No sooner had Rolling Stone put Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover, looking doe-eyed and rock-star disheveled, than critics denounced the editors for "glamorizing terrorism."
"The cover of Rolling Stone is meant for glorifying rock stars, icons, and heroes NOT murderers!" protested a typical reader in the article's online comments thread. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino decried the magazine for its "celebrity treatment" of Tsarnaev and for sending the "terrible message that destruction gains fame for killers and their 'causes.'"
Unfortunately, Islamist terrorism doesn't need Rolling Stone to make it glamorous. For the right audience, apparently including Tsarnaev, it already is. Understanding the nature of that glamour could offer clues to discouraging future terrorists. But first we have to acknowledge that terrorist glamour exists.
The novelist Salman Rushdie recognized the connection in a 2006 interview. "Terror is glamour--not only, but also," he said, arguing that many terrorists "are influenced by the misdirected image of a kind of magic ... The suicide bomber's imagination leads him to believe in a brilliant act of heroism, when in fact he is simply blowing himself up pointlessly and taking other people's lives."
The interviewer was flabbergasted, but Rushdie was correct. Glamour is about much more than celebrity, sex appeal or shiny dresses. It's a product of imagination--and a powerful form of persuasion.
Glamour gives its audience the feeling of "if only"--if only I could belong to that group, wear that dress, drive that car, date that person, live in that house. If only I could be like that. By embodying our longings in a specific image or idea, glamour convinces us, if only for a moment, that the life we yearn for exists. That dream can motivate real-world action, whether that means taking a resort vacation, moving to a new city, starting a band or planting a bomb with visions of martyrdom. What we find glamorous helps define who we are and who we may become.
Janet Reitman's Rolling Stone story on Tsarnaev points to several sources of glamour that have nothing to do with celebrity: the allure of military action, utopian causes and a lost homeland and identity. All these things speak to desires that go deeper than fame. "It is not uncommon for young Chechen men to romanticize jihad," Reitman writes, describing "abundant Chechen jihadist videos online" that show fighters from the Caucasus who "look like grizzled Navy SEALs, humping through the woods in camouflage and bandannas."
To be a jihadi warrior, these images suggest, is to be a man. Martial glamour is as ancient as Achilles. It promises prowess, courage, camaraderie and historical importance. It offers a way to matter. The West once recognized the pull of martial glamour--before the carnage of World War I, the glamour of battle was a common and positive phrase--but it ignores at its peril the spell's enduring draw, especially for those who feel powerless and insignificant.
New York Times style writer Christine Haughney profiles my friend Joan Kron, who covers plastic surgery for Allure, in this feature and interviews her in the first segment of the video above. (See Joan's DG Q&A here.) "Plastic surgery," says Joan in the video, "is the last subject in style that hasn't really gotten new journalism."
"This is something that women don't share. So very early on I decided I would tell the truth. I would tell the truth about my age. I would tell the truth about surgery—that I had it. And people are so shocked. Then it made me very popular. I can be sitting there quietly at a dinner party and somebody says, 'Joan covers plastic surgery.' And then--bam!—I'm surrounded."
An excerpt from the profile:
“I never lie about my age. I tell everybody about my age because I don’t think women have enough role models,” Ms. Kron said as she leaned back into her living room couch. “Maybe, because I’m getting like these old ladies who just don’t care and tell the truth.”
It’s not just Ms. Kron’s age that makes her stand out along the supple-skinned halls of Condé Nast, where few reporters, editors or executives — except perhaps for 85-year-old Si Newhouse and the 92-year-old New Yorker contributor Roger Angell — appear to have passed the threshold of midlife. Ms. Kron has chronicled how the plastic surgery industry has grown up over the last two decades from a cottage industry to a $10 billion one last year. “The field has exploded,” said Linda Wells, Allure’s editor in chief. “It’s an area that both fascinates and confuses readers.”
