Sunday, May 04, 2008

Goddess versus sex goddess: It's all in the vision

Do you ever wonder whether you've been a little trained, like Pavlov's dogs?

I do. I get so used to the pat and stock things that usually I accept them, unquestioningly. But when a moment comes that I do pause and ponder, I wonder why this idea or this image is supposed to be so representative, either of a concept or of something I'm supposed to like or want.

It happens all the time in marketing and advertising. Every day I'm bombarded with images and messages directed to me (the marketing bucket of me, anyway: middle-class, practically middle-aged mom with two kids and buying power): laundry detergents that power through stains, clothing that makes me look hot, cosmetics and creams that make me look young again, ads about weight loss, and so forth.

I wonder, which came first: the chicken or the egg? Did I look at my teeth one day and wonder about their color or did an ad tell me I needed to whiten my teeth?

TV, radio, billboards, Web sites and yes, even magazines. All of these bundle their pleas to my buying power with attractive and appealing packages that are designed to capture my attention and interest. Sometimes the appeal is through information, and sometimes it's through images---images that just might be designed to titillate my prurient interest.

I have it, and so do you, this prurient interest.

But what I am is fatigued by a constant barrage of appeal to it. It's not my only or my chief interest, it is merely my base interest.

I'd so much rather my other interests appealed to, on the whole.

But we seem stuck in this mode of appealing to prurient interest, and from there I think we forget to think. We're back to that trained dog feeling I get every now and again: where I'm just meant to react and not think.

It's probable that the first time some phrase was used or image was shot that it was unique, interesting, original and mind-expanding. That success, though, launched a formula, that after a while might end up as meaningless as a cliche. So people keep trying to think of ways to freshen the formula, push the boundaries of the formula---never quite grasping that they've trapped themselves inside a box of an idea and that what is really called for is fresh ideas, not fresh angles of the tried and true but stale formula. That pushing though, means that eventually the formula might be deployed harmfully.

I think that's happening a lot right now for young people (ignoring the issue for children right now), as clothing, ads, images, and so forth has pushed that "bring sexy back" formula onto them. We forget that or wish to forget that these young people are so much more than sexual awakening.

We limit the face and dimensions of them, and thus, forget to think of it. We forget that growing up and maturing is much, much more than emerging sexuality.

I wonder if this is what happened to Annie Liebovitz. Has she gotten as caught up in the idea of "quintessential Annie Liebovitz" as her fans and employers? Has she gotten so caught up in it that she didn't even see the individual in front of her---the unique person named Miley---and instead saw only a commodity, with a whisper in her ear from the magazine that skin sells? That sin sells?

Did Miley---bombarded her entire life with the message that sex sells---have any idea that there can be bad publicity, and that a suggestive post-coital-implied photograph might imply something well beyond her age or stage of maturity? Did she have any other example before her, something to hold if she wanted to say no, "No, I don't prefer a sexy shot that's exploitative, I don't think that's the way I want to grow up for America and appeal to a larger audience. I'd rather show another side of myself, an accomplishment..." or some such.

Are we all guilty of the same thing?

I argue that we become so used to---so comfortable and familiar with---the ideas and images continually placed in front of us that we forget to question their value, their worth. We no longer wonder what they mean---we simply, unquestioning, or desiring to not "make a big deal" accept them, at face value.

In fact, a number of people told me it was simply a provocative photo, rather than exploitative and suggestive, as I said in my recent post. Plenty of people told me it was simply an artistic photo that captured the transition from girl to woman. Because I try to keep an open mind, I paused and pondered.

As I did so, I ran across the exquisite art of a local artist. I was meeting with her husband and he showed me his wife's art Web site to demonstrate a point, which I sort of missed because I had instead tuned in to the eye candy in front of me.

I give you an original, truly exquisite piece of art that really captures that time when girls mature into women:

The Making of the Blue Goddess by Mele Florez-Avellan




This is art. It's evocative; it both asks for and gives emotion. We have the amazing pure line of youthful skin, uninterrupted, but it is backdrop, texture, a line...it means only beauty, nothing more. You have a sense that this girl is not insignificant. You have a sense of this young lady, an idea---right or wrong---of who she is, because so much of her is in the piece.

I see a girl who thinks and feels, in fact, possibly so much so that she keeps a journal. Despite the seriousness in her face, I see laughter, also. Her mouth is straight yet light, upturned slightly in the corners, as if used to smiling. I want to ask her questions---find out what makes her gaze off in the distance, what made her choose this pose rather than the more typical "gaze at the camera and tip her head with a smile only the young have" sort of pose. I want to know if her soul is truly as old as her eyes imply.

I'm curious why the artist, Mele Florez-Avellan, who knows this young lady, opted to obscure one eye and make the eyes less prominent, while opening her mouth slightly and putting more color to it, drawing our eye there, instead.

What is so powerful about her mouth?

In short, it's a powerful piece.

