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The filmmakers of Gia, a movie based on the rise and fall of Gia Marie Carangi, certainly portray her as a princess in a fairytale. They paint the picture of a young, tough working class girl from Philly rising to stardom as the most beautiful woman in the world. And while there might be the messy bits about drugs, AIDS, damaging her relationships with her family, friends and lovers alike, in the end she gets a sort of happily ever after. Maybe not the kind we expect from a traditional fairytale, but a “happy” ending nevertheless.
There may be plenty of “diamonds in the rough” throughout fairytales, but Gia pushes the boundaries of even that forgiving role. She curses (lots), smokes (even more), and uses her sexuality to attract all comers. She has a volatile personality, throws temper tantrums and shoots up heroin. But we can over look all of these “flaws” for one reason: she’s beautiful. If it weren’t for that, we’d cross the street to avoid her, and even then we still might. But as long as you are beautiful, you too can be a princess, even if you are a bisexual, HIV positive, drug using model.
Gia’s tumultuous time at the top of the modeling world doesn’t seem to fit the fairytale pattern. She isn’t particularly kind, or smart, or brave. She doesn’t help others or fight an evil sorcerer. Gia has other ways to get ahead. Her persistence, her ferocity, her heroin. She was at the top. She had people begging her to do shoots with them; she had more money than she had ever dreamed of; she was one of the most recognizable and enviable women in the world. But at the same time she was miserable. She constantly felt that the people closest to her were always leaving, and her violent reactions pushed them further away. She didn’t have a Prince Charming, and her Princess was not as devoted as she was and struggled between her fear of the unknown and her feelings for Gia. And then there were the drugs.
After the death of her boss and mentor, Gia turned to IV heroin as a coping mechanism she was never able to shake. She quickly became stuck in a cycle that refused to let her go until her death from AIDS. She was a success in the modeling world, and she needed to keep going at a breakneck speed to stay at the top. And to keep up that pace she turned to heroin. And the heroin gave her the edge she needed, as long as she kept taking it. She was caught between an outwardly perfect life and her own inward turmoil. Her apparent success and the results of her success were in constant conflict. But, yet again, when all is said and done she was beautiful. And that, the filmmakers argue, is enough.
So what about the ending? Dying of AIDS doesn’t seem to equate with a happily ever after. Cinderella’s skin didn’t fall of her back when her mother tried to hold her dead child. Snow White wasn’t shunned by the people who flocked around her in her glory years. And yet while we are presented with the harsh reality of Gia’s death, we are also given her “own words” from her journal. As she lies emaciated and dying on a hospital bed, we see her as she was, beautiful, flawless, walking away from her own corpse. Her disembodied voice confides in us that, “If I stop today it was still worth it. Even the terrible mistakes that I made and would have unmade if I could. The pains that have burned me and scarred my soul, it was worth it, for having been allowed to walk where I've walked, which was to hell on earth, heaven on earth, back again, into, under, far in between, through it, in it, and above” (Gia).
Here the fairytale is redeemed. There was no prince to save her, no magical cure to restore her to her throne, but her satisfaction with her life and acceptance of her death soften the blow. As she walks away from her deathbed, we see her retuned to her past beauty. And the beauty is what lingers afterwards, overshadowing the drugs, the disease, the death. If she didn’t truly die happily, at least she lived beautifully. And that, we are told, is enough for a happily every after.
So if Gia lived a fairytale life, how do we redefine what success is? Where was her “happily ever after?” If we take her word for it, just being there was Gia’s happily ever after. From the jets shuttling her across Europe to detoxing as an indigent in a clinic, all of it was her fairytale ending. Her journey was her reward. Having had that glimmer of fleeting fame was her success. As a woman, especially as a beautiful one, she was seen as parts, a face, a body, a picture, but not a person. What do people remember about Gia Carangi? She was a model, and she was a junkie. But while some people may mention her dying young from AIDS, or her famously homoerotic photos with Elyssa Linter and a chain-link fence, when you run an internet search for her you see the same images, the same themes, over and over again. A few articles, tributes, biographies. But many, many more pictures. Covershots. Headshots. Cosmo. Vogue.
