Monday, June 27, 2011

Adventures in Heidi-reality II: Postmodernism and Plastic Surgery

“I love Los Angeles. I love Hollywood. They're beautiful. Everybody's plastic, but I love plastic. I want to be plastic.” – Andy Warhol

As I wrote in my previous entry, “Adventures in Heidi-reality,” when I saw a tabloid article about Heidi Montag and the continuing saga of her G-cup breast implants, two things came to mind.

Still Life with G Cups (2010)
OK. Four things came to mind.

One of them was Umberto Eco and another was Tom Wesselmann.

Eco was the Italian cultural critic who coined the word “hyperreality,” which seemed to me useful for describing not just Montag’s augmented assets but the whole trend for anatomical enhancement among female celebrities – which can be found in the general population (at least those who can afford it).  The hyperreal is an example of the fake which becomes more desirable than the real.  It is perceived as “more real” than the real.

That this D-cup desire has reached the street is illustrated in the new movie Bad Teacher, in which Cameron Diaz plays a school teacher going to great and improper lengths to purchase a “boob job” so she can land the sugar daddy of her dreams.

Wesselmann, on the other hand, is famous for a series of paintings called Great American Nude.  As I contemplated Montag, I realized that Wesselmann was really on to something way back when in the 1960s.  He foresaw American popular culture’s obsession with an idealized, plasticized female breast.

When Americans think of the early 1960s, they probably think of Happy Days and Mad Men.  They think about Joanie loving Chachi and not fire-engine red nipples on large canvasses.  They think about Don Draper smoking cigarettes – lots and lots of cigarettes – and not a small group of artists in New York City giving birth to Pop Art.

Great American Nude #38
Actually, Madison Avenue and Pop Art go hand in hand, since many of the Pop artists used the visual language of advertising.  Although Wesselmann resisted the Pop Art label for himself, early in his career he was very much associated with it.  Why he was is clear in Great American Nude #38 from 1962.

He combines longstanding artistic conventions with images from American magazines. The basic structure of #38 is that of an odalisque, a painting tradition depicting a reclining nude woman.  Originally these paintings represented attractive young women from a Turkish harem, appealing to a European sense of the exotic and erotic.  But odalisque conventions were transferred to non-harem settings, such as the famous female nude portraits by Modigliani and Gauguin. 

Odalisque and Slave (1839)
Wesselmann’s nude woman reclines in much the same way as the woman in Odalisque and Slave by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, but she also seems to have been literally cut from a magazine ad and then pasted onto the canvas – after he removed her bikini.  Or she is a pin-up girl clipped from a men’s magazine.

This mash-up of high and low culture – the odalisque tradition with a Playboy centerfold – is a hallmark of postmodernism.   

Great American Nude #58
Wesselmann’s borrowing from advertising culture is even more apparent in Great American Nude #58 from 1965.  Here, the entire image could have been taken from a magazine ad -- except Wesselmann has again removed the clothing from the female and again has revealed startling tan lines. (I think I could do a whole blog entry on the meaning of tan lines.)  The revelatory nature of her nudity suggests Wesselmann’s message, if there is one: Beneath the surface of the advertisement’s message, sex is being used to sell the product.

But as his work developed, his nudes became more stylized and the breast became a major focus.  To become stylized, a sign or symbol loses detail.  One or two elements gain in their emphasis and others are de-emphasized or even disappear.  This process is true for what semiotics calls an "icon."  An icon tends to be created when a part of a person or object comes to stand for the whole. 

Great American Nude #85
For example, take Wesselmann’s Great American Nude #85 from 1966.  Note how few lines there are, how few details.  Red lips, red nipples, and a handful of curves have come to the foreground and other details have disappeared.  This is what we would call “an economy of style.”  Saying as much as possible with as few elements as possible.

Great American Nude #38 creates the sign of “visually and sexually appealing nude woman” with many more lines, curves and colors (we see the woman’s entire body, for instance) .  Great American Nude #85 creates the sign for “visually and sexually appealing nude woman” with fewer lines, curves, and colors than does Great American Nude #38.  The breast, or even just the nipple, becomes iconic of "woman," but also sex and pleasure.  Advertising and Hollywood then, in turn, associate that icon with their products.
By 1967, the breasts become even more pronounced, perhaps swelling in relation to the amount of meaning they contain.  Wesselmann also increased his focus on the individual elements of the female nude until some works depicted just one body part to convey the erotic ideal.  Lips.  A breast.  A foot.

So what does this have to do with Heidi Montag?

I think we can view an obsession with cosmetic surgery as a kind of stylizing of the human body.  In order to achieve some ideal of human physical beauty, certain aspects get emphasized over others – cheekbones, chin, breasts, lips, etc. – sometimes obsessively so.  As with Wesselmann’s increasingly stylized female nude, the pursuit of the ideal human body often eliminates the details that had existed before.  We could say that human “flaws” (or individuality) reside in the details – wrinkles, for instance, or curves that deviate from the ideal.

