Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Analyzing Celebrity Flaws- Good or Bad?

In an article in Sunday's New York Times, Virginia Heffernan criticized our obsession with scrutinizing celebrity beauty, contrasting the prevalence of blogs and websites that allow anonymous readers to analyze every aspect of a star's visage with the practices of old Hollywood media. In the old days, there was an unspoken understanding that the media would help protect the secrets of the beauties that graced their pages, and the public was never given a glimpse into how these stars really looked.

Eventually, someone realized that consumers were far more interested in seeing celebrities at their worst than looking their best, and gave up on protecting the celebrities. With the widespread availability of high-speed internet access, it's nearly impossible to prevent a damaging photo from being uploaded onto millions of computers within hours of its release.

In her article, Heffernan seems to long for the days when actresses were mysterious, their incredible beauty undeviating and unreachable, while we treat today's starlets like specimens to be examined and dissected ("a brow lift here, a boob job there"). The Marilyn's and Ava's and Joan's existed in a fantasy world separate from our own, while the public breakdowns of Lindsay, Paris and Britney highlight that the rich and famous are human like the rest of us (and sometimes make even bigger mistakes).

Initially after reading the piece, I agreed with this analysis. There's no mystery to celebrities anymore, as they're more than willing to expose themselves (emotionally and physically) to the public for a short turn in the spotlight. We know their diet, beauty and relationship secrets. Celebrity interviews often resemble therapy sessions, with Oprah and Barbara Walters showing us the way into a celebrity's soul. Maybe a little fantasy, leaving something to the imagination, would be nice.

But then I considered how empowering it is to know that these gorgeous women aren't naturally flawless. As women, we understand that these starlets represent society's standard of beauty, and that we're constantly being compared to their airbrushed, surgically-enhanced faces. Knowing that these women barely resemble their photographed selves when they're without makeup somehow makes the pressure a little more bearable.

I think it also has a positive effect on men, who are so often totally oblivious to the fact that the woman in the Maxim spread doesn't look that hot when she rolls out of bed every morning. Even guys who don't read celebrity blogs and magazines can't escape the paparazzi images, and eventually it might set in that the photographs lie, and they can't compare every woman to a photoshopped model in a men's magazine.

I'm conflicted on what's better, the way we viewed and understood celebrities in the Golden Age of Hollywood, or the age of Perez Hilton. What do you think?


Angela said...

I think a lot of it has to do with the sheer number of images. In the '50s, celebrities weren't exposed to the degree that they are now, good OR bad. It was easy to think of Marilyn Monroe in fantasy terms because it wasn't like you saw her every time you turned on the television or stood in line at the grocery store. Now, with glossy magazines and TV shows making celebrities appear "normal", it's almost necessary for us to have these reminders that they don't always look perfect, and that we don't always have to look perfect, too.

Annie said...

First of all, I think we need to realize that the star-machine of old Hollywood was very different than today. Back then, the studios would "create" their stars, women and men, with lessons in poise, diction, movement, and voice, which they were also given endless beauty treatments: hair dying and cutting, eyebrows shaped, facials, manicures, exercise regimens...and most prominently: name changing. Names needed to be catchy, demonstrative, alluring, and not-too-ethnic...

Then, you would be at the beck and call of any director who needed someone to fill a role until you made your bones as a leading actor. Sometimes this stock of talent was referred to as the "stable." This is how most of our Hollywood icons made it...

Old Hollywood knew that image and fantasy were everything to keep people coming in for entertainment. But let's think about it, other than radio - where else but the movies would you go to escape? Therefore the stars lost their individuality by signing on the dotted line. This wasn't just a physical image, mind, it was also a moral issue: stars that may have had a less-than-press-worthy private relationship (extramarital affair? drug habit? homosexuality?) were also covered up.

Obviously, this was very difficult for most people to live with, but the studios had an army of PR-people who would do the spinning should something go wrong.

At the same time, the stars found that they were completely different people when not "made up" by the studio. Joan Crawford had freckles, Rita Hayworth was really a brunette, so was Lucille Ball, AND Marilyn Monroe. Although she kept her platinum hair, when Marilyn Monroe moved to New York to study with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, she found that if she simply went out without makeup that most people didn't even recognize her. The fact is, the studio-machine made stars so hyper-real that their "real life" (real looks, etc.) was so very normal when it was revealed. The studio built a person for the public, but that person was really a different from those they played in films.

