American Culture

Even better than the real thing: mass media and manufactured beauty

Give me one last dance
We’ll slide down the surface of things

You’re the real thing
Yeah the real thing
You’re the real thing
Even better than the real thing

I figured out a long time ago, even before I began encountering grad-level feminist critiques, that our media’s stylized construction and portrayal of female beauty was problematic. It’s bad enough that unattractive people don’t appear in movies, on TV or in magazines unless the narrative expressly requires someone unattractive, and sometimes even that isn’t enough. I mean, the star of Ugly Betty isn’t really ugly.

But it goes beyond this. It’s not just that we’re only shown pretty people. It’s not just that we fetishize youth and beauty in all things. It’s that we have now passed the point when natural beauty suffices. Jean Baudrillard talks about the simulacrum, the hyperreal, the artificial representation that has no real-world referent. If that’s a little too academic for you, think about a couple popular rock songs you’ve probably encountered.

The first is U2’s “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” quoted above, which pays cynical homage to “the surface of things.” In the age of the simulacrum the surface is all that matters, and the upshot is an obsession with the superficial – he thinks she’s the real thing, but on reflection he decides that she’s “even better than the real thing.”

If you think Bono wasn’t fucking with you when he wrote those lines, you’re not paying attention.

Where U2 opted for subtlety and irony, the second song’s author was more aggressive in his statement of the issue:

I am the jigsaw
Man I turn the
World around
With a skeleton hand say –
I am electric head a cannibal core a
Television said
Yeah do not victimize
Read the mother
Fucker-psychoholic lies –
Into a psychic war I
Tear my soul
Apart and I
Eat it some more

More Human Than Human
More Human Than Human
More Human Than Human
More Human Than Human
More Human Than Human
More Human Than Human

I am the ripper
Man a locomotion
Mind love American
Style yeah I am
The Nexus One I
Want more life
Fucker I ain’t
Done – yeah

More Human Than Human
More Human Than Human
More Human Than Human
More Human Than Human
More Human Than Human
More Human Than Human

The songwriter is Rob Zombie, a man with a fascination for human horror. The “Nexus One” line references the first generation of replicants from Blade Runner, and the song takes its title and refrain from the motto of the Tyrell Corporation, which manufactures workers, military models and pleasure cyborgs that are “more human than human.” Zombie’s imagery is pointed: “cannibal,” “a Television said,” “victimize,” “psychoholic lies,” “psychic war,” “I Tear my soul Apart and I Eat it some more…” Humanity is engaged in a fatal, self-consuming, psychic civil war that’s bound to lead to its own destruction. And of course, the revolution will be televised.

In the world of Electric Head, humanity is inferior, obsolete.

Neither Baudrillard, Bono, Zombie nor Ridley Scott are talking about the future. They’re talking about the present, a present that’s at least a generation old at this point.

Playmate of the Year

Let me tell you a little story.

I worked in radio back in the ’80s after I graduated from college. WSEZ, Z-93 FM, serving Winston-Salem, Greensboro, High Point and the greater North Carolina Triad region. My main jobs were copywriter and production director, but I also did a regular morning show comedy feature where I played a variety of characters, including the hyper-obnoxious Rasche Dipstique. It was fun, brain-dead stuff, and not a bad first job out of college.

This is where I was working in 1986 when Greensboro native Donna Edmondson was named Playboy‘s Playmate of the Month for November (she was later named Playmate of the Year for 1987). Donna was doing a promotional media tour and had booked a stop on the Z-93 morning show. The Program Director came to me and said he thought Rasche should do the interview. Hmmm. “Hey, 25 year-old single guy, want to interview the Playmate of the Month?”

Uhhh, okay, if you insist.

The day of the interview arrives, and all goes more or less according to plan. Donna was gracious enough to play along with my idiot-on-steroids act and everyone was happy (except the girls who worked in the office, of course). After the interview was over there was some kind of delay – I think maybe her agent had dropped her off, went to run an errand, and was late getting back to ferry her to the next appearance – so I got to talk to her for maybe a half-hour. During this conversation I was struck by a couple things.

