“Beauty is Beast” discusses the two sets of career options proposed to women by mainstream media, options that ignore the wide array of career options and ways in which women can add value that are left uncelebrated.
“News India Times” October 16, 2009
“Beauty is beast” by Kavita Ramdya
I‘m perplexed. It’s become apparent to me that there exists a press-orchestrated assault of images and stories that provide merely two diametrically-opposed portrayals of women. It all started very innocently with the “New York Times” coverage of the mid-September New York Fashion Week.
Sitting in London in front of my laptop, the slide shows of young girls upon whose practically-translucent skin carries weathered looks of dissatisfaction and boredom seem about as relevant to me and my life as the clothes these models wear: both, the models and the clothes, exist to evoke the fantasy of independent wealth and vast amounts of time to waste in-between spurts of leisure activity. The models look bored because they’re meant to emulate the small minority of women in the world whose only challenge is deciding what to pack for her next shopping spree in Dubai.
However, what I didn’t know was that Anna Wintour, the infamous editor of “Vogue” magazine had launched an international program, “Fashion’s Night Out”, to inspire an orgy of designer-name brand shopping global in scope.
Ms. Wintour has recently gone from “Man Behind the Curtain” status in the fashion industry to joining the mainstream A-list celebrities, resulting from the release of “The September Issue”, a documentary which reveals the ugliness poured into making every beauty and fashion page of “Vogue” irresistible to female readers.
On what started as a pleasant evening stroll was suddenly cut short by the combination of teenage girls screeching while running hand-in-hand across New Bond Street, car doors slamming as chauffeurs abandoned their Bentleys to congregate in small groups for a smoke break, Euro-trash techno beats streaming out of luxury-brand stores, and serious-looking fashion sluts sipping wine and chatting on their mobiles, standing around as if poor posture was a universally-attractive fad rather than just a Kate Moss-trade-marked pose circa the grunge era.
Even Malcolm McLaren, the former manager of the “Sex Pistols” and currently a member of Dries van Noten’s design team, was turned off by the publicity stunt when he describes “Fashion’s Night Out” in New York as “swamped by gangs of teenage girls hunting for free champagne, cupcakes, ice-cream, popcorn and candy floss.
They are determined to catch a glimpse of a star – be it at Barney’s, Bergdorf Goodman’s, Saks, or wherever… it’s a free-for-all in Manhattan tonight.”
The next morning, I looked over my shoulder up New Bond Street on my way to work, trying to make sense of the half-empty plastic wine glasses strewn on the sidewalks, bags and tissue paper in messy heaps on the ground, scattered canapés sitting like frosting on mountains of garbage, and piles of trash on what is usually one of the most well-designed and artistic streets in London.
Juxtaposed to all the hub-bub over Fashion Week has been the release of “Fortune” magazine’s “50 Most Powerful Women in [American] Business” rankings and the “Financial Times” magazine’s “The women issue” which contains a top fifty list of women in world business.
None of the “Fortune” magazine’s top-ranked women in business work in the fashion industry. In fact, Andrea Jung and Liz Smith from Avon Products are the only two women listed who work in a company which caters to a female clientele. The “FT” list fares little better: Burberry’s Angela Ahrendts is lauded for bringing the company into the FTSE 100 list. Most of the women on both lists work in male-dominated fields such as financial services, technology, consumer goods, entertainment, pharmaceuticals and even mining just to name a few of the industries in which these women have succeeded.
Just as it’s limiting for young women to fantasize of a life filled with social events that demand Stella McCartney rather than Sears, it is interesting to note that companies which produce products specifically marketed to women are not companies where they will gain widespread recognition in the business world. So, according to the overlapping media coverage of Fashion Week and the top business women rankings, the only two options a young woman has is to either join the frenzied shopping masses and yearn for a job in fashion/beauty/make-up where women are valued for their spending power, or entering a male-dominated industry and restraining any interest or passion for a product that is overtly feminine and/or targeted towards women buyers.
In the former option, women are recognized as consumers of product or models for selling product. In the latter option, women enter and excel in what are traditionally male-dominated industries that have ignored, to varying degrees, female buyers and feminine goods.
But what about the infinite numbers of ways in which women can work and dream that fall somewhere along the spectrum? Where are those stories in the media? I laud the “FT” magazine for publishing an article about a white, middle-aged, female reporter who adopts a Chinese girl abandoned by her birth mother near a police station. Or the photo essay of female rebel fighters in Nepal. Or the “Economist” article which describes how in Antwerp, Belgium, Muslim women are choosing to wear burkhas while in school and jeans on the week-ends, confusing school officials and the international community by defying the notion that Muslim women have a single identity solely defined by religion.
And how about the alternative fashion movie to “The September Issue”, “Coco Before Chanel”? Here we have a French orphan-turned-seamstress tired of wearing her hair in long tresses who adapts the sleek, professional style of a traditional man’s suit for women. Stories like these remind us that there are as Top, a model is made up before the Alexandre Herchcovitch Spring 2010collection during the New York Fashion Week, Sept. 16. Above, Vogue editor Anna Wintour waits for the start of the Calvin Klein Spring 2010 show during New York, many types of women as there are men and as many dreams and visions for happiness for one gender as there are for the of a life filled other.
A few days ago I walked by the Somerset House, an elegant neo-classical building which sits in-between the West End’s theatre district and the Thames River.
Unfortunately, the scene was in for a familiar one: crowds of girls rushed into the courtyard as if someone had spotted Robert Pattinson of “Twilight” fame. But the event that spurred the frenzied push past security was “Elle” magazine’s “London Fashion Weekend” event.
I have little doubt that all the global Fashion Weeks and associated events will result in the same way. It must mean something that after all the beautiful cars and loaded shoppers, copious amounts of wine and free candy, discounted designer clothes and self-important shoppers, all that remains in the end is trash.
Kavita Ramdya is author of “Bollywood Weddings: Dating, Engagement and Marriage in Hindu America” http://www.bollywood-weddings.com/Home.html