That's a goddess, my friends.

That's artistic.

Mele Florez-Avellan does it again with this piece:



A different subject and a very different portrait. I have yet another, different sense of this girl. I have the sense that the artist caught a moment that this girl rarely allows people to see. I see a girl who shows a light face to the world, a face that doesn't reveal too often how deep the mind and heart behind it go. Letting the artist see that implies a trust.

Revealing one's soul is so much more intense and trusting, so much more evocative, than revealing one's bare back.

The art says as much about the subject as the artist.

This art makes me want to pick up a magazine and read a story because they are so individual and unique, and I expect, then, that the story will be equally personal and personalized.

Step back from mass market and pause and ponder---is something truly beautiful, or merely technically proficient and what we've been trained to like and expect?

Does it capture your eye, and from there engage your heart, and then your mind?

This art does that for me. It is significant, not trivializing.

(I included a few links to the artist. If you like art, click over and scan her site. She has quite a range, but all in her own style. I find it fabulous.)

Copyright 2008 Julie Pippert
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20 comments:

thordora said...

Again, it comes down to what we want to see. Frankly, that first picture (not the painting, the photo) strikes me as more sexual than the Cyrus one. I see a young woman staring her future in the face, and not entirely likely what she sees.

The second one, she looks like a little girl, infantalized.

Sexuality has always been the line between girl and woman. The woman menstruates. The woman can bear children. The child cannot. That teetering level between child and woman, what of that? What do we allow or permit a teenage girl to feel for herself? Or do we satisfy ourselves into believing that as a society we have imprinted some false notion of booty shaking and whoring?

Our outward expressions have changed, but at the core of it, we forget that we still are cramming burgeoning sexuality and maturity into pigeonholes we design. When so we allow out daughters to keys to themselves? At 14? 16? 21?

To me that's the main point in this debate-when WE ALLOW our daughters to be the captains of their own souls and bodies. Which is why this bothers me so. This girlwoman made a decision, a decision that didn't involve her backside or breasts being naked, a decision that may have made her feel womanly and beautiful. And yet we question her right to this, imposing our moral confusion on her head instead, castigating her father, Annie, and others.

We refuse, as our parents did, and many before that, to open the door to her womanhood holding her hands. Instead, we tell her it's wrong, and make her apologize.

Art is what each of us sees. Sexuality is what each of us feels. If at 15 you would have told me to apologize for it, I would have been incensed, and highly disappointed.

This twigs a nerve, as you can tell. Nothing infuriated me more as a teenager than being told that what I thought/felt/wanted wasn't real or true because "I wasn't old enough".

Julie Pippert said...

Yes, it is personal, Thordora, but at no point do I ask that a teen apologize for emerging sexuality.

Instead I ask that we as adults quit looking to children for cheap sexual thrills.

It perpetuates children and young girls as sexual objects <--- key word.

I ask that we dig deeper than the cheap and obvious.

Sexuality is not purely the act of sex. It's a powerful essence to a person, and I ask that we focus on the person, of which sexuality is an aspect, rather than on the sex.

Lots of things infuriated me as a teen, to be told, and yet, often, those things were right.

Fury shouldn't obviate the value of older advice.

It's true that not all grown-ups are mature and wise and can't (shouldn't) offer advice, and that there is also a stepping back point where we need to let young people live their own lives and learn their own lessons.

The artist's image that I showed contains elements of sexuality, which is why I selected it, but it is also so very much more.

The Liebowitz photo was just about sex, IMO, and done in a way that trivialized it---and I don't find sex or sexuality at all insignificant.

Yeah it's a matter of opinion. But I have to say I agree with Izzy when she wrote:

"Someone could sit here all day long coming up with reasons why it’s not an objectionable photo and I will shrug my shoulders and say “Okay, if you think sexualizing young girls is alright…”

See, it’s not a question of whether she’s fifteen and got raging hormones or because all teenage girls like to try their hand at being sexy and grown up blah blah. That’s probably all true and I don’t begrudge Cyrus the right to grow up. Miley herself is not the problem. The problem is that she appeared in a magazine geared toward adults in a bedheaded, come-hither Brigitte Bardot pose and she’s a child. Sexualizing her like that, no matter how much she might think it’s cool and edgy, is messed up. Period."

painted maypole said...

these "sexy" images are bombarding us all the time. i read a great article a while back about how girls feel like they have to dress like strippers to attract boys. high school girls.

when in reality a boy will be attracted to them no matter what they wear. ;)

and just yesterday in CHURCH I was checking out the spike heels on the teenagers. The shoes that look like street walker shoes. They are a bit sexy, on a well dressed adult. On a teenager in jeans? They were really weird, and disturbing.

thailandchani said...

Well.. as a social conservative, I agree with you completely. (Hope that doesn't paint you with a black brush. :) Seriously though, there is a time and a place for most things - and it's not sexy pictures of adolescents and it's not the constant pushing of sex to promote products. It turns all of us into service objects. It is a part of how people are commoditized.

