The Power of Glamour

 The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion, by Virginia Postrel 

At my very first interview for a magazine job, the executive editor of a now-defunct women’s magazine asked what periodicals I read, and I answered with what I thought would be the right smart-girl answer—The New YorkerAtlantic Monthly, and a magazine that was little-known at the time, Bitch. “I notice there are no women’s magazines on that list,” she said. (Bitch is indeed a magazine about and largely for women, but it’s hardly on the same shelf as Cosmo.) I stammered out something about choosing a “broader focus” for my reading material, the interviewers smiled politely, and, as you have guessed, I did not get the job.

I didn’t tell them the actual reason I didn’t read women’s magazines: They’re bad for you, right? I mean, that’s what I’d learned in women’s studies, and even if you’ve never taken a women’s studies class, you know the gist of the argument here: Women feel worse after just three minutes of looking at ladymags, the size of the average fashion model is size 0 or 2 but the average American woman wears a size 12, etc. (You might ask why I wanted to work at a women’s magazine if I believed all this, and it’s because I was naive enough and arrogant enough to believe that all the industry needed was one solid feminist comme moi and everything would change. Anyway.)

Over the years, my thinking on women’s magazines has become far more nuanced and ambivalent, but a core juxtaposition has remained: If women’s magazines make women feel so bad about themselves, why do we continue to buy them? And glamour is part of the answer. Not glamour as in the magazine title, nor glamour as many of us conceive of it—say, marcel waves, rubies, and sleek gowns on the red carpet—but rather glamour as articulated and explored in Virginia Postrel’s latest, eminently readable book, The Power of Glamour: Longing and the Art of Visual Persuasion. Rather than merely musing on glamour, Postrel sets out to define it, and in doing so weaves not only a history of glamour but the parameters that allow the concept to encompass everything from Jean Harlow to wind turbines, Angelina Jolie to train windows, James Bond to candy wrappers. Glamour here is neither an aesthetic nor a convention, but a nonverbal rhetoric that Postrel likens to humor, “a form of communication that elicits a distinctive emotional response.”

Under the definition laid out in The Power of Glamour, in order to be glamorous—as opposed to charismatic, opulent, beautiful, luxurious, sexy, or romantic, all of which are frequently confused with glamour—any given person or thing needs to meet a certain set of criteria. Something glamorous must give form to an otherwise formless longing or desire; it must deploy a degree of mystery, illusion, and grace that vanishes once it shifts from the glamorous to the familiar. But the factor that resonates the most with me as far as the ladymag conundrum is a degree of identification. In order to find something glamorous, we need to see it as representing a world that we identify with—or rather, that we would identify with if only.

Postrel cites Star Trek as an example of something glamorous, which might strike many as absurd, given its distinct lack of glamorous tropes. But it was this example that cemented for me the relationship between glamour and the viewer—and if you had memories of your 11-year-old loner brother sitting on the couch in his Star Trek ensign uniform, staying up late to finish his own handwritten Next Generation scripts, you’d understand too. A bit of an outcast at that age but with a longing for community and quiet appreciation of the skills he had to offer the world, my brother couldn’t wholly identify with life aboard the starship Enterprise, but he saw enough of its world in himself—and he saw enough of himself in the values of that world—that it became far more than mere entertainment to him, even if he couldn’t spell out why. Star Trek wasn’t remotely glamorous to me, but it was to him.

When I think of my brother’s longing today, I’m struck by how much he yearned to truly identify with that world (even though, like all chimera of glamour, it was a world that couldn’t exist). In a certain light, his obsession with Star Trek becomes heartbreaking: a child wanting so badly to live in a world where he’d have a place that he literally wrote it himself when the prewritten fantasy ran out. But I also see it as an indicator of the ways he was thriving. He took up trombone because that’s what Commander Riker played. He learned how to save his child’s income in order to buy entrance to Trekker conventions once my parents became exasperated with the constant ticket requests. He was writing entire hourlong performance scripts—a passion that stuck around long enough for him to host a radio theater show todayYou could say Star Trek held up an unattainable ideal that he’d never be able to join—or you could say it spurred him to better himself. Both can be fallouts of glamour.

As a feminist writer who wants women to feel as emotionally whole as possible, I’ve spent my fair share of time fretting over idealized media images of unattainable beauty. But in writing about beauty and in talking to dozens of women about the role looks play in their lives, my mind-set has slowly shifted over the years. I can no longer believe that women are such passive, robotic consumers as to continue to buy women’s magazines if they just make us feel like crap—nor do I naively believe that women bathe in these images because we feel fantastic while doing so. Looking at the question of idealized images through the lens of Postrel’s articulation of glamour, there’s a more satisfying conclusion here: We are drawn to images of idealized beauty not out of self-loathing but out of longing; we are compelled by images not only because we compare ourselves to them but because we identify with them. If we didn’t identify with those images to some degree—even a whisper of one—they would cease to have any resonance with us. Yet if we identified too much, we’d have less to strive for.

Let’s not be confused about what identification means here: Not that we see ourselves as easily stepping into the world of an image, but that we see potential for us to do so. We may perceive glamorous objects as an entrée into that world (hence the desire for that shade of lipstick, that style of ring, that color on the soles of our shoes), but it’s not the object we want so much as the life it promises. Some part of that life rings true to us, if only true with possibilities instead of realities. Some part of it reflects our own vision of ourselves—our better, ideal selves as seen through the looking-glass, sure, but it’s us in that looking-glass either way.

