Modelos de conducta. “Como cualquier otro juego, jugar a la mujer deja de ser divertido cuando comienzas a jugar para ganar, sobre todo si no tienes opción: ganar o ser ridiculizada, ganar o volverte invisible, rechazada”Female artifice as power is a fascinating game, and those who play with it in public are rewarded in the highest spheres of cultural life. American photographer Cindy Sherman, whose career retrospective is currently at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, has spent more than 30 years taking self-portraits in costumes and prosthetics as every flavor of woman and a fair few men, from society belles to circus clowns to screen starlets. Walking through the galleries, where 10-foot-tall self-portraits of the artist as Joan of Arc and Mother Goose plaster the walls, one is overwhelmed with the question that has engaged generations of fans and critics: Who is the real Cindy Sherman? Under all that makeup, is she really there? Standing in front of a mirror with a wet-wipe late at night, it’s a question that a lot of women have asked ourselves.
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Sherman is not just an artist of disguise. A small but significant tranche of her photographs are counter-revelatory attempts to describe what might be underneath all those costumes. The answer is: something horrible. Blown up in bright soft focus are straining, oozing plastic cunts, headless torsos sprouting random genitals, smeared with blood and dirt and semen. They recall the grotesque, hypersexualized doll art of Hans Bellmer, who built, dismembered, reassembled, and photographed life-size plastic pubescents in the 1930s, because everyone needs a hobby.
Sherman’s dolls, like Bellmer’s, are alien mounds of cleft and heaving faceless flesh, but these are grown: In Sherman’s stills, disembodied vulvas covered in wiry hair gobble down oozing sausages; the mask of a cartoon crone sits grinning atop a vulva split like a hotdog; ass cheeks are covered in boils; faces crawl with shit and maggots. This, Sherman tells us, is what’s under all those disguises. Did you really want to see?
Of course, the feast of blood and shit is as much a lie as the clown mask and the clogs: Cindy Sherman is fooling us yet again. It’s all made of plastic, glitter, and glue. In reality, we know perfectly well what’s under all that makeup. What else would it be but a slender, wealthy Caucasian woman, the base code of contemporary female identity?
Cindy Sherman only appears to be every woman: She has not yet, for example, dressed as a low-paid, overweight woman of color from the Bronx. In fact, the less you look like a young, slim, rich white woman, the less the art of disguise is likely to work for you. The importance of female-identity-as-commodity is that underneath all these disguises, underneath endless palettes of makeup and shades of lip gloss, women should all be as close as possible to exactly the same, with only the appearance of difference. The most successful models, on and off the Top Model franchise, are also the most generic: In order to be every woman, you must first learn to be any woman, to be nobody, to be homogeneous. The perfect woman, the perfect beauty is a blank slate.
If a woman is to be the mistress of disguise, and she surely needs to be to thrive in a world where artifice is key to female power, there should really be nothing at all under the mask — and certainly nothing that deviates from the accepted stereotype. To play the woman game and win, you have to erase everything about yourself that doesn’t fit the shop model. Straighten your hair, bleach your skin, starve away those love handles. You can buy a Barbie with red, black, or blonde hair, but not thick body hair. Perfect dolls come in standard sizes and colors, and best thing about a perfect doll is that you can put her in back in her box and forget about her whenever you choose.
Barbies are all cast in the same plastic mold, the gentle quirks of fashion or temporary occupation merely talking points encouraging you to buy whatever it she’s selling. That’s how flesh-and-blood women should behave, too. To play the woman game well and win, you must be able to exchange identities as easily as you might cast off last winter’s peacoat and slip into a see-through tank top. Underneath it all, women are all the same — aren’t we, girls? Like Barbie, under her clothes the perfect woman is neat and spare, smooth and pale, bleached and stripped of hair.
A woman’s genitals, crucially, are invisible unless you point your camera directly in between her legs — ideally she should have nothing but a neat, tight pink slot, in the fashion first popularized by adult films. Nothing should get in the way of a decent shot of a dick going into a hole. Just as in order to be a successful woman, she must first erase her history, personality and class, in order to perform female sexuality properly, she must first become a symbolic castrate, as smooth and tight as a little girl. If she has hidden depths, nobody really wants to know about them.
The most successful female artists of our time have perfected the work of chameleon femininity. They are Cinderellas with a new dress for every ball, exchanging personae like lesser mortals change clothes. Nicki Minaj, Dita Von Teese, and — almost definitively — Lady Gaga, the great fierce fashion ship that launched a thousand faces, whose music has become almost secondary to her wardrobe of identities: the matinee idol, the robot, the bubblegum Harajuku pop princess, the speeded-out Italian-American boyfriend, Joe Calderone, who performed “instead” of Gaga at the 2011 MTV awards, incidentally and mercifully disturbing Justin Bieber for life. Sarah Nicole Prickett wrote recently in the Globe and Mail that:
So much of what is deemed ‘women’s art’ is really about ‘women’s work,’ which involves not only the work we do, but the work we do to get the work…In art, in pop music, in Hollywood, to men belong the fixed image; to women belong images based on our fixations. Now the images change faster. Identities multiply. If women are winning the charts and the Christie’s auctions, not enough but increasingly, it’s perhaps because they have always been more things at once, worn more faces, survived like chameleons. The winning has been so far from easy, but then, they were prepared. For every screen they had a mask, and under that mask, another mask.”
