PRINT December 1992


Glamour Wounds, Again

There are people who don’t say they’re happy and enjoying life to the full just because their trousers fit well, for instance. —Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Double, 1846

MAYBE SO, BUT the character who said this was mentally dis-integrated and literally split in two, due to an unhappy capacity for bungled social performance and excessive self-surveillance. Consumer culture is a social and spiritual minefield loaded with weird spots that can blow up in your face if you don’t step carefully. This makes for pathology and good literature, plus chronic low-grade social terror, which at the same time is rejected from seemly discourse as trivial and unworthy of concern. Supermodels are the warrior-priestesses of consumer practice. They are prepared and presented by professional handlers and therefore exempt from the obscene social censure that can result from a bad purchasing call or outfit. As commodities, they avoid the ridicule, pathos, and vulnerability suffered by amateur human mannequins, who in styling their real lives, often without hired help, must risk broadcasting themselves not as objects but as subjects—people susceptible to flab, desire, and self-images that may not in fact find confirmation in what the rest of us take for reality. In a recent issue of Shape, Cindy Crawford crows about how neat it was to achieve self-improvement through her new workout regime: “Cindy the model gets a lot of validation because she’s on covers. But Cindy Crawford the person. . . . I still need reassurance.”

Just under one hundred years ago Thorstein Veblen invented the concept of “conspicuous consumption” in his excruciating and ever instructive analysis of arrivisme: The Theory of the Leisure Class. He decoded the fetal stirrings of consumer culture and its ethic of “meritorious expenditure” through the rather unlovely principle of pecuniary emulation—a moral economy based strictly upon invidious comparison in which everyone scrambles to copy the consumer habits of the social subgroup one notch above them. Because “pecuniary beauty” got hopelessly confused with esthetic and moral beauty, public status items, however petty, indicate a salubrious “self-complacency” and “fullness of life” that could vindicate one’s actual private nastiness and squalor. According to Veblen, everyone arrives at the spectacle of consumer culture as a party-crasher, trying to “pass” for their microsuperiors. All consumers emerge as wannabes furtively exercising theiremulative instincts, but under the harsh regime of pecuniary emulation, being “caught in the act” of overstepping one’s consumer caste exposes one to the most ignoble derision and pity. The socius deems you a loser. Veblen’s analytic gaze was a heat-seeking missile for the gap between a person’s actual “status” and their social cache as a meritorious consumer, at the same time that he recognized the social tic compelling them ever to strive beyond. This inexorable law of consumer practice became a problem recently for at least one high-end retail outlet. Bergdorf’s sumptuous men’s store had to devise an ad campaign to “tone down” its tony image and make fun of itself, to comfort and reattract a clientele made anxious by its formidable polish. Management worried that people who could afford to shop there were intimidated by the shopping ambiance itself, calling to our attention the usually repressed fact that shoppers will always use commodities to “imitate a higher-class canon of decency” and are emotionally fragile when doing so.

Veblen decoded the flow of commodities based not on “need” but on the more “spiritual” thirst for prestige and the esteem and envy of one’s fellows. The cult of invidious comparison insinuated itself into an implicit form of morality. Conspicuous consumption, as an expression of conspicuous leisure, or the luxury of expending one’s energy in a nonproductive way, expresses one’s freedom, however illusory and marginal, from subjugation to rivals, masters, or thrift. The first conspicuous commodities were “trophy wives” roughly appropriated from one’s tribal enemies. The wives functioned symbolically as honorific evidence of the “owner’s” prepotency. As human culture evolved, servants and wives became “vicarious consumers,” conspicuously wasting time and products on behalf of the head of the household. Late this century, we are still dazzled and seduced by the senseless spectacle of honorific waste, but the prepotent agents of waste no longer charm us by their freedom from the marketplace, because, in fact, they are paid to do so.

As professional icons of conspicuous consumption, supermodels are paid to consume and embody style. This turns the whole morality of conspicuous consumption on its head. As freelance imagos of glamour leased out to the highest bidder, our secular goddesses of consumption are revered not because they are engaging in the luxury of nonproductive expenditure, but, rather, because they are the closest thing we have to “live cash,” to totally packaged commodities. They get paid to diet, stay in shape, and obsess over potentially problematic body parts—the work the rest of us do for free, in addition to our other jobs. What is novel is that these mannequins have erupted this season, more than ever, with proper names and “personalities,” however wispy. Under the signifying delirium of advertising, the personality emerges as the effect of the commodity, rather than vice versa. Purified of any reference to utility outside their function as glamour screens, supermodels are vehicles for escapist glamour projection, which, like all appealing commodities, must remain out of context, self-referential, and somehow abstract. I mean, what’s the difference between Linda and Christy? In this recessionary moment, supermodels, like movie stars during the Depression, erupt to the surface as intersubjective fantasy girls, professional surrogates for the frustrated emulative instincts of the mass pecuniarily deprived. Sort of like safe-sex surrogates for our out-of-control desires for S&M with commodities.

Why I don’t want to meet them.

I don’t think I would like to meet a supermodel in person. I heard Claudia Schiffer was six feet two. They are out of human scale, which is appropriate for plastic imagos meant to expand and contract to fit any magazine, medium, or runway format. But if I did meet Linda Evangelista, I would like to trade dieting tips, and to ask her if she preferred the Stairmaster or the Lifecycle. If we ate together, I’d quiz her on the calorie-count of everything we consumed. Of course this is absurd because we all suspect that the supermodels look that way due to genetics and probably live blithely on junk food and chocolate, smoke their heads off, and when they’re not being paid a million dollars to be made up, lie around in a glamour trance or go out and traumatize people with their mute biological windfall. It’s like they won genetic Lotto and exist to remind the rest of the population to buy cosmetics and magazines. I’m sure supermodels at a party are a traumatic presence—a blotch.

There’s a new commercial out for some kind of non-Gap jeans. There’s a boy one and a girl one: it’s a series of clips of the model hanging out looking fabulous and saying things like “I hate a bad hair day” and “I think I look tough in jeans....” The girl model changes her cappuccino order three times, as if this were sure evidence of her character flaws. The boy model looks “tough,” plays topless with a toy airplane, and emits fartlike aerodynamic sounds. He announces, “I have two goals: to find a perfectly versatile hairstyle and be an airline pilot.” The caption reads, “Look like a model, but don’t think like one.” The new kinder gentler commercial uses the model as object cause of desire and then reassures us that we are superior to it—so we won’t be too depressed to shop. Interpellating the abject consumer who usually both looks and feels less cute than the ad, the advertiser is trying to aggravate and fluff up the consumer ego at the same time, by playing on our assumption that the cute outside of the model is inhabited by a stupid inner life—emotionally impoverished, intellectually null, and incapable of sustaining a conversation about anything but personal hygiene. But the worst thing would be if these supermodels were actually nice people. And even interesting. Then you’d have to make sense out of a human subjectivity trapped inside this traumatizing, dazzling package—and deal with the total contingency and complexity of life. . . . Like Christy Turlington telling me something I don’t already know about Proust. What! That’s why I don’t want to meet them.

Rhonda Lieberman is a writer and critic. She teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.