Those are removed in the pursuit of the ideal.  As the details are lost, the expressions of the ideal begin to resemble each other.  Botoxed faces lose their wrinkles, but also their expressiveness.  As someone who lives in Southern California, I think I can say with some confidence that augmented breasts really do start to look alike.

In Pop Art and the Contest over American Culture, Sara Doris states that post-modern art depicts not encounters with the real but encounters with mediated images, with representations of the real.  (Hyperreality is about preferring representations over the real.)  She cites another critic, Douglas Crimp from 1977:

To an ever greater extent, our experience is governed by pictures, pictures in newspapers and magazines, on television and in the cinema.  Next to those pictures, firsthand experience seems to retreat.

So women in Hollywood, and to an extent the rest of the country, begin to imitate, through surgery, those images that surround us.

Through its reptition from Madison Avenue and Hollywood, the breast became increasingly iconic for "sex and pleasure."  So a celebrity, such as Montag, could associate herself more closely and immediately with "sex and pleasure" by emphasizing her breasts.
Tony's hangout.

Montag is not alone in this career move.  The Bada Bings of the world are filled with examples, and several web sites are devoted to chronicling which female celebrities have implants.  And it should be noted that Montag has apparently followed through with her desire for breast reduction surgery (recent pics here).

Doris discusses post-modern art’s penchant for imitating advertising imagery and borrowing from other traditions and artists (in a way similar to contemporary musical artists sampling the works of others).  She describes this as a rejection of modernism’s “fetishes of authenticity and originality, as neither form nor subject were unique to the artist.  Thus art making became an act of self-negation rather than self-revelation or self-realization.”

That sounds harsher than I would like.  I do not judge Montag for what she did.  It is her body.  She is free to do with it what she wants.  As is any human.  I am not judging anyone, male or female, who elects to have cosmetic surgery.  I simply am trying to understand the origin of and the influences on the recent mania for mega-breasts.  And I am not saying it started with Wesselmann's art, but I think he somehow saw it coming.

I realize that Montag probably would disagree with applying Doris’s assessment to her.  She might say that her cosmetic surgeries (she has had several) helped her realize her potential rather than negate her individuality.  I also realize she is not indicative of most people who have cosmetic surgery.  A nip or tuck does not make one Cher.

But the extreme lengths to which she went do illustrate, I believe, something in the national consciousness about the beautiful and the erotic.  The ideal being pursued by some people has its origins in our media-saturated lives – or perhaps more accurately, its origins are in our media more than our lives.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Adventures in Heidi-reality

The following is a reprint of an item I wrote for The Weekly Rader.  It appeared Oct. 31, 2010.  At the time I had planned a second part, another meditation on American culture and the female breast.  But I think Dean Rader was growing wary of my interest in "adult" topics.  So I started "Seeing Things."  However, it has taken me awhile to get around to writing Part Two, which will appear soon.
I have been thinking about Heidi Montag’s breasts lately.

Cultural criticism is hard work, isn’t it?

She is famous for a variety of reasons (none of which involves talent).  One reason she is famous is her participation in an MTV reality series known as The Hills, which followed the life of several trendy young women in Los Angeles.  Two other reasons for her fame are her G-cup breast implants.

Ms. Montag was recently in the news when she announced she would be reducing her breasts to perhaps a humble D or double-D.  It seems these Marmadukes (you can’t call them “puppies”) cause her some discomfort and require her to buy custom-made clothing.  Also, the G-cups are no longer necessary now that she is off The Hills.

This last bit of news, scanned from the cover of a tabloid magazine at the supermarket, made me interested in her breasts.  Honest.  Before that, I hadn’t given them much thought.  Honest. 

I was struck by the irony of Ms. Montag needing fake breasts in order to be on a reality TV show.

Looking at Ms. Montag’s picture on the tabloid cover, my mind turned immediately to Umberto Eco.  Honest.

Eco is the author of a famous essay from 1975 titled “Travels in Hyperreality,” which discusses his visit to several tourist attractions in the United States.  Each of these attractions involved the imitation of reality, ranging from wax museums to Main Street USA at Disneyland.  He was fascinated by the desire to create duplicates of real-world objects, such as a wax museum’s replication in 3D of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.”  He was more fascinated by the extension of that desire into creating duplicates that an audience feels improves upon the real-world objects and eventually prefers over the real-world object.  That is, when the fake becomes the new real.  The hyperreal.

Eco links this desire for a real that surpasses reality to American consumerism and a desire for excess, for what he calls “insane abundance.”  That may help explain why breast implants so often are used to make breasts larger rather than to alter simply their shape, especially when those breasts are going to become a sort of commodity sold to an audience. 