Minaj-Beyoncé-VonTeese-Madonna-Gaga. None of these women artists, significantly, work under the names they were born with. Writing that down tugs a little at the hot, private place under the ribs because, of course, neither do I; last week, I had coffee with three highly successful women, an artist, a journalist, and an author and fashion blogger, and we looked at each other askance when we realized that all of us had changed our names for work. And we love our work. It is a part of who we are, and if we have changed ourselves to achieve the freedom to create, that does not make our work somehow less true, less our own.
It seems oddly Protestant to argue, as some feminists do, that somewhere under all that artifice are “real women,” that one can peel away the layers of clothing and makeup and weave and hair and skin and silicone and dig out a “genuine” person, untouched by culture and context. Smart girls know that “real beauty” is just a tag line to sell moisturizer. Walk in high heels for long enough and the bones in your feet really do change shape. Spend enough time living as an efficient office worker, an obedient wife, a high-street fashion knockout and eventually the contours of your personality do change.
The idea of the self as something permanent, immutable, seems rather old-fashioned when anyone with an Internet connection can create a personal brand that works differently across multiple platforms, with different backdrops, favorite quotes and family snapshots, just as you might prepare one face to meet your friends and another to meet your father-in-law.
Online or offline, this Prufrockian trick is one to which women are more accustomed than men, having been raised to the task since the very first time an adult caught us in ribbons, in feathers, in our mother’s lipstick and said, “Smile for the camera.” The 14-year-old schoolgirls who are ordered to dress in uniform knee skirts and bobby socks in the daytime know perfectly well what they are doing when they post pictures of themselves in underwear taken from above, pulling that face that works so well at a 45-degree angle.
We can’t perfectly control our online selves any more than we can control the contours of our flesh. Bodies, like data, are leaky. Out of the mess of bodies and blood and bones and pixels and dreams and books and hopes we create this mess of reality we call a self, we make it and remake it. Each human being is a palimpsest of possible faces, of personas, and none of us were “born this way.”
What makes the difference between servitude and self-actualization? For women, the ultimate signal of wealth and status is total self-annihilation. The power of embodiment is not ours; we can be any woman, and we are rewarded for being every woman, but we must never be ourselves. For a man, the richer and more respected he becomes, the more he can indulge his particular tastes, can let his mask slip, can run to fat, can turn up at the office in casual clothes.
That’s not quite true, though, is it? There are male-bodied people for whom lipstick and heels have power, although the power arrives slantwise, through the cracks in conformity. Yes, I’m talking about drag. Really, I’ve been talking about drag since we began, but there’s drag that erases identity and then there’s drag that celebrates it, enhances it, makes it monstrous and marvelous all at once. Femininity does not just have to be a disguise — in a culture that still loathes and fears women and queers, it can also be a weapon. Reality television might just have the solution.
“May the best woman win.” That’s the tag line of RuPaul’s Drag Race, now in its fourth and most successful season — a manic send-up of everything stern and joyless about makeover-ritual television. It is self-consciously modelled on Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model, and features RuPaul doing Tyra Banks drag better than Tyra Banks does Tyra Banks in drag. The contestants come from the drag underground in all its rich, subversive history: They are all ages, all races, many of them people of color, many from inner-city backgrounds, some of them former felons. They are uninterested in escaping their class backgrounds; the emphasis is on creativity, pantomimery and fun. Participating, not winning, is the point. The show has become the super bowl for a queer America reminding itself that there was once a gay-rights movement that was not just about middle-class white soldiers and their middle-class white weddings, but about color and defiance and danger.
In an interview for Curve magazine, RuPaul tells us that drag is “dangerous because it, throughout the ages, has reminded our culture that we are not who we think we are … This is just a temporary package that you’ve put together on this planet and it’s not to be taken seriously. You’re supposed to have fun with it.” In a world where the makeover is a collective ritual and Tyra Banks and Gok Wan are its priests, RuPaul is the heretic preacher, reading culture back to itself in a funny voice.
All performed femininity — like all performed masculinity — is a drag race. Cinderella was a drag queen. Margaret Thatcher was a drag queen. Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj and most especially Lady Gaga are drag queens, and doing drag well and self-consciously is always an exercise in queering, no matter what you’ve got between your legs. That kind of drag is what the beauty-industrial complex of advertising, magazines, makeover shows, and music videos are terrified by, and yes, it is queer, and yes, it is feminist.
Drag queens of all genders know that performing femininity is always contingent, always within the context of a world where beauty means disguise, means conformity and misogyny and racism and self-erasure — but that one can always take those tropes and remake them joyfully, with choreography and courage and a handful of glitter. The woman game doesn’t have to be played by the rules. It doesn’t have to be played to win or to please your partner or to keep your job. It doesn’t have to be played at all, but if you play with a wink in your eye and some sequins up your sleeve, you can still spoil the game a little for the bigots.
And that’s my idea of a good time