As part of my book research, I've been going through every issue of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar from selected years between 1929 and 1974. Although I'm looking for specific imagery, I've found a lot of interesting other items in the process, including this 1939 Vogue photo of Evalyn Walsh McLean packing kits to send French soldiers. ("Each kit is packed with comforts: sweater, shirt, gloves, handkerchief, socks, pipe, tobacco, cigarettes, soap, towel, and chocolates.") To see a larger version, click on the photo.
I'm a Christmas-shopping purist, which means that I don't really start until after Thanksgiving is over. Retailers, of course, start the season a little earlier—well before all the Halloween candy is gone. What this means at my house is that my mailbox is stuffed to the brim with gift-touting catalogs. Fancy food, educational toys, historically accurate tchotchkes from museum gift shops, lots of silver picture frames—I'm never quite sure what I'll find when I open my mailbox, but it's always exciting.
And I do mean exciting. I realize that not everyone feels as I do and no, catalogs are definitely not environmentally friendly, but I can't help it: I love them. I always have, ever since I was a little girl, when I spent hours poring over every magazine I could get my hands on. When I was a kid, during the mid-80s, my catalogs of choice came from Horchow and Neiman Marcus—apparently I liked what companies from Dallas had to offer (in 1988, Horchow became a part of Neiman Marcus). I spent hours with those books, reading descriptions, analyzing the products and playing a strange little game I called "marking."
When I was marking, I'd make a small check mark or asterix next to each item in a book that I wanted - not so much for myself, but for an imagined future me. I'd read through the catalogs over and over again, each time selecting different clothes, different bedding, and different furniture, as I dreamed of different lives I might lead (somewhat different, at least—in all of my lives, I was obviously able to afford whatever I wanted to buy). There's room to debate how healthy it was for me to define my imaginary futures by the cashmere sweaters and fake Ming dynasty bedroom accessories featured in the catalogs, but it was a fun pastime, I think I've escaped lasting damage, and the reality is that our material choices do play a role in communicating to others who we've chosen to be.
As a kid, I thought I was alone in my game, but I wasn't. Some time ago, I came across a post written by Square With Flair on the lifestyle blog Easy and Elegant Life. SWF wrote about vintage Tiffany catalogs, which he has been collecting since, well, since they weren't vintage. His experience with the catalogs gave me some additional perspective on my own game:
It started when I was a teenager in the 1970s, living in a small, remote, northern town and dreaming of New York sophistication and perfect taste. I’d save my allowance and send $2.00 to Tiffany’s in New York for their delicious little blue book catalog. It always seemed an eternity until they arrived, but they always did. How I pored over those charming little books for hours, days, weeks…for years! I collected one each year, and I studied them over and over. Boy, that was better than any fine arts course, and I’ve taken plenty of those.
Mid-80s Horchow books, with their big hair, Big Dallas looks, were a far cry from the carefully curated Tiffany books of SWF's youth, but they provided some of the same lessons for me—lessons about color, balance and trend.
Today, old Horchow and Neimans books might not be in high demand (though I wish I still had a few), but collectors recognize the value of those gorgeous Tiffany catalogs—right now, a collection of 14 vintage books from 1969-1981 is available on eBay for a "buy it now" price of $1,800. They do make a lovely collection— and an educational one, too.
At my house, the "marking" game continues with my son. He calls his game "titling" (I think it has something to do with car titles, but I'm not completely sure how his mind works). Right now, he spends most of his time with LEGO books and Halloween costume catalogs, imagining what he might do with a Harry Potter costume or a giant set of Indiana Jones LEGOs. Every once in a while, though, he picks up a "grown-up" catalog and starts paging through, stopping here and there to check out fireplace sets or high-end cookware. At four, he's quickly developing an understanding of how that stuff relates to the lives we lead and the choices we make—and he's already starting to make his own decisions about how he wants to fit into the material world we live in.
I am generally bored by the hysteria, pro and con, that surrounds Sarah Palin. As a bona fide coastal elitist intellectual snob, I can’t see voting for her. But neither do I share the visceral hatred for her or her fans. (Megan McArdle dubs it Palinoia.) I consider her intelligent but ignorant and unworldly. I even liked her convention speech.
