Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Chopping Up The Girls 

It's visual culture day on the interwebs. More specifically, today a couple of my favorite blogs today are discussing how our visual media depict women. This stuff is intensely boring when done by party-line feminists because you always know the conclusion: it's about the oppression of women. When taken on by someone with broader interests, however, it can provide an occassion for good cultural criticism.

Let's start with Michael Blowhard, of Two Blowhards. Michael takes notice of the fact that so many of the book jackets of literary fiction feature the same tone--a sort of icy, vague intensity evocative of almost no specific emotions--as well as the same subject matters--bits of women displayed in a very nonsexual manner. These books are not chick-lit but their smarter, older sister. These are books that intelligent women, and most likely some intelligent men, are buying, and something in the tone and subject matter is meant to reflect these readers self-images. In other words, these book jackets somehow evoke a connection to intelligence in the minds of certain readers.

How does this work? I think the tone conveys something along the lines of longing. Where standard-fare chick-lit books convey the sense of wanting in a materialist sense--wanting sex, shoes, the perfect job--these seem to convey a deeper kind of desire. It's almost a philosophical desire, an awareness of the incompleteness of life. Something along the lines of Aristophanes idea (in Plato's Symposium) that life is mostly a longing to recover a lost wholeness. This is why the subject matter is so consistent. Images of incomplete women tell the readers the same thing.

Why do smart women feel that life is incomplete? I'll leave that discussion for another time and move on to Ross Douthat's thoughts on the new Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn film, The Break-Up. Ross looks at the transformation of Aniston from a pretty "Friends" girl with soft edges to the new, angular and shaved version we see in movies. Now part of this is no doubt simply that Aniston is getting older and very often what works for young ladies no longer works in later years. One tried-and-true method of combatting such decline is the Courgar-it-up like Sharon Stone or Demi Moore. But Ross takes things a step further than this.

"So this is where we are today - so jaded about nudity and sexuality, and so caught up in sexual competition, that we aren't just vain and/or insecure about our bodies generally, but about how alluring our reproductive organs look," Ross writes. In the course of the discussion he notices how this once again vindicates Tom Wolfe as our premier social observer. As they say, read the whole thing.

In a sense, though, Douthat's woman seems the opposite of the women of literary fiction. The latter is Incomplete, and the Former is Modified with an eye to completeness. The smarter version takes the acceptance of incompleteness as a sign of intelligence; the popular version takes strategic overcoming of incompleteness as a sign of intelligence.

If you want a good counter-point to either the Incomplete Women or the Modified Woman , you should check out Vice Magazine's Dos and Donts. The Vice guys tend to celebrate another type of woman altogether. I'm not exactly sure how to characterize this version yet, so I'll invite readers to leave comments. But she certainly strikes me as a very different type than the others.