Thursday, 4 August 2016

Not the Shroud of Turin

A Rubenesque acquaintance posted this article from Slate on Facebook, and it is both beautifully written and terribly sad. It was written by a man who is apparently American's most important window dresser, so we are not talking a Benedict XVI approach to life here. Still, an artistic eye often makes for darned good writing, e.g. that of the incomparable art historian A.S. Byatt.

There are several aspects in this interesting essay that strike me as terribly sad. First is the assertion that gay men are drawn to tragic, drug-addled women. On the one hand, it is good that someone loves tragic, drug-addled women. On the other hand, one wonders if it is the tragedy and the drug-addledness that is the true subject of the devotion. Fortunately, there is Cher, who is arguably neither tragic nor drug-addled. No doubt there are learned studies on this topic. 

Second is the toothless visage of the author's Northern Irish grandfather. Blimey. What kind of pain makes a man go to the pub every day to get "thoroughly obliterated"? I quite love him for the (albeit rare) "Poor wee thing" remark. (A skillfully told anecdote there, Mr Doonan. Note the contrast between the horrible-looking old man and the pin-up queen, aspiring writers.)

Third is the thought of Marilyn Monroe's worn clothing being presented to viewers "like bodies after a plane crash".  That Marilyn was a slim woman with a statistically unusual figure is neither sad nor a matter of joy--for us, anyway. What I find sad is that this woman, who has made other people millions of dollars, died among a pile of  worn and torn clothing, paste jewellery and greasy cookware. "She was not materialistic," enthuses Doonan, pointing to Marilyn's first editions, and while I get his point,  I recall that poor M.M. suffered from ill health, abused alcohol and was hooked on drugs. Holes in your clothes and no dish soap are part of all that. 

Fourth is the reminder that Marilyn, whose most famous and beloved roles were funny, sexy, ditzy blonde bombshells who made up for a lack of brains with surprising pragmatism, really wanted to "cultivate her mind."  To "cultivate your mind" you need to stay off booze and (as much as possible) medication, hire teachers, have one clean room to study in, and enough income to support your studies. To a certain extent, talking about what you are studying with (or, even better, teaching) other people is very helpful. However, M.M. was such a comic genius, it is hard to imagine anyone taking her thoughts on, say, capitalism or Death of a Salesman seriously: Lorelei Lee on the gold standard? Ha, ha, ha. 

We always categorize M.M. with Great Tragic Women, when in fact, she probably had more in common with Great Tragic Comedians like James Belushi and Robin Williams than, say, Princess Diana.

Fifth, of course, is Doonan's advice about how to look good in photographs against all the odds. What he writes is funny, but really, what is the point? If we all look terrible in photos, we all look terrible in photos, so why fight them with models' tricks? 

As a matter of fact, an unflattering photograph may be the catalyst an unhealthily overweight man or woman needs to smell the coffee and chuck the sugar in the bin. (I recall a ghastly one in which I am serving up a homemade Battenburg cake.) Whereas I am no beauty queen, I much prefer photos in which my facial bone structure is less encumbered by fat. 

Without having ever suffered from an eating disorder, I was once thin enough that my family protested. "You look gaunt," yelled my sister. I didn't think I was gaunt (and I don't think I look gaunt in photos from that time.) The truth is, I just couldn't see myself the way others saw me. It is really hard to see oneself as one actually is (or appears to others), physically, mentally and spiritually, which is why friends who practice truth-in-love--and spiritual directors--are so helpful. 

I think a last thing to mention is that Marilyn Monroe's shape, though  touted as the Traditional Feminine Ideal, was unusual. It was unusual then--her waistline was two inches fewer than average in the skinny 1950s--and it is unusual now. Most women do not have hour-glass figures. That said, the hour-glass figure is easy enough to fake with clothing, if you care that much about it. Padded bra, poufy skirt, squeezy underpants--hey presto. 

Now I am sad I have dedicated so much thought to women's figures, but c'est la vie des femmes. And of window dressers, of course.

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