First, Donna was being marketed for her looks, but she was actually a pretty bright woman with serious career aspirations in real estate.

Second, Donna was in fact pretty, but she couldn’t hold a candle to the girl in the magazine. Not even close. The woman in the centerfold spread was staggering in every way, a veritable tour de force of feminine perfection. On a 10-point scale she was a solid 14. The real Donna, on the other hand, was … merely pretty. If she’d walked past a line of fraternity boys on a Spring day she’d have gotten mostly 8s, with a 9 or two and probably a 7 from the guy on the end trying to prove how cool he was. But no 14s.

Donna Edmondson – the Nexus One version – was, as Bono might put it, even better than the real thing.

I knew about airbrushing, of course, but up until that moment had never run up against it in person, and the effect was unsettling. Over the next few weeks and months I thought about the implications. A lot of guys bought Playboy (for the articles, of course), and it occurred to me that these men were calibrating their meters according to the image of beauty they saw in those pages. That was what they wanted, what they dreamed of, what they fantasized about, and it wasn’t hard to imagine a guy who’d seen one layout too many growing dissatisfied with the real women he knew. He might be involved with a legitimately pretty woman, but he couldn’t help being aware of the fact that she was … sub-par.

Still, it’s one thing when the real women you know aren’t as pretty as the women in the magazine. It’s quite another when the women in the magazine don’t stack up against the women in the magazine. We all wanted the perfect 10, but thanks to the magic of image editing the bar had been set artificially high. The perfect 10 was represented not by the most beautiful woman in the world (who might be theoretically attainable, because she actually existed) but by an artificially enhanced version of that woman that didn’t exist at all.

More human than human.

Building the Nexus One

Some of you may not have face-to-face experience with the simulacrum. If not, it’s instructive to know how it all happens. We’ve come a long way since the days of humble airbrush, of course – it’s just amazing what a skilled artist can do with Photoshop. Below are a few videos that are frankly a little disturbing, but before we get to them, let’s start with a bit of context.

In 1989 Bill Moyers did a four-part documentary series called The Public Mind. Particularly compelling was the second part of the series, “Consuming Images.” In it he talks to a variety of media scholars about the ascendance of the image in American life, and it’s hard to walk away from the program without serious concerns over our inability to parse the pictures we’re being shown. People with corrosive agendas – commercial, political and otherwise – have grown quite adept at using the image to bypass rational discussion, and the result is that these cynical forces are routinely accomplishing goals in ways they’d never manage if they were restricted to the mere word.

Here’s a clip from “Consuming Images,” and while it’s all illuminating, I especially call your attention to the Neil Postman segment that begins around the 4:30 mark, in which he notes that we don’t have the intellectual tools for evaluating the truth or falsity of images. In the sequence that follows, we see up close and personal how ad agencies at that point in time were transforming the real into the unreal.

Now, let’s see how it’s done in 2008. First, the perfect lie.

Not convinced? Well, have a look at Extreme Makeover: Photoshop Edition:

Hey guys, would you buy this woman a drink in a bar?

At least Dove Soap is working to do something about the plague of artificial beauty, right?

If you want to take a skeptical dig or two at what Dove is actually up to here, be my guest. Dove is manufactured by Unilever, a company that seems intent on promoting brands with healthy images. But their portfolio includes Axe body spray and Slim-Fast, two brands that are most assuredly not about come-as-you-are. So draw your own conclusions.

Love in the Age of Surfaces

You’re not good enough. Neither is he or she. Salvation is available at a store or salon near you. Money should be no object.

We need to cultivate the intellectual capacity to see an image and ask ourselves “is this true?” If we were told “X will make 46% of all women you meet want to ravish you in the nearest elevator,” that would represent a claim that we could, and would certainly want to, test. But when we see a picture of a guy hosing himself down with body spray and then having to beat the chicks off with a stick our critical faculties go limp.