“By tendering the promise of escape and transformation, glamour feeds on both hope and hardship,” writes Postrel. The specific forms of hardship she’s referring to are more concrete than bodily discontent: Women of the 1930s being sentenced to domestic drudgery; gay men of the 1980s at risk of violence, self-harm, and AIDS. But the idea extends to the question of women, images, and self-image. Much criticism has been aimed toward glamour in this regard: By preying upon our vulnerabilities, glamour stirs a want that a handy variety of products and services are ready to fill. (Or attempt to fill; once we’ve inhabited the promise of any specific glamour, an item/person/place ceases to be glamorous per se.) Indeed, glamour is an effective tool in advertising because of its power to exacerbate desire. But a narrow focus on the darker side of that desire does two things. First, it allows us to forget that glamour stokes hope, which in turn can spur positive action: The cinematic glamour of the 1930s allowed housewives to envision a world where they weren’t their own servants; vogue balls of the 1980s allowed gay men a temporary space of transformation and acceptance. Similarly, while I’m not about to argue that a photograph of, say, a 14-year-old runway model is going to spur positive action in most of us, the world we enter when we gaze upon images of idealized beauty is...well, it’s ideal. It’s fantasy—and the more we remember that it’s fantasy, the better off we’ll be. In fact, a study from 2010 shows that viewers of images of idealized beauty report higher self-esteem when they’re prompted to see the images as fantasy, not as a reflection of reality. Still, we respond to fantasy because it reflects something we may genuinely long for in our lives—after all, there are dozens of ways a public image of a woman might register as “ideal,” yet we only respond to those that stir something inside us. Gwyneth Paltrow, Dita Von Teese, and Beyoncé offer entirely different aesthetics, and yet they’re all forms of a certain type of ideal. And depending on which (if any) of these ideals resonates with us—and which we find most glamorous—we may take different routes toward embodying the sort of life we aspire to. Can we take that aspiration too far? Yes, yes, of course, and there’s plenty of excellent work out there chronicling how. But aspiration can inspire movement, and movement can inspire change.

Second, looking only at the negative consequences of aspiration allows us to erroneously believe that glamour and imagery create want, instead of merely exacerbating it. “[Critics] imagine that if glamour disappeared, so would dissatisfaction—that, for example, women would not long to be young and beautiful if there were no cosmetic ads or movie stars,” writes Postrel. “But glamour only works when it can tap preexisting discontent, giving otherwise inchoate longings an object of focus.” Vogue magazine didn’t manufacture women’s desire to be beautiful. But it gave form to that desire with skilled imagery that allowed the reader to create a story from what was presented on the pages. (A story in which she herself is the protagonist, of course.)

I don’t mean to say that Vogue—or any other image outlet—should be cast as aspirational in a positive way for women, or that those who feel harmed by idealized imagery should just learn to suck it up like the people who derive joy from those same images. But I am saying that the question of these outlets should be examined through a critical—and feminist—lens, outside of the usual talk of self-esteem and body image and women’s health and all that. A treatise on glamour may appear apolitical, and it can be read that way without sacrificing our understanding, but we can also use it to ask larger questions that then become political. Glamour is not inherently feminine, yet its iconography often features women, harvesting the old cliché of how “men want to be with her, and women want to be her.” If so many images are of women, what does that say about what we as a culture aspire to, or what we as consumers and individuals find to be “preexisting discontent”? When we find ourselves transfixed by an image, a longing, what does that tell us about our own desires?

Indeed, part of the riddle here lies in Vogue itself, ever an icon of glamour. Despite its reputation as highbrow and snooty, Vogue has readers whose median household income is actually lower than that of its Condé Nast sisters GlamourSelf, and Lucky. It’s a comfortable number, to be sure, but it’s interesting that a magazine featuring $280 face cream appeals to the person of more modest means than does a magazine that features $28 pleather skirts. The lofty aspirational quality of Vogue may well be less appealing to those who are slightly closer to living in that world (and, of course, the magazine itself isn’t as exclusive as its reputation—not only does it feature plenty of trends accessible to the hoi polloi, but it can, after all, be purchased by anyone with a spare six dollars). This may be my fantasy, but I’ve come to picture the average Vogue reader as being much like the distant cousin who gave me my first-ever copy of it: a schoolteacher living on a farm in Ohio who simply liked to escape into the elite world of Vogue for one afternoon each month. I imagine the magazine spoke to the part of her that wasn’t a schoolteacher, that didn’t get up at 5 a.m. to tend to sheep, even as she treasured those aspects of her life. I hesitate to say it represented a vision of her life “if only,” for she appeared plenty content. But perhaps it represented a vision of a life she might have wanted had her life been, say, 20 degrees different than it actually was.

It’s also worth noting that Vogue’s editor, Anna Wintour, was recently tapped to revamp some of the company’s other titlesLucky went under a Wintour-led overhaul, and Glamour is in the midst of the same, with two key image-makers leaving the magazine in recent weeks. Wintour’s talents lie in finding the balance between malcontent and inspiration, identification and aspiration. That is, titles aside, her talents lie in finding none other than glamour.