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...terminal exhaustion and a wardrobe full of expensive disguises.
May 31, 2012 10:06 AM   Subscribe

Model Behavior: A Laurie Penny essay on gender presentation, anorexia, neoliberalism, capitalism, queerness, gender, drag, media, America's Next Top Model, and a few other things.
posted by latkes (38 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is just to say I love Laurie Penny a little too much.
posted by The Whelk at 10:11 AM on May 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


America’s Next Top Model...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 hairstyle

Genius.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:13 AM on May 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


Great stuff. I sent this to a few friends last night.
I especially agreed with this:

"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."
posted by Kitty Stardust at 10:16 AM on May 31, 2012 [8 favorites]


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."

I notice that a lot. Richard Branson can wear track pants, but even the most successful women are subject to profiles in the "powerful women who let themselves go" and "successful women... WITHOUT THE MAKEUP!" tabloid-fodder articles.
Or at least it feels that way...
posted by Theta States at 10:43 AM on May 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


>The woman game . . . doesn’t have to be played at all

QFT
posted by Listener at 11:01 AM on May 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


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.

Like five years ago at a Banana Republic, I saw a couple in their mid-30s, the female of which was dressed like a grown up who is in public, w/her partner who is wearing an overstretched tee shirt that looked like it was a Harry Potter tee shirt, but actually said "Hairy Peter," w/ cargo shorts.

Richard Branson couldn't pull off a "hairy Peter" shirt. No one could.
posted by discopolo at 11:05 AM on May 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


I could. I won't try, but I could.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 11:08 AM on May 31, 2012 [4 favorites]


Typical neighbourhood strolls with my best beloved include highly conforming visibly female passersby reacting to my partner's un-made-up face, purposeful stride, short hair, man pants (with deep pockets) and Frank Sinatra fedora in ways that could only be described as affronted, as if to say "how dare you be visibly female yet not play the role that society has set out for us all to play!" I always seem to detect a bit of resentment as well, as one might be when one has been reminded suddenly that there are other ways to travel through life that might have been more personally rewarding or interesting than the way one chose. "But, but, but... cheating! Right?"

I guess that's a lot to read into pursued lips, widened eyes and compressed eyebrows.
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:11 AM on May 31, 2012 [8 favorites]


This game wouldn't be such a painful thing to have to play, if the standard of beauty weren't so impossible to attain. I adamantly refuse to play against a stacked deck.
posted by LN at 11:29 AM on May 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


Great essay. Thank you!
posted by Jowita Bydlowska at 12:00 PM on May 31, 2012


Excellent essay, yet all she can think of to do is mock model culture with a kind of parody I can't distinguish from self-parody:
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.
I could wish for a little more.
posted by jamjam at 12:09 PM on May 31, 2012


Could you explain, JamJam?

It seemed to me like she was saying there is a certain subversive pleasure in taking the trappings of glamour and using them for your own purposes.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 12:16 PM on May 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


Minaj-Beyoncé-VonTeese-Madonna-Gaga. None of these women artists, significantly, work under the names they were born with.
So Beyonce's name isn't really Beyonce? And Madonna's name isn't really Madonna? Does one name make it draggier somehow?
posted by Madamina at 12:29 PM on May 31, 2012


I think the point she's driving at with Beyonce is that her full name is Beyonce Knowles, but she hasn't been commonly referred to as such since, oh, 2003 or so. Same is true for Madonna, who I don't think ever used her surname (Ciccone, for those who don't know) in the public sphere.
posted by shiu mai baby at 12:37 PM on May 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


When I was a teenager, for various reasons unimportant to this essay I spent time in an eating-­disorders ward [..] 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.

She writes about this as though it took place some time in the 1950s. A quick glance at her Wikipedia page reveals that it actually took place in 2003, hardly a lifetime ago. This doesn't invalidate her argument, of course, but it's worth pointing out that in the past, indeed the fairly recent past, she's portrayed her recovery from anorexia in far more positive terms:

From time to time, I still miss anorexia — the sense of control that comes when avoiding food is your highest ambition. But today, after three years of recovery, I have a degree, a career, great friends and a huge appetite for adventure.