She reached the top, or what we are supposed to believe the top is anyway. She was there, and despite everything she had to do to get there and everything she endured on the way down, she had “made it.” A “happily ever after”, for a woman, is having been esteemed for beauty, however briefly. In the end, that’s all that matters.
If this is how we define success and happiness, what message do we send to girls and women? Throughout the movie messages about gender, sexuality, and, most importantly, beauty are disseminated. Gia had one constant redeeming quality: her beauty. But her beauty was a double edge sword. It was a marketable trait, a skill for sale. She was praised for it, esteemed for it, but in the end that was all that defined her. She wasn’t a person; she was a collection of sexualized body parts. Crane stated that all women, but especially models, are measured against “standards for female appearance that emphasize physical attributes and sexuality” and are photographed in “images that express hegemonic femininity… in sexualized or demeaning poses” (315). But when we no longer want to look at these bodies, when they no longer fit what society wants, they are discarded. Women are told that when the beauty is gone, so is any inherent worth. Beauty divides a woman into pieces, but without it they are nothing.
What makes a woman a woman is also discussed, and again physical attractiveness plays a key role. Gia is told by her mentor that a woman is a thing of beauty, and her power doesn’t lie in her words, but in her body, her looks. Words from a woman mean nothing, are worth nothing (Gia). Start talking, acting out, getting too loud or too bold or too in-your-face you are put to the side, written off, ignored. In order to have power, give up your identity as a person and be divided up into lips, breasts, legs. You may not be a whole person, but you will exist. If you want a voice, all you have to do is shut your mouth and look pretty.
While all of these ideas and themes may seem contradictory they are by no means unrelated. In fact, it is in this contradiction that we find the root of hegemony. When an idea is important enough to debate, then that idea inherently carries power behind it. While we may argue whether it is right, wrong, good or bad, we are still discussing the same concept as fact. We are still working within a given framework of what this “idea” entails. That’s what gives abstract, nebulous ideas like beauty, success or fairytales clout. Because you can’t pinpoint what they are, what they mean, they have power. Foucault argued that this power is “subjected to constant modifications, continual shifts” and that these shifts lead to the “reutilization of identical formulas for contrary objectives that it also includes” (99-100). Power comes from innumerable sources, conflicting, contradicting, but ultimately saying the same thing and using and reusing the same hackneyed expressions. That is what makes Gia’s fairytale so powerful.
And so we are left with a hodgepodge of different views, theories, beliefs all claiming they are right, they know the real story, they are the truth. But what is the truth? And who does it belong to? Ultimately, we cannot be sure. But these messages, whether we agree, disagree, deride or praise, they have weight. Shifting through all the contradictions we see the same fragments, the same themes, just dressed in different clothes. And as she shifted through her daughter’s journals, Gia’s mother Kathleen softly said, “Always the same story… always different, but always the same” (Gia).
Crane, Diana. “Gender and Hegemony in Fashion Magazines: Women’s Interpretations of Fashion Photographs.” Midwest Sociological Society Fall 1999: 541-564. Rpt. in Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text-Reader. Ed. Gail Dines and Jean M Humez. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2003. 314-332.
Foucault, Michel. “Method.” La Volente de Savior. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1976. Rpt. in History of Sexuality. 92-100.
Gia. 1998. DVD. HBO Home Video.
Ok, I’ll admit it; it’s one of my favorite shows. And yes, I watched several episodes of Grey's Anatomy while writing the last post… but for research only, I swear.
Here's the funny (or really pathetic) thing, though. About 6 hours after I posted "grazed anatomy," my friend sent me a link to the video displayed below. She assumed my title was a reference to the MadTV spoof from a few months ago... nope. So apparently I'm not as cool and witty as I thought. Oh well. I tried.
