Fantasy, Fact and What Lies Between: conflicting themes in Gia

…and Gia lived happily ever after.

Well, maybe.

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.