In other words, Ms. Montag has been “super-sized.”

The hyperreality that Eco describes also involves the awareness that the fake is a fake.  The audience marvels at its creator’s ability to make such a wonderful fake, a fake that seems perfect, because what is not reproduced are the flaws of the original.

In this sense, there is a difference between the counterfeit and the fake.  The counterfeit is designed to be mistaken for the original, and therefore it must recreate the flaws in the original to fool an audience.  The hyperreal, on the other hand, calls attention to itself as a spectacular fake, as realer than real.

For example, who wants to watch a reality TV show that faithfully recreates our real, BORING lives?  No, we want a show is that real but somehow better than real.

We cannot say that using breast implants to enhance a Hollywood career is anything new.  Pamela Anderson has altered the size of her “talents” several times, sometimes up, sometimes down.  What has changed, though, is the recent advent of talking openly about the surgeries, which Ms. Montag has done.  A lot.

In fact, there are reality TV shows about cosmetic surgery, such as Dr. 90210.  It is about the various cosmetic surgeries performed for women who are pursuing some type of ideal body.  Women are shown in every episode talking about the various procedures they desire, and the audience sees many “before” and “after” images.  The women are obviously proud of the results, and having those results attained through surgery is a source of pride as well.

Cosmetic surgery has become a type of conspicuous consumption.  The women in the show want the physical “enhancements,” but it is important that people know their new bodies have been purchased.  The wealthy can have their imperfect, natural bodies made perfect with a master surgeon and a MasterCard -- but why spend all that money if no one knows you spent it?

There was a time when breast implants were kept quiet, because the desire was to make people think one’s breasts were “natural.”  There was some potential stigma attached to having had cosmetic surgery.  It was a sign of conceit or a lack of self-esteem.  That is not true now. 

So, there is Heidi Montag on the cover of a tabloid magazine discussing the size and shape of the breasts she had purchased and those she plans to buy for the future.  (I wonder if there is trade-in value for implants?  Is there treadwear on silicon?)  Everyone knows her breasts are artificially enhanced.  Their fakeness is part of their attraction to the people watching The Hills, looking for her next appearance on TMZ, or visiting her new website (hyper and cyber were made for each other). [Update: The site is gone, though you can find her on Twitter here.]  In fact, the audience possibly prefers her fake breasts over the real, over those she had been born with.  It is as if her surgically enlarged breasts are saying, as Eco imagines a wax museum saying, “We are giving you the reproduction so you will no longer feel any need for the original.”

 Note: Heidi Montag will return to reality television in July on VH1's Famous Food.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Cure for the Awkward Arm

Today I am not writing about something I have seen.  Instead, I am writing about something I want to see.  I am writing about something that needs inventing.

The EZSpoon.

If you have spent much time sleeping with another person -- and I do mean sleeping -- then you know about "spooning."  That is, curled together like spoons in a drawer, one person's back to the other person's front.  The person behind (the big spoon) usually has one arm draped over the person in front (the little spoon).  And the other arm goes...


That is the dilemma.  There is a name for this problem.  It is called "the awkward arm," according to the Urban Dictionary.

Where?  Where?
It sounds like one of the lesser-known stories of Edgar Allan Poe: "The Curse of the Awkward Arm."

A young woman named Min has written about it on her blog, Married Minzilla.  When she first started sharing a bed with "The Hubby," she thought they had to be in constant contact, holding hands, spooning, etc.  She gave up on that.  "Man, was I naive!  At this point we sleep butt-to-butt."  

Another blogger, Joe Donatelli, has written about it.  He offers two solutions, one involves the variety of positions shown in this illustration and the other involves chloroform for the little spoon. 
"Spooning Couple"

Hyper-realist sculptor Ron Mueck has rendered the situation in one of his playful pieces, "Spooning Couple." 

My friend Dean Rader has a poem about it in his book Works & Days.  In “Waking Next to You on My 39th Birthday, or The Other Arm,” he writes: “I’d like to unhook it at the shoulder,/ and set it on the nightstand./ I could use it to scratch your back/or your feet,/ all those places your fingers can’t reach.”

I got lucky.  My beautiful wife is my ideal height for a woman: 5-1.  I am just about 6-0.  That difference means my “awkward arm” will fit above her head, if we arrange ourselves just right – unlike the dude in this photo from an article in Glamour.  He is stuck with his awkward arm curled around his own head, like some night-time nimbus.  But getting ourselves arranged just perfectly is not always easy.  I frequently suffer from Awkward Arm Syndrome, too.

I have a solution to offer all of the big spoons out there.  I call it the EZSpoon.

