Normally, when I look at the portrayal of women as models in advertising and other forms of media, I do so with a feminist lens. It’s the only way I know how to look at anything—the way the object is used to further objectify women in an attempt to control their style, their food intake, their bodies, their attitude towards sex and their own sexuality. The woman depicted on the magazine cover isn’t a woman—she’s a means to an end, a secondary part of the patriarchal machine, a mere commodity that functions to impose an ideal of perfection for all women, young girls, and even the masses of men drawn to her unrelenting perfection—all of them wondering why the women they lie beside each night are not as hot, as gorgeous, or as perfect. The Victoria’s Secret model or the starlet on the cover of Vogue is the hair-less, fat-less, and flaw-less embodiment of everything we are not—and when we gaze at her, it is with green eyes. We envy her beauty, her perfection from hair to nose to thighs and all the way down to the deep red-painted toes that peek out at us from the stiletto heels that adorn them. She is not mortal; she is a goddess; a thing we can never achieve in our lives unless we airbrush our own flaws with plastic surgery, tummy tucks, and liposuction—the cost of these far more injurious to our self-confidence than spending money. And when our daughters, as young as 3, look upon this same image of feminine perfection, or unparalleled beauty, they see the same thing we see—their own imperfections; their own “lack.” Except this feeling of falling short becomes a second layer of skin they will never be able to remove—no matter how much foundation they use to conceal what they are not, or how many surgeries they undergo to achieve the unattainable.
It was with this biased eye, this adamant gaze that I picked up Wendy Steiner’s The Real Real Thing: The Model in the Mirror of Art (2010). An author and Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, Steiner challenged my feminist views of the model by giving me a different set of eyes with which to gaze upon the role of the contemporary model – not only in art, but in today’s egocentric starlets as they appear in reality television shows, movies, and even the role of model as portrayed in literature. In this book, Steiner asks the question, “Does modeling necessarily produce dehumanization and a divorce from the real, or could its paradoxes instead connect us to reality or even change it for the better?” (pg 79). Steiner adeptly answers this question, and humanizes the model, by citing a wealth of sources from art to movies to books that show us a different, more modern and self-realized version of the model; she is no longer a passive and subservient object—she has a self, an identity, a function. In some instances, she even has a voice and articulates her own input in terms of her attire, her pose, the lighting, etc. A “polyfunctional virtuoso,” the model plays every role—the muse, the referent, the artist, and even the audience (pg 27). She is no longer a “tool”, a means to an end, an objectified entity.
With the help of feminism and contemporary feminist artists, the traditional and male-constructed value of the model that denied her free-expression and individuality—a model based on stereotypical roles like the siren, the mother, the housewife, and so on—the contemporary model is no longer forced to adhere to such antiquated and restrictive notions of femininity. Models are no longer beautiful objects or “girl-junk to be chewed up and spat out” (pg 92-3). Artists who challenge these old-fashioned hierarchies that insist on positing the model as a silenced object, artists like Vanessa Beecroft, Marlene Dumas, and Hannah Wilke, to mention a few, attempt to alter the audience’s gaze and perception of model as a beautiful “thing” by forcing them to instead see her “as an equal agent in the creative-communicative process” (pg 93). They accomplish this by eliminating the inequity that used to exist between artist and model. Historically, the artist was male and therefore had power over the model. She was the object of his vision, and she was the silent “other.” Today, artists use themselves, and at times the audience, as models for their art. In this interactive way, everyone—the artist, the audience, and the model—all play critical parts in the production of the artwork and how it is received. Everyone has a voice and power—equally. And this is due, in part, to women entering the once male-dominated realm of art—not just as models, but as artists.
Wendy Steiner did a fabulous job in exposing not only the traditional and confining function of models, but also showing how the role of the model has been transformed so that she has more power and voice in her position—as a model, as an artist, and as a self-realized being with a self-possessed identity that she needn’t sacrifice for art’s sake. Now the only thing left to do is to get more women to take on the jobs of photographers for consumer magazines and inject media with a revolutionized version of the model that our daughters are exposed to. Artists and models who will take over and redefine how the female body is being consumed by those of us who aren’t physically perfect and who feel shame and loathing for the gifts we weren’t born with.
In closing, Wendy Steiner cited some very interesting books, both novels and memoirs, that discuss the role of the model and her experiences with modeling. Her references made me anxious to consume them, and I thought I would share a few of them them with you, if you haven’t already read them: Kathleen Rooney’s memoir Live Nude Girl (2008); Paulina Porizkova’s A Model Summer; Cheryl Diamond’s Model: A Memoir; Peter Steinhart’s The Undressed Art; Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring; Elizabeth Robards’ With Violets; Debra Finerman’s Mademoiselle Victorine; and Eunice Lipton’s Alias Olympia. Of course, there are more discussed in Steiner’s book, but these are the ones I noted based on my own interests.