That said, the flap over the Newsweek cover shot is as ridiculous as it is predictable. I’ve read enough comment threads over the years to know that conservatives regularly make a point of proudly declaring that their female icons are good looking compared to the old hags on the other side. When did they suddenly adopt politically correct second-wave feminist attitudes toward female beauty, even in the public sphere?
Like it or not, Sarah Palin’s good looks are a big part of her superwoman appeal: governor, earth mother, and sportswoman, with a pretty face and a great body despite all those pregnancies. Besides, I seem to recall some widely circulated topless beach shots of the current commander-in-chief. (Not to mention Condi Rice strutting in those great black boots.) There’s no double standard, except for the one that says if you have bad legs, we don't want to see you in shorts.
There are, of course, problems with the photo, which was taken for Runner's World and was supposed to be embargoed for a year. Nonetheless, it’s clear what Newsweek editors were thinking when they picked it: This is going to sell magazines. (The controversy is a bonus. Free publicity!) Journalism is in survival mode. This is not a time to get squeamish about using the most commercial photo available.
The cries that the cover is “sexist” assume two things: First, that women in public life should not be portrayed as consciously, proudly, sexily attractive. Male politicians can be obviously good looking, but conspicuously attractive women aren’t sufficiently serious. (Maybe we’ll make an exception if you look sufficiently high-end WASP.) And, second, that Newsweek doesn’t like Sarah Palin—an assumption borne out by its cover headline. With different editorial framing, the photo would be read differently. (Pardon my bad mockup. I only had PowerPoint and a very balky iPhoto retouch function to work with.)
I do have one question: Is she wearing panty hose?
In the November 2009 issue of Harper's Bazaar, Tina Fey trades in Liz Lemon's schlumpy cardigans for several seriously gorgeous designer cocktail dresses. They say that the clothes make the man, but in this case, I wonder.
On the subscriber cover (at left), in white Yves Saint Laurent, Fey looks pretty. But she also looks awkward, like a jockish girl all dressed up for a high school dance. Like she can't wait for the shoot to end so she can wash her face and get back into her baggy jeans. It just doesn't feel like Tina Fey. But it's a fashion magazine, so she's in a dress.
Inside, Fey admits that she's not really much for dressing up and that Liz Lemon, the character she based on her early years as a writer in NYC, "has little to no style." She also admits that Lemon's character could use a little more confidence.
This Bazaar cover just looks all wrong to me. But what I wonder is this: who's responsible for that? Should Bazaar have dialed down the glam factor, dressing Fey in something more comfortable and familiar? Or is Fey selling herself short by not totally owning that dress?
[Harper's Bazaar cover image by Alexi Lubomirski.]
Unlike Junod’s earlier piece, Wolf’s article on Jolie is not a standard celebrity profile. There is no interview, no encounter between the author and the object of her affection. Jolie remains an ideal, and the article is explicitly about the “life narrative” Jolie has “crafted,” the “persona that [took] her to global icon.” It declares itself an essay about artifice and image. What makes the piece so compelling is Wolf's palpable yearning to believe. In the guise of analyzing Jolie’s image, she succumbs, forgetting that glamour is an illusion.
Certainly she never reminds herself, or her readers, how much Jolie’s life depends on unusual gifts and extraordinary wealth, and she never addresses the tradeoffs involved in living with all those tabloid headlines. Instead, Angelina Jolie's life functions as proof that the desires that inform Wolf's own oeuvre are all attainable: to be effortlessly beautiful and thin (The Beauty Myth), to participate in high-level public debates (Fire with Fire), to indulge sexual desire without condemnation or consequence (Promiscuities), to become a mother without hassle or pain (Misconceptions).
Most revealing is the way Wolf, a divorced mother of two, projects her own desires onto Jolie’s (short-lived) status as single mom. She completely ignores the standard tabloid narrative, an anti-feminist storyline casting Jolie as the womanly mother figure against Jennifer Aniston, the careerist punished for her insufficiently feminine ambition. Instead, Wolf reads Jolie’s story as the triumph of the Single Mom as Ideal.
