Chris Roper

Mixed messages

2009-04-17 11:48

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Chris Roper

Four things struck me yesterday. Five, if you count the bug that hit me in the eye on account of not having my helmet visor down while riding home.

These things were: an article by Scarlett Johansson about how much it sucks reading about all the weight you've lost; the April issue of French Elle, which features celebrity women without makeup; the furore over Susan Boyle, the Frump Fatale of reality tv; and the cover of South African Cosmopolitan's 25th Anniversary issue.

Let's take them one at a time. On The Huffington Post, Johansson writes wittily and trenchantly about media coverage of celebs' weight issues.

Talking about articles that claim she's lost 14 pounds, she writes "If I were to lose 14 pounds, I'd have to part with both arms. And a foot. I'm frustrated with the irresponsibility of tabloid media who sell the public ideas about what we should look like and how we should get there."

We've all had these thoughts before. Do women's magazines do more harm than good? On the one hand, you're given advice about how to improve your self-esteem and life skills. On the other (chubbier) hand, you're told (implicitly or explicitly) that it's better to be thin, and how to achieve that (you can count the effective ways on one finger, apparently).

A simplistic analysis, but let's go with it. Johansson also refers to the real, practical effect that these "aspiration" articles can have. "I would be absolutely mortified to discover that some 15-year-old one of these 'articles' and decided she wasn't going to eat for a couple of weeks so she too could 'crash diet' and look like Scarlett Johansson."

Talent trumps beauty

A quick segue to Elle magazine. According to Yahoo, "the April issue of French Elle features eight female European celebrities... all without makeup and, perhaps even more revealing, all entirely without Photoshopping or retouching of any kind. The mag's headline 'Stars Sans Fards' translates to 'without rouge/makeup', but it's a French saying that also suggests a sense of 'openness'."

The Yahoo article asks this question of magazine editors. "The next time you're shooting Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Lopez, Halle Berry, Aniston, SJP, Alba, or basically anyone we've seen you airbrush into a complete, unrecognisable freak; pause, take a deep breath, and ask yourself, 'Would this person look more beautiful and relatable without all this fake garbage?'"

Well, that question is answered in two ways, by the Susan Boyle story, and by the cover of Cosmo.

For those of you who've missed the Susan Boyle thing, basically, a frumpy 47-year-old appears on the reality tv show Britain's Got Talent, and after being sniggered at, blows away the judges and audience by singing some crap song from a musical.

What we're supposed to believe here, is that looks don't matter if you're talented. That if you're ordinary-looking, you can still be a star.

Although from the way the media has rhapsodised over Boyle's miraculous ascension to the firmament of boring singers, you'd think she was a one-eyed hunchback with a small windmill mysteriously growing out of her head.

Cinderella transformation

She looks perfectly ordinary and pleasant, but the myth demands that she go through a Cinderella transformation. And it's the transformation bit that counts - she's not going to stay frumpy and be a star, she's going to be transformed from her present state into something better. That's the dream.

The cover of Cosmo's 25th Anniversary magazine is the final piece in the argument I'm constructing. It features, not a human woman with all the airbrushed allure that we know Cosmo is capable of, but a silhouette of a model, drawn in white against a red background.

It's as if Cosmo has attained a plane of higher media consciousness here. Since we all know exactly what a Cosmo cover girl looks like, they don't even need to show her anymore. Cosmo readers are entirely capable of filling in the missing woman - they've been taught a Cosmo language that they all speak with unthinking fluency.

Which is one of the things that makes Cosmopolitan the example of what a great magazine must be - a universe unto itself, inhabited by people who are all part of the same society, and understand how that closed society works. (On that note - you can actually befriend the imaginary cover model on her Facebook profile, or follow her on Twitter. Who would have guessed that Cosmo would be one of the leaders in taking SA women's magazines into a Web 2.0 world?)

Where are we going with these examples, you ask? Here: it's impossible for people to have dreams and aspirations without something to aim for. Johansson is right when she laments the damaging falsity of media reports about how she becomes the Scarlett woman. Yahoo is correct to call for more "ordinary celebrities" in magazines, at least in the ideological sense. People are right to laud Susan Boyle's battle to be special, and Cosmo are right to strut their arrogance with an icon for a cover girl.

We need dream girls

But how do we understand these things without their converse - the impossibly gorgeous celebrity, the immaculate singer, and, not to put too fine a point on it, Scarlett Johansson? We can't.

We need the dream girls, but what we don't need is magazines that lie about how easy it is to become one of them, and that spend as much time exposing pimples of the stars as they do lying about the accessibility of skinny stardom.

Chris Roper blogs on Follow me on Twitter @ChrisRoperZA.

  • Catch up with Chris Roper and Alistair Fairweather at's blogging workshop this weekend.

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