Hopefully, after reading all this, you’ve begun to suspect that it’s not just about entertainment. It’s not just innocent salesmanship. The pervasive pandering of artificial reality matters because the brain is physically altered by input. We literally change in response to external stimuli, and if your sense of your own personal appearance is calibrated according to an artificial standard your self-esteem can’t help suffering, with very real consequences for your very real life.

If your understanding of how people are supposed to look is dictated by what you see on TV and in magazines, how hard is it going to be to find happiness with a mate who is comparatively ugly?

And I won’t even get into how our political landscape is twisted by the ravages of image advertising (although Moyers does, and I encourage you to watch every second of “Consuming Images,” all of which I think is on YouTube).

There’s this phrase floating around the culture these days: keep it real. While it’s often used as a sort of anti-intellectual code, there are some ways in which it’s not bad advice. For starters, it may not be you that needs the extreme makeover. It may be your TV.

New York Bangkok Rome L.A.
All the saints came out to play
High on blow and drunk on Tuscan wine

Can’t remember what was said
But she knows they need her dead
Hiding in her suite at the Hotel Palestine

Beauty’s on the run
Everybody wants some
Can’t get away from the songs they write about her

She’s slower than yesterday
But beauty’s on the run
Haunted by the girl who wished this life upon her

There in silks our lady goes
Sacred face and a life exposed
Burned a generation to the ground

I’m up top where we said goodbye
Thinking of an alibi
I wasn’t there when beauty came around

Beauty’s on the run
Everybody wants some
Can’t get away from the songs they write about her

She’s slower than yesterday
But beauty’s on the run
Haunted by the girl who wished this life upon her

Thanks to Louise Hills for pointing me toward some of the video resources used above.

26 replies »

  1. Pingback: www.buzzflash.net
  2. Wonderful article Sam.
    My brother-in-law is getting married and Robin is probably 20,000 over Kansas on the way to her future-sister-in-law’s shower. The bride was discussing how she set everyone in the bridle party up to have makeup done. Robin put her foot down and said “Sarah sweetie, I love you, but I didn’t wear makeup for my own wedding day. I haven’t worn it ever, except once when I was forced to for Band. I was incredibly uncomfortable then, and I really don’t want to be incredibly uncomfortable for my brother’s wedding. It doesn’t “have” to be that way for the pictures; my wedding pictures are my favorite pictures of me, ever.”

    Man, I love that woman. She’s set to do a little “deprogramming” while she’s there. And as a guy who is head-over-heals in love with his wife I’ve just got to say: I don’t want her in the centerfold of a magazine. I don’t want a representation of how she “ought” to be. I want her and nothing standing between our true selves. I want her in the centerfold of my life! [My apologies; I get corny and poetic when expressing affection for my wife and family]

    One of my favorite short stories ever is called “Liking What You See: A Documentary” by Ted Chiang. It ponders how society and people deal with the opportunity to not be able to perceive human beauty. Remind me to lend it to you when I see you next week.

  3. Thanks for the testimonial. One of the things I have always loved about living in Colorado is that the women here wear less makeup than I’ve seen anywhere else in the nation. I grew up in the South, where there are women who sneak out of bed before their men are awake so they can put their faces on. I dated one woman for quite awhile once and NEVER saw her actual face. I suspect this isn’t uncommon.

    Out here a lot of women don’t seem to give a damn. There’s an emphasis on eating well and exercising and fuck the makeup and I love it.

  4. My nephew was a chef at the Playboy mansion for many years. I got a full tour.

    They all looked pretty good to me :-).

  5. Cure: Just stop watching TV and reading glossy magazines. It’s simple, like giving up salt: after a while salty food is unpalatable. On the few occasions I see ads, say at the movies or when forced to by some dumb website, the falsity and artificiality are risibly obvious. Everyone smiles, showing perfect white teeth, while doing the washing up or visiting grandad who has Alzheimer’s. Leggy young things with low-cut blouses give the come-on to passing young men—when in real life every woman knows to avoid any but the briefest eye contact with males. Great-shape old-timers frolic on the beach laughing at nothing—in a way that would get them sectioned in the real world. You know the sort of thing. So I do sometimes wonder: if you believe that sort of thing, were you that bright to begin with? Or have I been living without ads so long I can’t understand why people get taken in by them?