But even if this video crushed my hopes and dreams (or maybe just dented my ego), it definitely has something to offer. It's smart. It's funny. And a lot of the points they make are valid. Watch it once and laugh (you need to be a fan of both Grey's Anatomy and House to get a lot of the references), but then take a step back and watch it a second time, but now with some critical analysis. See certain themes cropping up? Heteronormativity? Hegemony? Misogyny? Hmmm... makes you think doesn't it.
Still... curse you MadTV for preemptively stealing my thunder. Curse you. Enjoy!
This conflict manifests itself in many ways. We are presented with female characters that are not only beautiful but supposedly incredibly smart. But time and again their skills as surgeons are minimized in favor of prolonged sex scenes and stripteases in scrubs. Pozner argues that TV writes off female intelligence and “when females aren’t [portrayed as] embarrassingly stupid, they are condemned for being smart” (97). It doesn’t matter that these women are obviously brilliant (they couldn’t have gotten into medical school much less become surgeons if they weren’t). What really matters more is their looks, their bodies, those sultry glances across the nurses’ station and the frequent disrobing in the on-call room. Here women are shown as objects, pretty to look at and not much else, and if they happen to be smart, they aren’t smart enough to intimidate anyone, especially McDreamy. We can't have that, can we?
There is also a conflict between the positions these women hold within the hospital and their means to get ahead. In med school they outshone their competition, but here they are lowly interns, the “bottom of the surgical food chain,” and they have to work their way back to the top if they want to participate in surgeries and gain praise and success in their field. Yet more often than not it’s their bodies that get them ahead, not their minds. Ouellette states that this attitude intrinsically connects female sexuality to “upward mobility… linked to the cultural codes of the working class prostitute” (123). In order to get something you want you have to give something to those in positions of power, and the people in those positions are overwhelmingly men. Meredith sleeps with McDreamy and gets preferential treatment. Christina has a tryst with Burke and gets in on his surgeries. Even if they are smart, the men are smarter, and women cannot get ahead on their own. They must let the men lead, hanging back and finding ways to please.
These contradictory threads of thought (be smart and pretty, but more pretty than smart/sleep around to get ahead) are present not just in Grey’s Anatomy, but throughout society as a whole. The promotion of accepted misogyny and stereotypical expectations of women only serves to further oppress and degrade. But audiences continue to lap it up without any critical analysis. And so the medical skill and the intelligence of these women is barely touched upon, merely grazed, as the focus instead is shifted to their bodies, their seductions, their sexual conquests (it's so easy to forget they're doctors, isn't it?). Because let’s face it, if we really cared about their brains, we’d watch a show where the doctors spend more time in their scrubs than getting out of them.
Ouellette, Laurie. “Inventing the Cosmo Girl: Class Identity and Girl-Style American Dreams.” Media, Culture & Society. N.p.: Sage Publications, 1999. 359-383. Rpt. in Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text-Reader. Ed. Gail Dines and Jean M Humez. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2003. 116-128.
Ponzer, Jennifer L. “The Unreal World.” Learning Gender 2004: 96-99.
Ok, maybe I’m a little bitter.
Just a bit.
GI Joe Cobra Infantry Iron Grenadier
Well, obviously every boy needs this thing. Just look at it. There are more guns than one Iron Cobra Infantry whatever can carry! There’re a portable mission launcher and a bazooka! And, in case there’s not enough heavy artillery for ages 5 and up, there are ninja death stars included. All of this smartly packaged above a tagline that reads “A Real American Hero.”
And since videogames are huge sellers to the young male demographic I wanted to make sure I swung through that section of the store. Here’s what I found.
What 10 year-old needs a video game where the goal is to kill, maim and/or destroy everything you can?
The videogames and the GI Joe serve the same gendering purpose here. They are sending the message that violence and aggression are not only okay, but laudable qualities in today’s society. They tell boys, their target audience, that this is “maleness.” In order to be a part of mainstream society, you have to accept that men are powerful, dominant, and aggressive to the point of outright brutality. Here we draw a parallel between these toys and what we as a society celebrate. In 100 years, historians will look through a TV Guide and see everything from war documentaries to Ultimate Fighting Challenge to slasher films. Look at the message of the GI Joe, where violence is synonymous for “American,” and that to be a “Hero” you need to obliterate anything that opposes you with heavy artillery. It’s not enough to try in our society, it’s about “being better than the other guys-beating them- that is the key to acceptance” (Messner 129). If what we teach children manifests itself in adulthood, we are breeding males that glorify gore.
