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.