It would be a fitted sheet and a mattress pad with corresponding slits, creating a pocket beneath them where the big spoon’s arm could fit comfortably.  The slot would be toward the top of the bed, near the couple’s backs.  The slot would make it easy for the big spoon to slide the awkward arm beneath the little spoon.  The mattress pad would cushion the little spoon from the lumpiness of the big spoon’s arm, and it would take some pressure off of the big spoon’s arm, reducing the chances of the awkward arm becoming numb.

I expect to get wealthy from this idea, just as soon as someone will pay me a lot of money for it and then go off to manufacture and market it.

This leaves another great spooning problem yet to be solved: The little spoon’s hair in the big spoon’s face.  

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Jack Sparrow and Erin Brockovich Fight the Power

Capt. Jack Sparrow, the
world's favorite underdog
Americans love to root for the underdog.  Despite living in the most powerful nation in the world, many people in the United States still identify most with the nation's humble beginnings -- an upstart set of colonies that managed to defeat Great Britain, which at that time was the most powerful nation in the world.

In this sense, the nation may not be much different from people who typically look to their past, especially their childhood, to understand what most shaped their adult personalities.  Sometimes they do this and ignore their more recent influences.

But underdogs need top dogs, and whom people choose as their top dog, as their bully, as their oppressive force, can possibly tell us something about the audience's values.

Lord Cutler Beckett
This came to mind recently when I watched the second and third installments of The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise on DVD in preparation for seeing the latest installment, On Stranger Tides, in the theater.  Although the British Empire is presented as an oppressive force in Dead Man's Chest and At World's End, powerful and global in its reach, the main top dog, the main villain, is the East India Trading Co., depicted as also powerful and global.  It is trying to destroy pirates around the world because they are bad for business.  Through its chairman, Lord Cutler Beckett (played by Tom Hollander), the East India Trading Co. is represented as greedy, oppressive, arrogant, deceitful, and not much fun.

Toward the end of the third film, Cutler Beckett is killed.  As his flagship is destroyed, he falls into the water.  A ghostly shot captures him sinking into the ocean enveloped in the flag of the East India Tea Co.  The image suggests that he has been brought down by his own plans, his own overreaching and conniving.  The image also suggests that the power of the evil corporation has been destroyed, at least temporarily.
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

I thought it was interesting that he sinks in a corporate flag and not a national flag.  That makes sense in that Captain Jack Sparrow is not an American, and the film is set in a time before the American Revolution.  It also makes sense in that the film is intended for a global audience, and everyone around the world does not identify with the British as potential antagonists.  Great Britain is the stern father figure in America's rebellious childhood.  The rest of the world, not so much.

However, interpreting this choice of top dog from an American perspective, we can see it fits with a larger pattern.  Frequently the bad guy/top dog in popular films have been signifiers of corporate excess.

In Aliens, for instance, the company is more concerned about the financial possibilities of the chest-splitting monster than it is about the safety of its employees. 

In Avatar, it is a corporation and not a nation that seeks to destroy the Na'vi's Hometree in order to reach the mineral deposits beneath it.

Similarly, to name just a few films, corporations are the bad guys in Norma Rae, Silkwood, Erin Brockovich, The Insider, and Michael Clayton.

I like to look at the stories we tell as similar to dreams.  Like dreams, stories can provide clues to our deepest desires and fears.  But whereas dreams can provide insight into an individual, popular stories can provide insight into the society that enjoys them, into what we could call a collective unconscious.  This is especially true when we find many stories fitting into particular patterns.

Arthur Asa Berger says something similar to this in his book Signs in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction to Semiotics: "Dreams, Freud tells us, are functional: they have a meaning and they do something for the dreamer.  In the same light, our collective dreams (or is it daydreams) have a meaning and provide people with a number of gratifications" (96).

Sally Field in Norma Rae
In the case of films about corporate bad guys, we could say the "gratification" we get from them is an expression of our anxiety about corporate influence in our lives.  But I find it puzzling that this anxiety gets little expression in our real lives.  That is, as a society we seem to enjoy films about corporate bad guys,  yet we have a political system that seems to cater to corporations.

Someone might say this is a case of the American people accepting fantasies over reality.  Instead of acting effectively upon the anxieties depicted in the films, audiences have their anxieties alleviated in the dark and leave the political system unchanged.

However, other Hollywood bad guys represent real-world anxieties, and these other anxieties do find expression in real-world actions.  At election time, not much traction is gained by discussing the need to counter corporate greed or exploitation.  Yet much traction is found in discussing the threat of foreign nations or causes; Nazis, Russians, Japanese, and Islamic terrorists have all taken their turns as Hollywood bad guys.  Electoral points are scored by talking about the threat of crime; many, many Hollywood bad guys are criminals of the more common type, and often times they are represented by ethnic minorities (in that way they are twofer bad guys -- two anxieties in one villain). 

I have no explanation for this particular disconnect between the stories we enjoy and the world we live in.  I will keep looking.

Note: This was originally published with the title "Arg. America Be a Confusing Nation."