Glamorous Careers: Images That Change Lives

Borgen woodward bernstein all the presidents men poster
One of the nice background touches in the terrific Danish political drama Borgen, whose episodes can be seen on LinkTV and L.A. station KCET, is the never-mentioned poster on the front door of reporter Katrine Fønsmark's apartment.

Borgen katrine kasper kiss woodward bernstein all the presidents men poster
It tells you why she became a journalist and why, even though the guy kissing her is the prime minister's “spin doctor” (apparently his official title), she maintains a certain skepticism toward public officials. She actually seems a little young for All the President's Men to have sparked her ambitions, but I do know baby boomer journalists whose career ambitions were shaped by that glamorous portrayal of journalism.

More than we like to admit, glamour influences our answers to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Think of all the architects and designers inspired by Ayn Rand's uncompromising genius Howard Roark. As a story of struggle and triumph, The Fountainhead is romantic, but Roark as an ideal is glamorous. As Michael Bierut writes in his  classic post on Design Observer:

Roark's view towards clients -- "I don't intend to build in order to have clients. I intend to have clients in order to build." -- still seems to describe the private yearning harbored by most of my fellow professionals whether they care to admit it or not.

Glamour shapes our ideas of what careers are possible and what satisfactions they might offer. It allows us to see our future selves in fulfilling roles. When I reported a column on CSI's glamorous portrayal of science, I heard tales of surging enrollments in those forensic-science. (Numb3rs did not, however, have a similar effect on operations research, the applied math on which that show drew most often.) In its day, L.A. Law reportedly increased law school applications.

Of course, glamour always contains an element of illusion, hiding difficulties and flaws and heightening rewards. In an American Bar Association Journal article, a critic complained about the law according to Stephen Bochco:

In a typical day in La La-Land, beautiful lawyers drive beautiful cars to the beautiful office, discuss sex with twins at a firm meeting, leave for court to win a case that is not only on the "right side" but very lucrative, then go to a beautiful dinner with tonight's beautiful sexual conquest.

At a recent conference I heard a fashion-merchandising professor lament a litany she hears from naive freshmen: Rachel Zoe. Despite what a generation of fashionistas has taken from Zoe's reality show and public persona, "celebrity stylist" isn't a realistic career goal or a subject you can get a degree in.

On the other hand, sometimes even the craziest ambitions come true. As a discerning reader at Zócalo Public Square wrote in the description of my November book talk there, “For a young Bill Clinton, glamour was the Kennedy White House.” And look where it got him.

Was your career choice influenced by glamour? If so, how?

The Glamour Of Jihadi Terrorism


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.

Read the rest at

Boots Were Made For Talking, About Who We Are

Bigstock-Shoes-Shop-31017755Thanks to everybody who answered my shoe survey. It played a small role in my latest Bloomberg View column.

If you have been reading newspapers or websites, listening to the radio or watching TV over the past few weeks, you have probably heard the news: “You CAN judge a person by his shoes.” Beginning in mid-June, word of a psychology article titled “Shoes as a source of first impressions” began circling the globe.

Describing an experiment by researchers from the University of Kansas and Wellesley College, many reports declared that shoes alone reveal just everything about the wearer’s personality. “Overly aggressive people wear ankle boots,” proclaimed a Los Angeles National Public Radio host.

What psychologist Omri Gillath and his team actually found was more modest. Without the cues of facial expressions and context, college students could guess basic demographic characteristics from looking at photos of other college students’ footwear: gender, age and income. They could also detect the personality trait known as agreeableness, as well as something called attachment anxiety, which is connected to fear of rejection and was correlated with dull-colored shoes. That was all: not political affiliation, not how extroverted the wearers were, not whether they were overly aggressive.

The study made a solid contribution to research on first impressions, but it was hardly earthshaking. By getting so much attention, however, it demonstrated a sociological truth: People love to talk about shoes. Even those who dismissed the research as silly often felt compelled to call radio stations or comment on websites, providing details about their own choices. Why this fascination with footwear?

Like cars, shoes combine function and aesthetics, the promise of mobility and the pleasures of style. As apparel, they offer not only protection but transformation; as autonomous objects, they serve as “bursts of beauty that defy the mundane,” writes Rachelle Bergstein in Women from the Ankle Down: The Story of Shoes and How They Define Us. Unlike cars, shoes are also inexpensive enough to permit people to build diverse wardrobes, changing footwear with season, circumstances and mood.

Whether Jimmy Choos, Pumas or Toms, shoes let us stand out as individuals while fitting into similarly shod social groups. The complex relationship between the social and the personal is why it’s so hard to tell much about a shoe’s owner from a photograph alone -- and why shoes are so interesting. Their meanings require, and sometimes reveal, broader cultural context. Bergstein tells the story of a Texas high school that in 1993 punished students for wearing Doc Martens, falsely assuming that the boots signaled white racism when in fact they merely reflected students’ musical taste. A shoe, says Elizabeth Semmelhack, the senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, “is an accessory that can carry a lot of cultural meaning.”

