Gender determines the shape of our fantasies. Good little boys are supposed to dream about changing the world, but good little girls are supposed to dream about changing ourselves. From the first time we open a book of fairy tales, we learn that beauty is destiny, and when we grow up, we’re told that this destiny is ours to command. If we can consume wisely enough to be beautiful and fashionable, we can transform everything about ourselves.
When beauty becomes mandatory, it ceases to be about fun, about play. Dressing up, playing with gender roles, doing your braids badly in the mirror, and eating half your mother’s lipstick in an attempt to get it on your face: Do you remember when that used to be fun? And do you remember when the fun stopped? Like any game, the woman game stops being fun when you start playing to win, especially if you’ve got no choice: Win or be ridiculed, win or become invisible, dismissed — disturbed.
When I was a teenager, for various reasons unimportant to this essay I spent time in an eating-disorders ward. I turned up looking like a 12-year-old boy, with a shaved head, wearing ties, and the draggest drag I could manage with a waist too small for the children’s section, and the first assumption of nearly everyone on the ward was that I must be gay, and that my gayness was clearly the root of all my problems. There was only one thing for it: I would have to be taught to accept my womanhood. And that meant dressing up straight, acting straight, being a proper girl, getting rid of everything about me that was queer and contentious and questioning. If I did this, I would be allowed to go home.
The markers of psychological health among young women at that time were long hair, pretty dresses, shopping, and makeup. The middle-aged, ponderously paunched male psychiatrists who ran the ward were absolutely in agreement on this point. The latest right-on theories about eating disorders posit the diseases as a method that young women use to escape the stresses of modern femininity. Anorexia nervosa, the logic goes, suspends the traumatic process of becoming a woman, because when you stop eating, when you cut down from 600 to 400 to 200 calories per day, your periods stop, your tits and hips and wobbly bits disappear, and you return to an artificial prepubescent state, complete with mood swings, weird musical obsessions, and, the overpowering impulse to shoplift scrunchies from Woolworth’s. The reason young women and increasing numbers of young men behave like this, the logic goes, is because they’re scared and angry about the gender roles that they are being forced into. The notion that they might have damn good reasons for being scared and angry has not yet occurred to the psychiatric profession.
I needed to get out of that place, and if you wanted to go out the front door and not in a box, you had to play by their rules. You had to smile and eat your meals. You had to be a good girl. That meant no more trousers, no more going out with short hair and no makeup, a boyfriend as soon as possible, and learning to style your hair and do your eye-liner. It meant buying different dresses for different occasions, fitting yourself out to have men look at you with lust, learning manners, learning to dip your head and say “Please” and “Thank you” and “Gosh, I don’t know what to think about the war” and “No, one piece of chocolate cake will be more than enough for me.”
That was proper femininity, straight femininity, femininity as control, as a great unqueering. It was the makeover to end all makeovers, and my fellow patients helped, lending me clothes and makeup, dressing me up like a cracked-out barbie doll. We all played the game with one another, especially when one of us was allowed to leave the ward, dressing and painting and polishing her nails and doing her hair, sending her off into the world a healthy, normal woman, not the damaged, fragile person who had walked or been wheeled in months before with her heart unskinned.
For modern women in this anxious age of small and hidden gods, the makeover is a ritual of health and devotion and social conformity. It’s the central transfigurative myth of modern femininity under capitalism, and it’s lucrative. Playing the woman game, the game of artifice and self-annihilation, is serious business. A recent survey by shopping channel QVC claimed that the average British woman spends £2,055 per year, or 11% of the median full-time female salary, on maintaining and updating the way she looks. Men, by contrast, spend just 4% of their salary on their appearance, most of which goes on shaving and the gym. Glossy women’s magazines are manuals of self-transformation: Change your body for summer, change your wardrobe for winter, learn to look at the world through smoky eyes, sparkly eyes, or natural eyes, which require as many paints as the rest. Cosmetic-surgery companies plaster public transport with promises to deliver not just physical changes, but emotional ones like “confidence.” Fashion editorials advise us to spend money we don’t have on skirt-suits and handbags as “investment pieces”; you’re not supposed to dress and style your body simply to please yourself but with one eye on your financial future. That skirt-suit really is an “investment” in a one-woman business whose product is you, only glossier. This is what power means to the modern, emancipated woman: terminal exhaustion and a wardrobe full of expensive disguises.
The paeans to disguise and self-reinvention are everywhere, from reality television shows like The Swan, How to Look Good Naked, and the global Top Model megafranchise to the world of high art. Even recent films that have dealt with the few iconic instances of female political power in the recent history of Anglo-American government — Game Change, the story of Sarah Palin’s 2008 vice presidential bid, and Iron Lady, the biopic of Margaret Thatcher — have sold themselves as double-makeover stories. The viewer is invited first to boggle at how well-known actresses (Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep) were transformed to fit the title roles and then at how the women portrayed physically transformed themselves for power — how they manipulated their audiences with cleverly chosen accessories that were, if we are to believe the screenwriters, more important than their policies. The Iron Lady’s vision of Thatcher’s legacy deals with the former prime minister’s epochal battle with mining unions in one throwaway sentence, but it does feature a 20-minute makeover sequence which could come straight off a reality show as scripted by Milton Friedman. It is no accident that The Iron Lady won the Oscar for Best Makeup.