Back then (i.e. 2010), she saw her recovery as a liberation. Now she sees it as a new form of oppression, 'getting rid of everything about me that was queer and contentious and questioning'. Well, OK, but I have the feeling she's still in the process of reinventing herself and that in another two years she'll probably have a completely new theory of anorexia as, oh, I dunno, a Marxist false consciousness or something.
posted by verstegan at 12:39 PM on May 31, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't see why she can't be both happy that she is no longer anorexic and also now ready to talk about some of the less-than-ideal aspects of the therapy that got her to that point. Especially now that she's further removed from them.

I'm not familiar with her or her story or public persona, other than reading articles linked here and that Wikipedia page, so I could be way off. Speaking as someone who has been through psychiatric hospitalization when I was much younger, though for a different illness, the way I think about it and my relation to it, the people involved, my attitude toward the therapy and medication, etc.. changes all the time, even over a decade later.
posted by primalux at 12:49 PM on May 31, 2012 [6 favorites]


verstegan: agreed. I've spent the last two or three years giving Penny the benefit of the doubt for being (very) young and patiently waiting for her to be old enough to have a coherent viewpoint. I've come to realize that this will never happen. Her shifting opinions aren't (simply) a product of youth; they're unfortunately, in her case, the symptoms of a superficial, second-hand mind. She has assumed Left political postures and poses as though they were fashion, and considering the topic at hand here, there's a certain tragic irony in that.
posted by Sonny Jim at 12:50 PM on May 31, 2012 [8 favorites]


It seemed to me like she was saying there is a certain subversive pleasure in taking the trappings of glamour and using them for your own purposes.

I think you're exactly right about the pleasure she gets, Kitty Stardust, and that she thinks it subversive, but it's an odd kind of subversion that the subverted barely notice, and which only serves to strengthen them if they do notice it.
posted by jamjam at 12:54 PM on May 31, 2012 [5 favorites]


Well, OK, but I have the feeling she's still in the process of reinventing herself and that in another two years she'll probably have a completely new theory of anorexia

I can't think of any major life event I've gone through which hasn't filtered through my consciousness in a shifting, evolving way over time. Any more than you can't read the same book twice, I don't think that changing focus and looking at an event from a different angle means that you are inconsistent, particularly.

Looking at her recovery through a different lens most likely means that in the outset she felt better and happier and now she is able to pull back and take a critical eye to the experience. The current critical approach does not invalidate the 'more positive' past description, or vice versa.

I do find it odd that she framed it in that "long, long ago" kind of phrasing, but that might be a subconscious attempt to put some distance between those events and the current piece at hand, which squares with her aside of "for various reasons unimportant to this essay" as though it makes sense to bring it up and at the same time dismiss that the article and the experience are in any way related.
posted by SassHat at 12:55 PM on May 31, 2012


I've spent the last two or three years giving Penny the benefit of the doubt for being (very) young and patiently waiting for her to be old enough to have a coherent viewpoint.

Fortunately, us Very Young have Wise, Sagacious Elders to patronize and then diagnose the symptoms of superficial minds.
posted by ChuraChura at 12:57 PM on May 31, 2012 [16 favorites]


Yes, jamjam. This kind of thing (see also, poptimism) used to really annoy me when I was at University in the '90s, when it was so prevalent as to be practically hegemonic. I used to think of it as a form of "subversion" so subtle it was indistinguishable from meek acceptance.
posted by Sonny Jim at 12:58 PM on May 31, 2012 [5 favorites]


Metafilter: Wise, Sagacious Elders to patronize and then diagnose the symptoms of superficial minds.
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:08 PM on May 31, 2012 [5 favorites]


Weird analysis I think: Can't someone be glad she's not anorexic anymore and still think the institution she was sent to to recover was fucked up? Many hospitals are fucked up for many reasons. If you survived your disease are you supposed to think your fucked up hospital was awesome? The two points of view don't even seem to be contradictory at all.

Anyway, weird to go on a personal attack about her. Would be much more interested if someone has a critique of the content of the article.
posted by latkes at 1:09 PM on May 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Speaking as someone who has been through psychiatric hospitalization when I was much younger, though for a different illness, the way I think about it and my relation to it, the people involved, my attitude toward the therapy and medication, etc.. changes all the time, even over a decade later.

