepFakes

Remember when Tom Hanks used director Robert Zemeckis’ Dolorean from Back to the Future to go back and meet JFK to film that scene in Forrest Gump?

Of course, you don’t!

Forrest Gump is a large studio production done with cinematic detail and precision. Well, that same technology is now open to the masses on a much more affordable level. Welcome to the new world of DeepFakes — videos of real people’s faces and voices being fabricated to say and do things the editor creates.

DeepFakes are the most advanced exploration of false imagery. DeepFakes force an audience to question whether anything they see on video is real.

Here is an example of Bill Hader with Tom Cruise’s face. Watch the seamless transitions as Hader becomes Cruise.

People are fascinated by DeepFakes as a form of entertainment. Who wouldn’t want to see Will Smith speaking as Cardi B or a rebuild of the live-action Lion King film with all of the facial expressions added from the animated version?

The United States was sent into a panic when Orsen Welles broadcasted his War of the Worlds radio drama in 1938, about a fake alien invasion. Imagine if DeepFake is used to announce a nuclear strike or rig a political election?

The world’s obsession with falsity has now come in competition with absolute truth — even something one can physically experience, objectively and subjectively.

So how do we fix our obsession with the inauthentic?

It is all about being genuine.

The truly successful social media platforms are focused on authenticity. Business Guru’s like Rachel and Dave Hollis have turned Instagram into their personal memoirs. People flock to them because of their openness within their work and their marriage.

“Align your “Real” self with your “Ideal” self. If you are portraying yourself as an ideal figure or with an ideal career, why not work towards those goals to achieve your ideal status? As we know, everything in life worth doing takes time, effort, energy, and persistence.” — R. Kay Green

A brand that helps align “real” with “ideal” is Dove. From their great Little Girls ad to their truth-telling Evolution ad, Dove has consistently fought against false imagery. They remain a staple of authenticity in pop culture, helping people discover and value their most authentic self. In a nation where false expectations of body image are the leading cause of eating disorders, talk of real beauty is required.

Discovering the Lie and Uncovering Your Truth

Try this psychological experiment briefly. I learned this from one of my students years ago. We have initiated into our Youth Group with surprisingly positive results.

  • Write down three animal names in the following order:
  1. Your favorite animal.
  2. An animal you’d prefer to have as a pet.
  3. Your second favorite animal, either domesticated or wild.
  • Write down some characteristics that correspond to each animal.

(Check at the end for the big reveal.)

The StoryTether

In a land where we can create a digital dream girl, an altered online version of ourselves staged photojournalism, or videos of people saying words they never uttered, it can feel like you’re living upon the invisible oasis in a deserted reality.

There will always be an innate desire for real beauty. Every person is gifted with the ability to decipher what is right and what is wrong — what is real and what is fake. Tether to what is real.

We have to hold others accountable to that standard; including celebrities, brands, big corporations, and anyone else who tries to promote false imagery. Shudu may be the first digital supermodel, but she will not be the last.


3 Animals

  1. The third animal reflects how you see yourself.
  2. The second animal shows how people see you.
  3. The first animal describes who you really are.
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[…] The inverse is also true – potential clients are turned away from obvious inauthenticity. There are countless celebrities and companies that believe they can gain a following by trying to be what their market wants them to be. Obviously, that works out to a certain extent in certain industries…but not to the fullest extent. You can read more about this in StoryTethers co-founder Frank Brennan’s article on the Digital Dream Girl. […]

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