It Girls, Powerful Women & Media Culture: Why Women Can Never Simply Be

It Girls, Powerful Women & Media Culture: Why Women Can Never Simply Be

marilyn as clara bow

Recently on RTÉ 2FM, I chatted to Ryan Tubridy about about the resurgence of the It Girl, a term and phenomenon that first emerged in the 1920s. The original It Girl, Clara Bow, became a global superstar, embodying a free-spirited, seemingly authentic, sexy-but-not-scarily-so charm which tallied perfectly with the hedonism of the era. The demise of the Roaring Twenties and the arrival of Great Depression led to the implosion of her brief but spectacularly bright career. Clara battled mental health demons for the rest of her days, stemming from horrific childhood abuse at the hands of an unstable mother who tried to murder her in her sleep and an alcoholic father who raped her. She remarked, somewhat prophetically when one considers the It Girls who followed later like Marilyn Monroe and Edie Sedgwick, ‘a sex symbol is a heavy load to carry when one is tired, hurt and bewildered.’

In the decades that followed the term was used intermittently, resurfacing with a vengeance in the late 1990s after a seven-page New Yorker profile anointed the then little-known-outside-of-NYC-fashion-circles Chloe Sevigny the It Girl du jour. At present, the It Girl mantle is slapped on notable females from widely varying fields, many of whom are grown women rather than girls, with well-established, hard won careers which are at odds with the kind of transitory allure implied by the label. For every Paris Hilton there are It Girls winning Oscars, heading up NGOs and reporting from war zones, rather than quaffing champers with Daddy’s credit card and a teacup-sized dog stashed in their oversized, over-priced handbag.

The It Girl persists in a modern context for a number of reasons, key among these I would argue is the simple fact that she sells. In an age of dropping advertising revenue and a 24 hour news media increasingly taking its cues from online, the need for cheap, readily available content is unending. Slapping the It Girl label on a youthful, successful and attractive girl/woman is handy way of generating buzz, ensuring links gets clicked or a glossy mag gets purchased. It Girls work fantastically well on social media, particularly the likes of Instagram and Tumblr, which capture the kind of lifestyle envy these girls/women inspire in ordinary folk. It Girl social media accounts are also easy to plunder for the aforementioned cheap, shiny content. Just like in the 1920s, everyone wants It, even if they’re not entirely sure what It is.

It Girl, as you may have gleaned, is far from a straightforwardly positive label. As Helen Anne Peterson notes in an excellent Buzzfeed article on the term’s re-emergence, christening someone an It Girl is perhaps ‘the ultimate backhanded compliment’.  In doing so, editors and journalists acknowledge the subject’s accomplishments but package them in a palatable, cosy way for consumption, keeping things quirky, flirty and fun, while neutering anything truly transgressive or – God forbid – political. In christening a girl/woman It, editors and journalists trap high profile girls/women within the term’s limitations. No one by reason of their humanity can remain an It Girl forever and ‘girl’ is still, to our shame, used pejoratively, as something weak-limbed, passive and non-threatening. It is interesting too to note the proliferation of the term at a time when women are asserting themselves through feminism once again, demanding to be heard and seen, making their presence felt in male-dominated realms as never before. In this context, the It Girl label is a handy, inoffensive little box to usher uppity women into, so their aspirations and rights-demands don’t overwhelm their ability to look sweet in a pretty dress, which is of course paramount at all times.

As an aside, it’s been interesting to research the It Girl phenomenon during the week unphotoshopped images of Beyoncé and Cindy Crawford were leaked, when Kate Middleton’s grey hair became a talking point and actresses took to the red carpet during awards season, pleading to be asked about something other than what dress they were wearing. Almost a century after Clara Bow turned the world on in the film It, we are no closer to simply letting women be. Western culture and media is still preoccupied with finding ways to put women in their place, to diminish their power, to punish them when they overstep boundaries that are written in shifting sands. The treatment of high profile women is a warning shot to all women. To dismiss such events as media storms is to underestimate the power culture and the institutions which create it exercise over our lives and sense of self. Culture is the soup we swim in and its toxic elements demand our critical engagement. It is only by challenging and interrogating what we are exposed to that we can begin to change it. And change it we must.

Photo: Marilyn Monroe as Clara Bow, Life Magazine, 1957, Richard Avedon

Skinny By Any Means: Why Are Women Told To Starve Themselves?

Is there anything worse than food poisoning? Quite possibly, yes, but when you’re in the throes of its horrors it is difficult to imagine a nastier state.  Fortunately for me, I’m finally crawling out from under the food poisoning rock, which began explosively on Sunday night and left me in a weak, aching heap for two days. Being too sick to eat however has its high points, as my friends (tongue-in-cheek) pointed out: you lose weight! And that’s good, right?

Norma was going to eat the damn sandwich, enjoy the damn sandwich & she didn't give a twopenny hoop what anyone else thought about it!

Well , of course it isn’t. The fact that I was sick negates surely any ‘benefits’, at least to my mind, but the idea that ‘skinny by any means is a worthy pursuit’ persists culturally. How many times a day do we see headlines screeching about the latest fad diet or exercise regime or miracle supplement? How many times are celebrities – who have the finances and time to overindulge their physiques -used to exemplify the perfect body? Too many, I suspect, too many even for the most sane woman not to find herself goaded into thinking, at least for a moment or two, ‘wow, I really should skip dinner/ run  for three miles a day/ go on that diet where you eat nothing but cabbage soup.’