Yeah. I am both profoundly grateful for my own very brief stint inside a mental health facility, and pretty convinced that it was a window into a frequently pathological and damaging authoritarian system which I feel lucky to have escaped with the possibility of a normal life intact. I don't really see a contradiction here.
posted by brennen at 1:10 PM on May 31, 2012 [3 favorites]


Thank you, JamJam. I think I see your point now.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 1:30 PM on May 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


Holy fuck this is good. Thank you.
posted by davidjmcgee at 1:49 PM on May 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


So I'm the only one who read this essay as a string of cliches from 1995 strung together by a woman who clearly has issues with other women? Maybe if she stopped comparing herself to and competing with everyone around her I could read this hut instead she comes across as the insufferable "friend" who specializes in back handed compliments.
posted by fshgrl at 2:43 PM on May 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


>string of cliches

Yes, but can't specify more than that.
posted by Listener at 3:22 PM on May 31, 2012


Weird analysis I think: Can't someone be glad she's not anorexic anymore and still think the institution she was sent to to recover was fucked up? Many hospitals are fucked up for many reasons. If you survived your disease are you supposed to think your fucked up hospital was awesome? The two points of view don't even seem to be contradictory at all.

It's a...complicated subject, and while ED may be a product of society's fucked up take on appearance and gender and who knows what else, it's also a super dangerous fucked up thing that can kill you so hard. I am generally an admirer of Laurie Penny's writing, but I took a mental step away when I got to all the stuff about the hospital and the agenda of "curing" anorexic girls, etc., because I know there are bad doctors and jerk doctors and doctors who are just basically not people who should be doctoring but I also know that anorexic people are way better off when they are not starving themselves to death and that talking them through this stuff can be kind of like wandering through a house of mirrors and shit where at the end you're the crazy one after all! but they are the ones who are still dying. It is complicated precisely because just because you're sick doesn't mean just anyone can treat you, but that there are people who practice bad medicine doesn't mean that the illness isn't an illness. It is all bad mojo and contemplating it makes me feel very much out of my depth, to be honest, but I am not convinced the narrator of any such story can ever be considered 100% reliable. And I know that sounds all "Yellow Wallpaper" and shit and I'm sorry, but fucking hell, it's not just political oppression that makes people look askance at an adult who weighs like seventy pounds or whatever.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 4:35 PM on May 31, 2012 [2 favorites]


I love this article. I found reading it to be incredibly cathartic - I really needed this right now. I found it to be a coherent synthesis of many thoughts and impressions I've been having for a long time, and it is a relief to hear someone else express them.

We need to talk about the game, because that way everyone understands the rules. If you don't talk about the game, then one day you might find out that you had been playing the rules not quite the right way, and this handicapped you, and other people who were more successful did notice that you weren't playing by the rules even though you thought you were, but they didn't mention it.

The game is to be not who you are, but who others tell you to be. And she's right - when you get rid of all the masks, sometimes you find just a blank suface. It's a lot of work to keep up appearances. Cultivating yourself and your personality might be on the list, but it can be hard to make it a priority. Why work on something that only sees the light of day with maybe your one best friend?

Aside re: anorexia in this article: it is perfectly coherent for her to be glad that she is not now anorexic yet also feel that the doctors at the hospital were unhelpful in treating her for it. At best it sounds like they stabilized her enough so that someone else could help her - stabilization is important, but there are more and less damaging ways to go about it. It sounds like she feels that while they helped her in some respect, they damaged her in others. BUT the main topics and points in the article are not dependent on either you, I or even Laurie Penny understanding her anorexia. To me it came across as, "this episode in my life partially motivates my discussion of this topic."

And, also, we have criticisms of a female doing the work of constructing a coherent identity that incorporates difficult and traumatic episodes of illness and physical trauma? Isn't that part of the point of the article? That such a process doesn't fit into a 40-minute ANTM episode so we invalidate it? I think it might be!
posted by newg at 5:01 PM on May 31, 2012 [6 favorites]


shiu mai baby: "I think the point she's driving at with Beyonce is that her full name is Beyonce Knowles, but she hasn't been commonly referred to as such since, oh, 2003 or so. Same is true for Madonna, who I don't think ever used her surname (Ciccone, for those who don't know) in the public sphere."

Bono. The Edge. Sting. Prince. The Stig.