  6. Diodorus: I’m not sure where your cave is located, but if it’s in America and you do anything besides stare at the wall all day you probably encounter in excess of a couple thousand advertising messages of some sort every day.

    Many of these involve representations of the physical. I don’t doubt your critical faculties – they’re probably as cynical as mine are, from the sound of things – but to suggest that you’re simply unaffected is to suggest that you’re physiologically not human. At the VERY least you’re expending a lot of energy simply fighting the battle, even if you’re winning it.

    Be honest: when Postman asks about the McDonald’s ad, “is it true?” had you ever even thought about it that way before? I know I hadn’t.

  7. Botox treatments are being increasingly used by TV personalities. Yet Botox makes people completely expressionless. This is another area where fake is becoming better than “real.” Looking beautiful is more important than having feeling. The ultimate ideal; souless beauty.

  8. Yes, Patches, Botox and cosmetic surgery scrub the personality out of people’s faces. I scratch my head over how willing actors are to erase physical features that are their calling cards.

    For example, I was disappointed when actress Melinda Clarke (best known as Julie Cooper on “The OC”), with her trademark heavy-lidded sultriness, had her eyes done. Eyelids rolled up like a window-shade in the daytime, she looked as bright-eyed as an ingenue. Sexiness-wise, she thus fell back to the pack.

  9. Russ:

    On camera actors actually tend to use very little facial expression, and especially movie actors who appear in theaters with their eyeballs ten feet high.

    There are notable (and often wonderful) exceptions, but the’re pretty rare, really.

  10. The photographs we have created in such numbers, “often seem to overwhelm us. Image makers counter by increasing the intensity (of the photo). Nowhere is this more potent, than in advertising’s appropriation of the photograph.” Bill Moyers.

    Advertising’s appropriation of the photograph? What the hell? Way overdone to the point of being its own lie. But that’s only one silly thing in Moyer’s piece. My issue is not with the Moyer’s thing specifically, rather the imagined effect of advertising on our people, and the culture we create that’s reflected in Moyer’s piece, and in your words.

    Sam, you know I really admire the way you write. But I’ve got to argue this point you’re making … the sense of the effect of the advertising world. It’s really got me going … I’ve got to go mow the yard first. Maybe calm down a bit.

    I’ll come back to finish this if the Gatorade replenishes my precious bodily fluids, and if the Toro mower indeed starts on the first three pulls, and if my hair doesn’t flop into place in the right manner that will attract all sorts of beautiful women, and if my car doesn’t repel them, and if I can resist splashing myself with Axe before mowing …

  11. Hopefully after mowing the yard you’ll be sure not to accuse me of endorsing an effects model. Because we both know that advertising, like anything else, works (or doesn’t work) in a more complex cultural context.

  12. There is just so much one could say about the imagined effect of advertising on our people and our culture, issues ranging from victim mentality to the college so-called “critical thinkers” who would save us all from the evil advertising people.

    I’ll keep it short. Mowing the yard pretty much tuckered me out.

    First … I worked in advertising for more than a decade. Taught it for the same number of years at university. I know how these things work.

    Second … on the imagined effect of advertising. If we really knew how to manipulate all you people out there, Ford wouldn’t be losing its ass. Ford would be hiring the nastiest, most powerful advertising demon possible, and they’d make you buy a damned truck. Do you want a truck? I thought not. Advertising cannot make people buy things they don’t want.

    Third … advertising models of good looking aspects of the face and body are just that. Models. I feel sorry for the very few (but very media-highlighted) people who believe that these are good and true images. They are not, and those people who believe so should have a good talking to by their parents. Friends should intervene. Concerned people should not waste their time blaming advertising, they should provide care for their friend … and find help for the real problem.

    Fourth … people decide on their own actions. To blame advertising is to fail to assume the responsibility of being a self-directed adult in this world. Advertising did that to you? Do tell.

    Fifth … whooooo (scary sound) … could it be subliminal? No. We’ve shown that subliminal advertising, though it can exist, does not have any effect.