Then there is the plane. Women are so used to being dependent on others (certainly on men) for where they go, metaphorically, and how they get there. Flying a private plane is the classic metaphor for choosing your own direction; usually, that is a guy thing to do, yet there was Jolie, with her aviator glasses on, taking flying lessons so she could blow the mind of her four-year-old son. That is the ultimate in single-mom chic: Even before she had reconstructed a nuclear (or postnuclear) family with a dad at the head of it, she was reframing single motherhood from a state of lack or insufficiency to a glamorous, unfettered lifestyle choice. Paradoxically, having done so, she makes the choice of a man to help her raise her kids seem like one option among many for a self-directed woman rather than either a completion of a woman or a capitulation.
This much-mocked paragraph takes aviator glamour — which is, in fact, a long-standing element of Jolie’s appeal (see the magnificent photos Annie Leibovitz did for Vogue) — and turns it into a story about what Naomi Wolf wants. A plane becomes a symbol not of general human freedom, mastery, and escape but of “single-mom chic.” Jolie rescues the aviatrix archetype from the inconveniently married-and-childless Amelia Earhart. (In the same issue, Bazaar does feature 12 pages of Earhart-inspired fashion photography by Peter Lindbergh.) And Wolf rescues Jolie’s kick-ass physicality, including the real-life flying and motorcycle riding, from its action-movie appeal to men.
“Jolie’s image is not just a mirror of one woman but also a looking glass for female fantasy life writ large,” Wolf concludes her article. Glamour is most powerful when it encompasses multiple longings, in this case, not “female fantasy life” but “females’ fantasy lives,” both universal and particular. That Wolf can project so many of her own yearnings onto Jolie demonstrates why the actress is such an icon.
The mirror is an inapt metaphor, however. A mirror reflects an accurate (if reversed) image of reality, while glamour always presents a blurred picture, concealing much of the truth. The yearning audience is thus allowed to fill in the details. As Jezebel’s Sadie Stein sagely notes, despite Jolie’s tabloid omnipresence her glamour depends on mystery.
Brangelina are totally enigmatic; we don’t know anything about them except the Harlequin-worthy synopsis. People like them because they can project whatever they want onto them. Maybe moms fantasize about Angie reading to her kids at night, then having hot sex with Brad. Those who want to turn their lives around probably are inspired by this scion of movie star and model who’s fearlessly pursued a course of growing up. Doubtless somebody somewhere has taken up flying as a result. Hopefully a few have turned to good works. (Ideally no one, anywhere, will allow Angelina Jolie to have any impact on her decision to adopt or not.) Some woman involved with a married dude may stay with him that much longer because of her tabloid happy-ending. Some people will see The Last Kiss and think it’s profound. And Naomi Wolf will look at Angelina Jolie and project her own fantasies: a feminist icon whom women love because they think the right way.
Glamour is an objective illusion, but it reveals subjective truths. The Harper’s Bazaar profile may tell us nothing true about Angelina Jolie, but it’s an x-ray into the soul of Naomi Wolf.
Judging from the May issue, it appears that Vogue has discovered black people. It's not just putting Michelle Obama on the cover--and even letting her wear her own clothes. This issue actually includes two black models among the nine on the gate-fold cover. Inside, there is, of course, a paean to the new administration's influence on Washington style, with a photo of social secretary (African-American) Desirée Rogers in Carolina Herrera, with the reassurance that "For the best flowers, one still goes to Sue Bluford, who did all of Katharine Graham's arrangements." (Some things don't change, including the bold-faced names.)
Kanye West--you may have heard of him--gets a spread as the "man of the moment." Venus and Serena Williams are celebrated. And--most amazingly of all--there's a piece on Sam Fine, the "go-to makeup master for women of color," complete with tips and a plug for his new DVD (supposedly available at Amazon, but I can't find it. Try your luck and let me know if you have more success.) Here's one corner of the economy that seems to be getting some Obama stimulus.
Posted by Virginia Postrel on April 27, 2009 in