‘Skinny by any means’ ideal is not just silly, it is dangerous. Fad diets might might help you lose weight in the short term but study after study shows the weight lost is inevitably put back on, not forgetting the nutritional and metabolic problems some of these diets cause. Extreme exercise without proper training and warming/up down is not a recipe for fitness but one for injury and defeat. None of this is a road map to health but that doesn’t stop the media churning out images and messages to the contrary. After all, if people accepted the simple, scientifically proven facts of eating less, doing more and consuming a varied diet high in fruit and veg and low in processed foods, well, who’d buy the diet books? And where would we be then?

Part of me reluctantly acknowledges there are people who would elect to have food poisoning if it meant they lost a few pounds, just like folk who mess around with laxatives, eat nothing but popcorn for weeks or exist in a haze of cigarettes and coffee (or worse) to make sure they stay on the right side of thin. In this zany world of ours, we reward women for basically starving themselves and chastise those who don’t. Honestly, if you asked me which was sicker: food poisoning or our culture, I know which one I’d chose. Sadly, it isn’t the one you cure by resting up and taking plenty of fluids. Oh ladies and gentlemen, if only it were that simple.

Emergency! Do You Suffer From Celebrity Fatigue Syndrome (C.F.S.)?

Blame Celebrity Big Brother. Blame super babies with odd names and celebrity chefs getting caught in compromising positions. Blame the post-Christmas fug as more and more innocent people of normal intelligence fall victim to a very mysterious ailment. Some claim it is a direct result of the star saturated world we are all marinating in. Sounds like a joke, you cry. Read on, dear sceptic, read on!

Experts (none of whom were available for a direct quote, sadly) are calling it ‘…an epidemic of global proportions’, one that crosses borders and oceans with shocking ease. While doctors struggle to develop treatment (apparently they have better things to be doing, which is a tad uncaring) millions are infected by this potentially irritating, mind-altering disease that has invaded all corners of human life.

No matter where Mary Anne went, the sludgy hand of celebrity was sure to follow...

The name: Celebrity Fatigue Syndrome or C.F.S. whereby the patient develops an acute, sometimes violent aversion to all things ‘celebrity’ with troubling implications for them, those close to them and indeed the world.

Wondering how to spot a C.F.S sufferer? Thankfully it isn’t hard to do. While most people are sanguine and accepting of the ever more prevalent celebrity forces in our societies, C.F.S. patients grow moody and increasing irritated. They claim celebrity culture is indicative of a society that is vomiting up its own excesses and then parading them around as ‘entertainment’.

Patients become emotional, even angry, demanding to know how in the name of Napoleon’s left bollock certain celebrities became famous in the first place, without having any discernable talent, except for a bodged boob job, poorly produced sex tape or reality TV show ‘career’. No answers offered by friends or family are ever enough to allay their concerns. They also foam from the mouth whenever anyone produces a copy of Heat magazine.

It is natural to assume you are or could be a potential sufferer of C.F.S. The good news is self-diagnosis is relatively simple. If you’ve experienced any of the following, chances are – deep breath – you have succumbed to the scourge:

Do you find yourself shouting at the television, threatening to stab your eyes out with the remote because you are sick to the very pit of your being of the same sorry faces fronting and starring in mind-numbing repetitive cookery, reality or ‘fun’ game shows? “Make it stop,” you cry, “‘it’s like Ground Hog day in hell” while your family – gathered around you in a zombified state – keep stuffing their faces, wondering what all the fuss is about. Why can’t you just shut up and watch X Factor In A Jungle On Ice With Some Dancing, just like everybody else?

Do you find yourself rolling your eyes in open disgust at the news that people have christened their offspring Britney, Rihanna, Beyonce or Paris? Do you shrivel up in self-loathing when you realise that despite never watching single episode of Jersey ShoreKeeping Up With the Kardashians etc, you have a more than vague knowledge of their ‘stars’ and ‘plotlines’? The resulting shame makes your blood thicken.

A trip to the supermarket is pure torture, as you lurch from aisle to aisle seeking out products that are not endorsed by a celebrity, whose shit-eating smiles beam at you from the labels of everything from baked beans to tampons. Do you mutter to yourself, “can I not just buy a few groceries in peace anymore?” even though the answer is quiet obviously a blimp-sized “no”?

Finally, and most crucially, does just glancing at the Daily Mail homepage bring you out in scores of oozing sores, leaving you jabbering like a lobotomised ferret, trying to banish the images of ill-fitting bikinis, staged love affairs and weight loss speculation from your mind? Alas, once such mind rot is seen, it can never be unseen as sufferers of C.F.S. know only too well.

Treatment for C.F.S. is relatively straightforward: throw out your TV, bin all newspapers and magazines, unplug the Internet, smash up your phone, sell the house and move to a small Scandinavian village with a population of 52 and no mobile connection. Failing all that, moving into a nuclear bunker might be an idea.

A bit excessive? Definitely. Probably futile? Yes; after all, it is only a matter of time before celebrities start projecting images of their plastic surgery adventures onto the surface of the moon – the ultimate billboard campaign, if you will. In the meantime, stay strong C.F.S. suffers. I know it isn’t easy – having healthy levels of common sense rarely is in this daft world of ours – but keep muddling along together until such a time as you can’t sit on the loo of your local pub without a picture of a celeb staring back at… oh, wait, nevermind.

This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.