PRINT May 1989

Special Effects

The News and Its Pictures

A NEW TREND HAS EMERGED in power relationships and last March, Vogue magazine anointed it “body double.” “Today’s tycoons and entertainment greats,” explained the unnamed writer, “fend off publicity-minded terrorists and assassins (as well as the hoi polloi) by surrounding themselves with people who look just like themselves—only bigger, brawnier.” Supporting this thesis were eight paparazzi shots of the likes of Bruce Willis, Eddie Murphy, Sly Stallone, and Donald Trump—as distasteful and overexposed a group of headline-mongers as you could hope to assemble—with assorted iron-faced he-men and slithering factotums virtually sutured to their elbows. And yeah, some of them did look alike, although Liz Taylor—the only bearable celeb in the lot—does not really resemble a large-bellied six-foot black man with facial hair.

All quibbling aside, though, Vogue had the evidence on film. Stallone travels with three guys who look like the Gambino clan (that’s body quadruple), while Bruce Willis takes the air with a pucker-mouthed little doppelgänger whose other obvious attribute is his Lilliputian height.

But Vogue shouldn’t have confined itself to bone-crushers, “escorts,” and physical-fitness helpmates. A quick look around shows that the mighty and the well positioned know that two heads—on two men—are better than one. Why else would New York’s squealing, sewer-mouthed mayor, Ed Koch, have co-penned his latest tome with New York’s irascibly archconservative John Cardinal O’Connor? Entitled His Eminence and Hizzoner, this collection of alternating Koch–O’Connor essays has been characterized as “not-exactly-riveting” except, perhaps, at the point where Koch reveals that in the 1930s his mother had several back-alley abortions. This headline-making news was all the more surprising—and profitable—when revealed in a book coauthored with a Roman Catholic prelate. Even Koch himself, never beneath self-sabotage, admitted that two of the three things the book had going for it were the title and the cover photo of the Two of Them (the third thing, strangely, was “substance,” a word mainly used these days to describe illegal mood elevators).

More alarming evidence of body doubles, however, shows up in higher office than the city-for-sale purlieus of Edward “I’m a heterosexual” Koch. Once again, in a piece on Secretary of State James Addison Baker III entitled “Capitol Gains,” the March Vogue summed it up: “When Bush’s campaign fortunes were on the ebb, columnists wondered, Can Jim Baker save George Bush? When Bush won, the same pundits began wondering which man would really run the country.” (Emphasis added.)

Actually, the pundits began saying Baker would take the helm, as a “shadow” president, once Dukakis kissed the election goodbye around the end of July. Since the big November win, however, we’ve experienced a curious sense of weightlessness as news reporters one after the other proclaim the country not exactly being run by anyone at all. But take heart and remember: the news media always knows more than it tells and always tells what’s least revealing out of everything it knows. No “tall, aristocratic Texan . . . of old Houston money . . . and good Eastern schools” is going to let too much pass him by. Like a good body double, Baker has simply assumed the attributes of his originating Other. George Bush is a bumbler so Baker apes his all-thumbs style.

The real message of this countrywide spurt of buddy-breeding is that white men have decided to redouble their power. Knowing that they can’t win one-on-one with stone-throwing children in the Mideast and ambitious women at home, they’ve started mutating into twos: two men have more muscle, sell more books, and employ twice the resources to quash the squalling upstarts who are cutting into their stature, their profits, and other once-unquestioned benefits of running the world.

Now that men have reconsolidated as duos, what does that leave women with? In fact, is there anything that women get two of? One thing they get two of, it turns out, is exposed breasts. Amazingly, the news on this trend was contained in that same prescient issue of Vogue. It seems that Glenn Close’s recent dress-popping portrayal of an 18th-century villainess in Dangerous Liaisons “helped make décolletage a national passion.” Not content merely to note this as the newest fashion, Vogue enlisted writers Cynthia Heimel and William Geist to philosophize on “Why the bust boom now?”

“The male perspective on breasts?” Geist asks giddily. “Wow, I don’t know. I try to see them as often as I can.” Wow! “We know that the good designers are somehow in touch with the mass unconscious,” Heimel notes portentously, “and clearly the mass unconscious is up to something.” And what is the mass unconscious up to? “I think these rampant breasts are a peace offering to men.” Wow!!!! It seems that feminism has confused men and given them an identity crisis and has made them angry, hostile, and unable to make commitments, all of these being attributes that certainly never applied to men before feminism reared its irritating little head. “By offering up our breasts, our essential femininity,” Heimel goes on to explain, “we’re symbolically saying, ‘Hello, sailor! Listen, we don’t want to be oppressed, but we still like you. We think you’re strong. And sexy. Come here.’ “ Wow.

So while men are putting their two heads together, women are going to be putting their two breasts together. That is, unless they adopt the other alternative to what women can have two of, a trend that Vogue surprisingly missed the boat on. Luckily, two magazines gave it front-cover prominence on March 13. Newsweek, for one, did a cover story on TV’s “new” women, exemplified by fictional news-woman Murphy Brown as played by Candice Bergen. New York magazine, for the other, featured a story on how ABC “snatched” Diane Sawyer away from CBS. In both instances the women brandished sharply pointed accoutrements that signaled their seriousness and professionalism, leading to the conclusion that the other thing women could have two of were: lead-filled pencils.

For Diane Sawyer, her pencil is part of a contorted self-protective pose, her right thumb pressed against her chin, left hand cradling her right elbow, pencil authoritatively pointing away from her firm-lipped mouth, face unwillingly arrayed into a mask of distrust and fear. Candice Bergen, on the other hand, is only faking the part of big-time news star and can afford to strike an open stance, one hand on hip, eyes twinkling mischievously, and mouth opened just enough to wedge the yellow No. 2 between her upper teeth and lower lip—biting the signifier that feeds her.

In a way, the symbolic deployment of the pencil signals a big step forward. For years, the visual cue used in still photos to indicate a professional woman of high purpose and merit was a thickish black bordering outline dropped around the entire picture, which made the businesswoman’s image look like a death notice. Whether the pencil is an improvement or not, a question remains. Will women be satisfied with these puny phallic signifiers? Or, having noticed the “body double” effect proliferating around them, will they simply throw in the towel, put their two breasts together, and practice saying, “Hey, sailor . . . ”?

Carol Squiers is an associate editor at American Photographer. Her column appears regularly in Artforum.