“You don’t just wake up in the morning and wash your face and comb your hair and go out in the street and look like Marilyn Monroe. She knows every trick of the beauty trade”
Milton Green, Photographer
It should have come as no surprise, that in writing about one of the most recognisable sex stars of all time, one of the great icons of female beauty and feminity, I would come to write a show about the labour involved in dealing with, fulfilling and maintaining others’ expectations.
The woman was a creation, an empire of her own making, reinforced and propelled by the public who loved this constructed character. Or perhaps it’s better to think of her persona as a collaboration – between the people who rewarded her for what she presented to them and her own imagined idea of what people would like – or better yet, love.
The clusters of false eyelashes arranged to make her eyes look sleepy, the layers of lipstick, the hormone cream on her face, the carefully placed beauty spot are just a small handful of the make up techniques that allowed her to create one of the most recognisable faces of all time. How many people can you recognise by the lower half of the face alone?
I learnt the other day she cut off some of the heel on just one shoe in each pair she wore, so that when she walked she would sink into one hip more, creating that hypnotic swing in the hips. Apparently a photographer once told her that she had large gums, so she often covered her top teeth when she talked or smiled. Then there is the very delicate, gentle voice…and the list goes on.
We tend to associate labour with reward and exploitation. Rewards might be financial, might include physical satisfaction or social recognition. Exploitation might involve unfair payment, unjust physical, emotional or sexual treatment. But those two categories may also overlap and intersect. And certainly in the case of Marilyn Monroe, it is difficult to distinguish whether the fruits of her labour are rewards or result in exploitation. Some things she perhaps viewed as rewarding, to others may be seen as exploitative. The incredibly personal nature of the work she undertakes on herself and the complexity of its results are something that many women can relate to. How do we decide if someone’s reaction is positive or negative – what does it mean to be rewarded for the labour one invests in one’s self? And conversely, as women, how often are we rewarded for a lack of labour of the self? Of course much of that depends on what ‘reward’ looks like and means for the individual…but I can’t think of a time when I felt I was rewarded, or felt that I was being taken seriously for not wearing make up…or not dressing ‘nicely’…normally the reverse is true.
Rarely do we consider grooming ourselves, styling or thinking about the impression we want to make as being laborious. But there certainly is a degree of work, of effort, and most of all, of investment in an individual establishing who they are, and making conscious efforts in ensuring people perceive them as they hope, as they intended.
So, without having an answer to this question, is a large amount of self-invested labour a good or bad thing? Or is it simply a necessary part of participating in an individualist society, where personal branding is becoming seemingly more important (particularly for artists)? And let’s not forget that whilst we once only had a physical body and real-world self to deal with, we now have the online self that requires constant creation, recreation, maintenance, editing and crafting. Perhaps the beauty spot is no longer in fashion, but the selfie seems here to stay…at least until something else comes along.
Come and see the show and let’s chat about it afterwards. I’d love to know what you think.