It isn't a sex-linked thing. It's a celebrity thing. "I don't have a family and a past; I'm a rara avis, a deus ex machina."
posted by IAmBroom at 8:31 PM on May 31, 2012 [8 favorites]


So I'm the only one who read this essay as a string of cliches from 1995 strung together by a woman who clearly has issues with other women? Maybe if she stopped comparing herself to and competing with everyone around her I could read this hut instead she comes across as the insufferable "friend" who specializes in back handed compliments.

It reminded me of all those "edgy" books I read by Elizabeth Wurtzel and Marya Hornbacher and all the other writers that did this kind of thing in the 90s.
posted by discopolo at 9:29 PM on May 31, 2012


I do find it odd that she framed it in that "long, long ago" kind of phrasing, but that might be a subconscious attempt to put some distance between those events

It might also be an attempt to make us put some distance between now and those events putting us in mind of well-worn accounts of psychiatric hospitals, which we might have cause to doubt if we knew she was talking about 2003 rather say 1973 which is the way it comes across. Of particular relevance is that, if Wikipedia is right, that would have likely been in Brighton, a place that is its noted for its tolerance of queerness and gender diversity -- it's home to a large and long established gay community that forms one of the defining characteristics of a place that defines itself through its tolerance. I lived there from 1992 through 2006 and while I can't speak to her experience, in my own encounters with the local mental health care system (which predate this) I found it quite progressive. No doubt it varied but her description just doesn't ring quite right for the time and place.

It's also worth noting (cf the correction and (comments) in this Guardian piece) that she has been a little less than clear when describing her own experiences for journalistic effect.
posted by tallus at 12:24 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


Her shifting opinions aren't (simply) a product of youth; they're unfortunately, in her case, the symptoms of a superficial, second-hand mind.

Laurie Penny, with Richard "Lenny" Seymour is the most visible of the first generation of leftwing public intellectuals who came up through blogging rather than the more traditional media: they both have been evolving their arguments and theory very much in public, much more so than old skool intellectuals dependent on newspaper columns and the occasional book. There is therefore much more material to dismiss either of them as offhandedly as is done here.

Yet I see this happen much more with Penny than with Seymour and it is of course very much a standard dismissal of any female intellectual to accuse them of just being well learned parrots.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:38 AM on June 1, 2012 [2 favorites]


I am generally an admirer of Laurie Penny's writing, but I took a mental step away when I got to all the stuff about the hospital and the agenda of "curing" anorexic girls, etc., because I know there are bad doctors and jerk doctors and doctors who are just basically not people who should be doctoring but I also know that anorexic people are way better off when they are not starving themselves to death

Curing somebody of an eating disorder surely doesn't need enforced adherence to traditional images of femininity though, does it, as Penny tells happened to her?
posted by MartinWisse at 12:42 AM on June 1, 2012 [1 favorite]


I found this to be a hodge-podge of interesting talking points that dragged each other down without weaving into any sort of coherent narrative. One could look at a number of the issues she touched on from the opposite direction:

- The possibility that women use make-up mostly to impress other women (i.e. their direct competitors). If there is an "us" that is being oppressed, maybe we are the ones doing the oppressing as well.
- The fact that names and races are the ultimate masks--thrust on us by our parents and our genes before we've even developed an identity. As such, they're the last thing I would disparage a person for altering or toying with.

Ultimately, I think this essay failed for a reason intimately linked with the point it was (or should have been) trying to make: women are all so different that to write an essay about them to the exclusion of men is to try to jam them into a box in which they just won't fit.
posted by mantecol at 8:07 AM on June 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


This is an essay I would have LOVED discussing with my late mother. We cashed constantly over clothes! I think clothes can be for mothers and daughters a lot like sports are for fathers and sons, a place where a parent wants to
make their child be like themselves only somehow better. Non-conforming adolescents are being perfectly normal in our culture. This gets expressed with clothing pretty often, the hippy thing, the punk thing, the cos-play thing, SCA types, but there is an expected break-off point at which one is expected to start conforming and get a job already.
To the extent one refuses to go along with some part if this program, whether it's religious preference, body issues or sheer dislike of present fashions foisted on us all, you will be made to pay a price. This goes for all social groupings.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 10:26 AM on June 1, 2012 [4 favorites]


I sent this link to my sister, who just doesn't get that I care more about what people think of my brain and heart than my outward appearance. Thank [The Deity of my Choice] that my Mom finally gets it.
posted by luckynerd at 2:06 PM on June 1, 2012


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