    Sixth … whooooo (scary sound again, with hint of conspiracy) … maybe it just kind of dirties up the environment in a way that you can’t avoid it and it just kind of builds and eventually it seems to be that all the things you see in advertising really are right and true. This is the so-called critical thinker stance, and is really silly. See Third and Fourth above. Any reasonable human being knows advertising is not a right and true representation of the world. Even the Supreme Court says this is so.

    We operate our society based on the notion that we are populated by reasonable human beings, generally able to sift truth from lies, generally able to see advertising for what it is. The idea that one would actually believe advertising to represent the full truth of things is not the act of a reasonable mind. The idea that one would try to shape one’s self-image based on what one sees in advertising is not the act of a reasonable mind.

    Advertising did not crazy-up these isolated individuals who do believe these things. They were vulnerable long before advertising entered their lives. Much in the way that a neighbor may express who they are by the organization and care of their garden, some people use advertising as a tool by which they express themselves. In some cases this is a bad choice, but advertising did not cause the harm to the psyche.

    I’m even more tired now than when I began. I hate this discussion, but need to enter it occasionally just because the record needs to be set a bit more straight than when I encountered it.

    Thanks for your patience,

    greg stene

  13. Second … on the imagined effect of advertising. If we really knew how to manipulate all you people out there, Ford wouldn’t be losing its ass. Ford would be hiring the nastiest, most powerful advertising demon possible, and they’d make you buy a damned truck. Do you want a truck? I thought not. Advertising cannot make people buy things they don’t want.

    Nobody here is arguing for a strong effects model and you know it. Nobody is saying there’s a magic bullet. You have to be daft to believe there is. However, you also have to be silly to believe that what we see, what we experience, what we encounter has NO effect on us. We KNOW that we are shaped by stimuli, especially the stimuli that define our social contexts and that we are exposed to over time. We know that our neural pathways are wired and rewired by sensory inputs, that we physically becomes different animals in response to stimuli.

    I’m describing a long-term cultural conditioning dynamic. You’re accusing me of describing something that had been pretty much discredited by the ’60s.

    Third … advertising models of good looking aspects of the face and body are just that. Models. I feel sorry for the very few (but very media-highlighted) people who believe that these are good and true images. They are not, and those people who believe so should have a good talking to by their parents. Friends should intervene. Concerned people should not waste their time blaming advertising, they should provide care for their friend … and find help for the real problem.

    Friends are intervening – that’s what this post is. The point is that while people know the models are models, I doubt the extent of the unreality is widely understood.

    Fifth … whooooo (scary sound) … could it be subliminal? No. We’ve shown that subliminal advertising, though it can exist, does not have any effect.

    Would you point to where I suggested that this is about subliminal?

    We operate our society based on the notion that we are populated by reasonable human beings, generally able to sift truth from lies, generally able to see advertising for what it is. The idea that one would actually believe advertising to represent the full truth of things is not the act of a reasonable mind. The idea that one would try to shape one’s self-image based on what one sees in advertising is not the act of a reasonable mind.

    You know, if I take this argument to its logical conclusion, it almost justifies PT Barnum, doesn’t it? Okay, people are responsible for not getting duped. Not that this is all that relevant to the argument that I’m making, but I’ll play along. Are those on the receiving end of the communication the only ones in the loop that bear responsibility, or do the communicators, the purveyors of the message, also have some sort of social, moral obligation not to lie?

  14. Greg,
    If advertising doesn’t work, why would for-profit companies spend millions of dollars on it? Yes, it doesn’t work on all people, but it works on enough people. To define these people as “abnormal” in some way is irrelevant.

  15. Aside from the beauty myth of advertising, what would you say about the fear in it, Greg? How do you explain drug ads? Making people ask their dr about a drug they don’t know anything about, including what it even is supposed to be curing? Why do we need 15 drug ads in an hour time slot for the nightly news? Why do we need them in every single magazine and billboards? Why not spend the money on making them and airing them on research, or to help lower the costs?

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