Read the rest at Bloomberg View.

[Shoes shop illustration courtesy of BigStock.]

Art And Neurobiology In "The Age Of Insight"

Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Alexander C. Kafka reviews an interesting-looking new book on aesthetics by neuroscientist Eric Kandel: The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present. Kafka quotes Kandel’s analysis of Gustav Klimt’s Judith and the Head of Holofernes:


At a base level, the aesthetics of the image’s luminous gold surface, the soft rendering of the body, and the overall harmonious combination of colors could activate the pleasure circuits, triggering the release of dopamine. If Judith’s smooth skin and exposed breast trigger the release of endorphins, oxytocin, and vasopressin, one might feel sexual excitement. The latent violence of Holofernes’s decapitated head, as well as Judith’s own sadistic gaze and upturned lip, could cause the release of norepinephrine, resulting in increased heart rate and blood pressure and triggering the fight-or-flight response. In contrast, the soft brushwork and repetitive, almost meditative, patterning may stimulate the release of serotonin. As the beholder takes in the image and its multifaceted emotional content, the release of acetylcholine to the hippocampus contributes to the storing of the image in the viewer’s memory. What ultimately makes an image like Klimt’s ‘Judith’ so irresistible and dynamic is its complexity, the way it activates a number of distinct and often conflicting emotional signals in the brain and combines them to produce a staggeringly complex and fascinating swirl of emotions.

While I’m generally partial to mechanistic and evolutionary-psych analysis, and imagine that our circuits are indeed lighting up per Kandel's description, when it comes to slicing and dicing how and why art moves us, I prefer Camille Paglia’s style of Freud-infused pop-culture riffing and inconography.

Writing about the power of the same painting in her Sexual Personae, Paglia's take seems more compelling, without delving into the grey matter:

The Jewish heroine of Florentine art is now a cynical demimondine with a cold, worldly Joan Crawford face. Smiling, she runs her fingers through dead Holofernes’ hair, parodying romantic tenderness. Her white expanse of breast and belly and taunting directness of gaze come from Von Stuck’s Eve.

Dopamine levels don't seem quite as interesting. But, as the reviewer explains, there's much more to the book than which neurons fire where. Kandel’s focus on just three Viennese artists, Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Egon Schiele, allows him “to compare the painters’ rendering of emotion, the unconscious, and the libido with contemporaneous psychological insights from Freud about latent aggression, pleasure and death instincts, and other primal drives.”

Art history and theory with a focus on Klimt, with both neurobiological and tell-me-about-your-mother insights? If Kandel throws in even a few Pagliaesque Chthonic taboos or Mommie Dearest references, we may have a winner.

h/t Arts & Letters Daily

[Image from Wikimedia Commons]

Iconic Glamour Images From Blade Runner And Basic Instinct

[This post is by new DG contributor Cosmo Wenman.--vp]

Virginia recently tweeted and posted on Facebook asking, "What photos should absolutely be in a book on glamour?"

While putting together this collection of recommendations from pop-culture, I sought out the two photos below, of Sean Young in Blade Runner and Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. But it wasn't until I saw them side by side that I realized how similar they are. Not only do both women know how to hold the hell out of a cigarette, but the images' contexts are nearly identical.

Both are from interrogation scenes in which the women are suspected of concealing their true natures. Both characters are extremely poised and confident, and both become romantically involved with their interrogators. There are several other parallels as well. I put together a comparison:

These twin scenes are following the same formula and mix of glamorous elements: smoking (even the question of permission to smoke), composure and confidence, deception, emotional distance, and danger. Is there an older film noir scene both these movies are paying homage to?

BTW, Virginia told me she thinks the Sean Young photo "is a little too calculatedly retro for my purposes. It lacks sprezzatura. It's more like an imitation of glamorous photos from the '40s." I think it evokes glamour, but I know what Virginia means - Sean Young's character does look almost artificial...

Relationship Cues: Sensing The Unspoken

Yes_or_no The couple at left have turned to face each other. This small detail is actually part of a pattern of cues that reveals that this couple has formed or is in the process of trying to form a relationship.

A few nights ago I observed a mother and father taking their college-age daughter out to dinner. (The mother and daughter had identical noses.) Also at the table was another young woman, perhaps the daughter’s roommate. After observing them briefly, I told my wife that I suspected the two young women might be more than roommates. Just as my wife glanced over, the two young women seemed to casually decide to compare hand sizes, but the particular way they touched their fingertips together certainly looked like a gesture of affection. My wife thought so, and the mother studied that gesture closely. The father seemed oblivious.