Before they could change the world, we are told, these conservative women had to change themselves. Thatcher, Palin, lipstick and handbags and welfare cuts and warmongering: This is neoliberal feminism lined in shocking pink. This is what power looks like. You go, girl.
The fantasy is atomizing and addictive. You can be anyone you want to be, it whispers, as long as you know how to play the game. America’s Next Top Model, now in its 19th series with spin-off shows in many other nations, outfits itself in a horror-frock ensemble of neoliberal feminist cliches. The rules of the game are gruelling: The best contestants are pliant and directable, silently submitting to such gymnastic humiliations as being photographed topless on a horse or writhing in a giant bowl of Greek salad. You’re meant to show some character, but never enough to overwhelm “the product” in the eyes of industry “insiders” with an array of frightening hairstyles. Host Tyra Banks is a constant, terrifying presence, offering various bits of grim advice for young women who want to “be on top” — and what more could a modern girl possibly want? Part fairy godmother, part corporate dominatrix, Banks shows the contestants and the rest of us how pliant female bodies and personalities can best be contorted to please the judges. They learn to “smize” — to smile with the eyes, not the mouth, which is almost impossible to do without looking like you’re trying to hold in a fart in a quiet room.
This modern Cindarella story, this identity-quest that is really a quest for many identities, is phrased as spiritual in the most uninspiring manner. Clumsy ritual is broken down into bite-size chunks, reality conforming to the dictats of television, spliced by advertising, replete with incantations, psalmlike call-and-response catchphrases, managed stages of emotional dissolution and reconstruction, and directed at every point by the host — Tyra Banks, Gok Wan, even the effervescent RuPaul of LogoTV’s Drag Race — who functions as a spiritual guide, as priest, master, teacher. Do you have what it takes? Can you look good naked? Do you want to be on top?
But the spiritual work of female beauty is also economic work. In a world where most women work, formally or informally, in customer service and public relations — appease your clients, bend and smile for the diners, look good for the office, wear the uniform on the shop floor — manipulation of femininity is a part of every woman’s job, from American Apparel sales agents, with rigorous dress codes that extend to the proper degree of eyebrow plucking, to City financiers with their endless “women in business” meetings about how to ‘dress for success.”
Crucially, the sort of artifice it takes to “be on top” is about more than just seduction. In the neoliberal Cinderella story, the prince is decidedly optional. Rather than attracting a man to rescue her from her life, a woman is supposed to transform herself in order to attract an employer or secure a sponsor. The pre-eminent skill is to learn how best to “represent the brand.”
On and off the catwalk, women’s sexuality is relevant only where it can be used to encourage consumption. Women are expected to be able to put their sexuality on and off as easily as a size-zero skirt; it skims lightly over the surface of the body but has nothing to do with desire. Top Model contestants who get it wrong are regularly disqualified for acting too sexual — hoochy is the favored term. But women who are not models also know just how this goes: You dress for the office, you mold your online and offline persona to reflect well on the company, and even out of office hours, your “performance” is judged as part of the branding of whoever’s dollar pays your rent and sends your kids to school.
In the world of women’s work, how one looks is as important, if not more important, than what one does: The existential anxiety of identity creation is also economic and social anxiety, because the penalties for nonconformity are so high. Feminine mystique becomes identity itself. The woman who does not possess it, the ugly woman, the overweight woman, the older woman, the woman of color who will not straighten her hair or bleach her skin, is assumed, in a very real sense, to be invisible. She is overlooked on the street, at parties, on dating web sites, at job interviews. She is dogged by a feeling of unreality; she does not exist, and if she dares to “be herself,” she is stunned to find, since her social legitimacy is contingent on artifice, that her self is not a legitimate social construct. As Shulamith Firestone writes in The Dialectic of Sex:
Women everywhere rush to squeeze into the glass slipper ... thus women become more and more look-alike. But at the same time they are expected to express their individuality through their physical appearance. Thus they are kept coming and going, at one and the same time trying to express their similarity and their uniqueness ... this conflict itself has an important political function. When women begin to look more and more alike, distinguished only by the degree to which they differ from a paper ideal, they can be more easily stereotyped as a class: they look alike, they think alike, and even worse, they are so stupid they believe they are not alike.
This is the intimate edge of neoliberal feminism, the meritocratic fantasy that, in this freest of all possible worlds, any woman can be anything she wants to be, as long as she slices her face and dresses her body to look exactly the same as everyone else.
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.
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.