Sometimes, however, it’s not the items themselves that denote gender differences, it’s where they are placed in a store. In order for me to find the modest display of sports equipment in Toys “R” Us, I had to go deep into the heart of “boy toy” zone, all the way on the opposite end of the store from where “girl toys” where housed. But Toys “R” Us was rather magnanimous in their own way. While it said loud and clear sports are for boys first and foremost, they let girls know that they were welcomed to join in the fun too, if they really wanted to, and if they chose from there extremely meager subsection of “sports stuff for girls.”
Here we see genderization working both ways. This emphasis on sports for boys and not necessarily girls is interesting. There is an undeniable correlation between boyhood and organized sports. Boys are taught from very young ages that in order to have acceptance, friendships, success and gain praise, they must excel at some form of athletic competition. In the words of Messner, when men discuss their childhood involvement in sports they “commonly talk of the importance of relationships with family members, peers, and the broader community” (123). As a society we place great value on performing these physical tasks well. We will give you millions it you can hit a ball or tackle someone.
But then there is the “special” equipment for girls. Why are there pink and purple patterns on everything? Why do we need delineation between “girl” equipment and “boy” equipment? We see other examples of this separation by “special-ness” in society as a whole. This bias is evident in everything from toys to the titles we give ourselves and each other. For instance, take my mom. She’s a very talented engineer, but when she gets praised for her work, people always bring up that fact that she’s the highest ranking female in her company. This is an example of what Newman describes as the use of “linguistic expressions [which] either render females invisible or makes them exceptions to the rules… by using the words lady, female or woman as noun modifiers” which in turn leads to “the cultural belief that the occupations in question are still men’s domain” (78). In this aisle, a pink batting helmet is the cultural equivalent of saying “female athlete,” a novelty not signaled out for talent but for gender.
Keeping this in mind I headed over to what Toys “R” Us calls the “Learning Toy” section. As far as I am concerned, that’s what all toys are supposed to do. Help kids learn. About something. About something other than fashion or beauty or violence or aggression. Regardless of gender, age, race, ethnicity or socio-economic class, I have always believed that every child can benefit from a toy that encourages them to think outside of the box, make their own fun, and create their own games without genderization written all over it.
Meet Hoopla! Ages 8 and up. It’s a beat the clock game with brainteasers, sketching, charades and word games. You have to think fast and be creative. You have to work as a team and cooperate to win. It’s small, compact, all ages can enjoy it, and… here’s the best part… YOU GET TO HAVE FUN USING YOUR BRAIN!!! Gosh, what a concept.
You never really realize how many different ways gender is taught to kids until you start thinking about it, and once you start you can’t stop. It’s pervasive, so deeply imbedded in our society we often overlook it as something natural, something benign. But what is benign about feeding stereotypes to children? These toys serve as visual images and concepts that presume to explain what a “girl” or a “boy” is, what gender means. Hall claims that these kinds of ideologies work for toy manufacturers (and toy buyers) because they “construct for their subjects… positions of knowledge which allow them to ‘utter’ ideological truths as if they were authentic authors” (90). It’s assumed and accepted that boys and girls must grow up to fulfill certain roles, and we often blindly buy toys that teach lessons that may harm rather than help. It’s time to break these cycles of mindless acceptance.
We need to learn what these toys really teach.
Hall, Stuart. “The Whites of Their Eyes: Racist Ideologies and the Media.” : 89-93. Rpt. in Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text-Reader. Ed. Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, Inc. , 2003.
Messner, Michael A. “Boyhood, Organized Sports, and the Contructions of Masculinities.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (Jan. 1990): 120-137.
Newman. “Portraying Difference: Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality in Language and the Media.” . 71-105.