We remain, inescapably, biological creatures. We take in some information through our senses that we process unconsciously. A recent article in Psychology Today discusses some studies which support the “leaky cues hypothesis” that a woman would find it difficult to fully conceal all signs that she is currently fertile. Simply smelling a T-shirt recently worn by a woman in estrus caused a spike in men’s testosterone levels. A study done of lap dancers revealed that they earned almost twice as much in tips while in estrus. There are also subtle changes to a woman’s voice, face, and figure during her fertile days. Subjects shown photographs of the same woman taken over the course of a month pick the photo taken during her fertile period as the most attractive. The article also discusses subtle changes to women’s behavior during their menstrual cycle, including what type of men they may find most attractive.

Interactive visual cues, like the one I described between the roommates, can be studied by observation. In Sex Signals: The Biology of Love, biologist Timothy Perper published research based on thousands of hours spent observing interactions between men and women in places like bars and dance halls. His observation teams discovered that women used predictable patterns of visual and tactile cues to signal a man that they would be receptive to his attention. These “contact-ready” cues were so subtle most men weren’t consciously aware of receiving them, even when they responded to them. 

Perper’s research found that about 90% of women were aware that women sent such cues and could spot other women giving them, whereas only about 5 to 10% of men were consciously aware of them. To eliminate gender bias in their observations, Perper’s observers worked in teams of one man and one woman. Perper discovered that some men could not be trained to be attentive observers because they would avoid seeing women do anything that challenged the common belief that men initiate most male/female relationships. These reluctant trainees would manage to glance away at just at the moment a woman sent a subtle cue—such as touching the clothing that the man was wearing, a gesture that other teams had observed was a cue that she would accept a reciprocal touch.

Perper notes that a woman sends such cues with the unstated provision that at any point she can indicate that she is no longer interested in the man’s attention. He is then expected to withdraw (which most men seemed to understand and respect, even though a few became unwelcomely persistent). The research teams observed something similar in the pattern of male responses. When a woman began to give a man a pattern of cues, they discovered that even if he showed initial interest, if at any later point he failed to make an appropriate reciprocal response to her cue, she might as well give up on him. For example, the turn to face the other person (illustrated by the first photo) is usually initiated by the woman, and he is expected to turn toward her in response. If he doesn’t, any further efforts to engage his attention will usually fail. 

Much human behavior goes unnoticed. In his book Stein On Writing, Sol Stein recounts a lesson in observation he received from playwright Thorton Wilder:

He [Wilder] took me to watch a country square dance from an unoccupied balcony in a recreation hall, and pointed out things that writers are supposed to see. The New Hampshire folk came to dances in families—mothers, fathers, and adolescent children. As we watched from the balcony, Wilder pointed out the barely noticeable sexual interplay between fathers and daughters and mothers and sons as they danced the evening away....Wilder taught me that what a writer deals with is the unspoken, what people see or sense in silence.

Crossed-armsAfter reading Perper’s book I decided to train myself to be more observant. I read some other books on non-verbal communication (sometimes called “non-verbal leakage”), and thereafter people watching became endlessly fascinating. In restaurants I could spot a couple across the room having a quiet disagreement from cues in their body language, such as crossing their arms in front of them. At a sidewalk cafe I was amused to watch a poised, sophisticated woman deftly use body language to seem to defer to her less poised male companion about where to eat. In a casual restaurant I became deeply uncomfortable watching a teenage daughter in short shorts stand next to her father’s chair so that he could rub the back of her upper thigh, unseen by his wife sitting across from them.

Occasionally Perper’s observation teams were perplexed by what they saw. If so, and the opportunity presented itself, they might introduce themselves and ask. Seeing a group of women and a man have lunch, one team thought they were picking up signals between the man and one of the women, but weren’t sure. The woman whose signals perplexed them lingered after lunch, and they approached her, explained their research, and asked her about the situation. She laughed and told them that she was having an affair with the man, who was married, and they were trying to keep it secret. It obviously becomes harder to keep relationships secret from people trained to notice small details of interaction.

Some adeptness in reading non-verbal cues is unquestionable useful, and numerous commentators and educators have expressed concern that Generation-Y seems even less adept at it than their elders. Many commentators suggest that a fascination with the wonders of internet social networking has meant that many teenagers are failing to gain enough experience learning to read the information conveyed by subtle facial and body cues. Some people feel they are also less adept at managing their their own non-verbal information. For example, some teachers report that many of their current students are less able to look them in the eye, and often seem less skillful at face-to-face lying. In some face-to-face business and interpersonal situations, it can be important to mask non-verbal leakage. Being too easy to read can sometimes reveal more to others than you intend, and place you at a disadvantage. 

Addendum: 1/1/2011. In response to a request, I’ve listed a few books on relevant topics in the comments.

 [Yes or No? photo by malias. Disagreement photo by Ed Yourdon. Both are use under the Flickr Creative Commons License.]