Today, I think we are taught to "identify" with characters and the actors who play them, and we have this proprietary sense about the whole thing. It's a bit strange. Why take an offended tone when you find out that so-and-so had their knees lifted, or has less than perfect skin tone? What do they "owe" us? And why be nit-picky and mean? Personally, I avoid those celebrity sites and style criticisms because they all just seem so mean-spirited. People aren't perfect, and Hollywood no longer has the massive image-network that it used to have. Actors are real people; I hate it when someone pulls me apart piece by piece - why is it okay to do to a celebrity?

Elizabeth said...

There was a really interesting article in SELF a long while ago, analyzing the type of make-up men found most attractive. On the same model, they took a picture of several different make-up looks and asked the men for what they liked best.

What they found wasn't too surprising: the majority of men liked the woman who was wearing a full face of light make-up (foundation, blush, 2 shades of eyeshadow, eyeliner, mascara, lipliner, lipstick, and gloss all in light, semi-neutral shades) but then SELF went the extra mile and broke it down by *why* the men liked the look best. And the jaw-dropper was: the majority of the men thought the full face of make-up looked the most "natural".

It's funny, we think so much about how unattainable beauty standards drive women to extremes (for good reasons: anorexia and other disorders are very attention-worthy) sometimes we forget than men are saturized with these images too.

Jessica said...

I agree that it can be refreshing, even satisfying, to see that celebrities have physical flaws. It's comforting to know that these women (and men) aren't always "on." They have every top-of-the-line beauty product at their disposal, not to mention an entire team of make-up artists, hair stylists, and trainers to make them look their best at almost all times. Thus, when there's a visible pimple or a bit of cellulite peeking through their otherwise perfect veneers, it's relieving to us mere mortals because it brings the "stars" down to Earth.

However, I do believe that the physical scrutiny of celebrities has gotten a bit out of control. Tabloids no longer only comment on acne or weight gain. Now, tabloids and gossip blogs make snarky remarks about knobby knees, hairy arms, dry feet, "deflated" boobs, and flat butts. I recently was reading a blog that published pictures of Mandy Moore in a bikini and the comments that many people made were appalling. They called her fat, pale, flat chested, etc. and whenever someone wrote in saying that she looked good and/or normal and healthy, others would make disparaging remarks toward the commenter, insinuating that they were probably chubby themselves.

It's sad that our collective standard of beauty has become so homogenized, and that anyone outside of that very narrow box is immediately dismissed and/or insulted and scrutinized to the nth degree.

Rebekah said...

"Now, with glossy magazines and TV shows making celebrities appear 'normal', it's almost necessary for us to have these reminders that they don't always look perfect, and that we don't always have to look perfect, too."

Well said, Angela! Meg's older post about plastic surgery startled me--- it had never occurred to me that Halle Berry or Angelina Jolie might have had plastic surgery. Even I, a thinking, sensibly-skeptical young woman, had turned gullible after seeing thousands of gorgeous photos.

I don't blame celebrities for wanting to look as beautiful as humanly/superhumanly possible, but I think every man, woman, and child needs to know that show business is full of illusion and Photoshop.

I don't want to be too GRAPHICALLY disillusioned, though; please, no more crotch shots and photos of cellulite! Let's have some decency, eh? =)

tmp00 said...

I think the article was leaving out some facts.

While there were far less of them, even during the heyday of Joan and Ava and Marilyn there were scandal rags like "Confidential" whose stock-in-trade were nasty articles with unflattering pictures. We have more outlets and more technology now; if there were cell-phone cameras and the internet in 1950 there would have been a lot more bad pictures of those ladies out there.

Also, I don't believe that Ms. Gardner used hooks to hoist her face up: I am sure that she in her later years used the common procedure of using elastic and tapes (parodied on an episode of AbFab) that one hid under a wig. Crawford did the same in the 60's.

Also, Joan had freckles, not acne. There are candid photos of her out there with her then father-in-law Doug Fairbanks that show this. Like most stars of her era, she was very careful to almost never be seen in public without looking camera-ready: dressed to the teeth and with perfect make-up and hair. She quipped about it: "If you want to see the girl next door, go next door"

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

am fascinated by Old Hollywood, so perhaps my opinion is biased, but I much prefer the old system. There's classiness inherent in restraint. I'm bright enough to figure out that everyone has their pecadillos and imperfections - I don't need to see an expose on Pammy's breast size, or yet another picture of Lindsay's lady parts to know that they're just as human as the rest of us. Like cosmetics campaigns, I want the promise of the idealized and aspirational, not the crassness that I deal with on a daily basis. I don't my stars to be accessible - I want them to be bigger-than-life.

There's a certain degree of safety in a carefully cultivated celebrity image as well. Stars couldn't "be themselves" when in the public eye, but at least there could be a distinct split between their private selves and their public persona.

knoxwhirled said...

re: men ...

I actually think that heterosexual men are much less critical of women's looks than women themselves. While they might think LiLo is "hott," I think that the vast majority of men don't really expect women to live up to that airbrushed standard of beauty, and are more than happy with a woman who makes a small effort to look attractive and pleasant.

For example, it might be dismaying when a guy doesn't notice a new dress or haircut... but there's a benefit to that too: they pretty much think you looked just as great before.

willikat said...

i think part of the problem is that we analyze celebrities at all. they're actors. although i have the ones i like and don't like.... most of the time, i just don't care about them that much. and if more peopel cared less about them and more about something they could get passionate about.... it would be better. but that said, i think those yesteryear leading ladies were far more glamorous. i do'nt really want to know all the ins and outs. and i don't feel personally satisfied when i see a celeb with cellulite. lastly, i hate that most of hte crimes of celeb criticism come from women. women call mandy moore fat!!!! seriously, ladies. we need more sisterhood than that. we can 't get over those awful stereotypes until we stop perpetrating them on other women.

Anonymous said...

I kind of hate when fashion/gossip magazines and newspapers pick on some celebrity for having cellulite or going out in something they don't think is fashionable or whatever. Mostly because those flaws are my flaws, and in some sense I feel like they're bitching about me ;).

On the one hand, you could see it as them saying that we don't have to live up to this crazy standard of photoshop beauty, because hey, these women have normal issues. On the other hand, the journalists are so catty and spiteful (and, I think, encourage their readers to be so too), that I feel like they're also saying 'if you look like this, then people will think these awful things about you. P.S. buy the cellulite cream advertised on page 87'.

Meg said...

I do think that is important for women and men to know that celebrities aren't flawless. It's very refreshing. And with all the help they do get to look perfect, it seems only fair that we occasionally get to peek through the illusion.

However, a lot of the media exposes the less than ideal features of celebrities in a very mean-spirited way. I think that is awful. Not only do the celebrities not deserve that just for looking human, but also it does send a terrible message to the general public that cellulite, acne, wrinkles, and the rest are not just normal, they're horrific and worthy of scorn.

So, yes to showing flaws, but no to being mean about it.

Sarah Hughes said...

I think that celebrities and media bring a lot of unreality to our realities. We see those air-brushed, hairless bodies and we think that that's the way things should be. While it brings us some relief seeing celebrities at their worst, it also gives a push to our desire for perfection when we see the tabloid pictures and our boyfriend says, "Ew." To the pictures of unmake-uped stars.

Anonymous said...

I would say that it's a product of two things: (1) 24-hour news and its constant need for something to (un)cover, and (2) us... we watch it, or they wouldn't cover it. The funny thing is, I work with a surgeon who performs plastic surgery in Scottsdale (I'm not a surgeon myself), so I have to wonder why with all of the information that's out there nowadays (these people are photographed constantly), why do celebs still feel the need to deny plastic surgery? I read a book (I think it was called "Life, How Entertainment Conquered Reality"), and it said we're more able to conjure up a detailed image of a celebrity than we are of our own loved ones. If that's true, we see how they change over time, so why lie?

Anonymous said...

the problem is most of us are so insecure with our own flaws, that instead of facing them/doing something about them, we knit-pick other people's

[a} said...

A link I found that relates to this post:

Personally, I think devoting my wee free hours to celeb-bashing or celeb-glorifying, etc.... is totally idiotic. Who cares? There is a fine line between entertainment and real-life, and I think tabloids cross the limit.