I'm with you. It's not acceptable.

Oh.. and I don't feel particularly influenced by any of the ads. Their purpose is so transparent.

Melissa said...

I'm still not sure about the whole MC thing, so I'll leave that alone for a bit.

But the advertisers in general. That's another thing. I'm always amazed what is being advertised and when. Demographics and all of that. It worries me to see my interests lumped in with some categories that I really don't want to be in.

And the art? Is incredible. Off to check out her site...

Lissa said...

thordora, when you said, "The second one, she looks like a little girl, infantalized", were you referring to the second photograph, or the painting of the same subject? because julie clearly said that the second photo is a different subject than that of the first photo.

i should know, because i am the girl in the second photo. i was 19, maybe even already 20, but i have always looked young. the first girl is my cousin who is actually younger than me. she took her picture at around the same age as mine was taken, maybe even slightly younger.

julie, i just wanted to tell you that you hit the nail right on the head when it came to your analysis of my photo. in fact, your words made me cry. i was looking at a picture of my deceased grandfather, and with that came emotions i hadn't felt in quite a while. a sort of lighthearted sadness, if you will. at the time, i was going through some big changes (for the better) and indeed, i was trying to show a light face to the world. thank you so much for your words. you have no idea how much they mean to me.

Julie Pippert said...

Lissa, hey thanks for coming by! Wow, thanks for letting me know that I caught the right things from the photo and that my words were good for you. That means a lot to me. :)

Mele is so talented, but the subject matters too. That photo of you absolutely captured me. It's gorgeous.

Lawyer Mama said...

Wow.

The MC thing is so much less important to me than those 2 pieces of art you put up. That's how it should be done. Looking at the first, it clearly brought back those feelings of being a teenager, with one foot in the adult world and one foot in the world of children. So confused and sure of myself and scared at the same time. The blue goddess conveys all of that to me.

The second photo, well that one moved me even more. It nearly moved me to tears as well, before Lissa shared the story of the shot with us. Mele is one talented woman.

apathy lounge said...

I just got my Vanity Fair, so I haven't looked at the picture yet. I don't just blame the photographer for the MC photo...I also blame her father...and anyone else who thinks that a girl of 15 has lived long enough to write her memoirs. Clearly someone so young and so lacking in understanding about what maturity really is would probably be led to pose for a picture like the one everyone seems to hate so much. She's just a kid.

Karen said...

just want to say thank you for sharing the art - it is rare during a busy day that I take a moment to really look, but with you as my museum guide, I slowed down.

Jeff said...

I think I mentioned this before, but shouldn't a minor need parental sign-off in order to have anything published in a magazine? If so, that would mean that Miley's parents specifically agreed to each and every picture. And like Apathy said, she alone stood no chance against the powerful persuasion of Liebowitz. A kid her age has no chance of resisting that kind of sales pitch.

Cathy said...

I agree with you. (And you expressed your thoughts beautifully.)

You know though -- the MC photo that bothered me the most was the one of her on her dad's lap. Ick, ick ICK.

jeanie said...

I have an 8 year old daughter who LOVES Hannah Montana. I have not seen enough of her to make any judgements of the character (and nor really has my daughter) but the marketing aimed at girls my daughter's age is that strong that she feels the LOVE half a world away.

I have not, nor am I likely to, see all of the VF shots. I am not the demographic and do not seek what it offers.

However - I love how art can express so much more than just sexuality and stereotypes as you showed with the beautiful pieces you have offered.

The one shot I have seen is the one so questioned at the moment, and all I can ask is "how is that art?" when it is a shot you see so often and has not been done in any new way, except that it has a young teenager on the slab.

If it had evoked the who behind the character of the girl, I would have found it far more engaging.

Unfortunately, the main point is that those who seek a little soft focus titillation in their shots of young women will find it in this one - as they will on any catwalk, billboard, television screen and movie.

And while I truly hope a post like this convinces the above to seek art galleries and sites that offer more, I think unfortunately they would not necessarily look.

And then there are galleries and artists who are just as much into that titillation, shock value and stereotyping...

liv said...

If I may, in my simplistic way just say: I want my girl to be little for as long as possible. That is all.

Christine said...

wonderful post, julie.

couldn't agree more. like you said, i don't deny girls the right to grow up, to become sexual beings, to struggle with what that means for them and their identity. but i DO object to adults forcing these young people into sexual roles they certainly are not ready for.

sex and skin sells. almost every major actress and female music star has appeared in fancy, revealing clothes and lingerie in fashion mags, wind machines blowing the hair out of their over made of faces. again i don't deny them the right and and even the excitement of being "sexy." but i do wonder if the pursuit of sex and sexiness is simply stripping our girls (and boys for that matter) of any other aspect of thier changing lives. KWIM?

I guess what i am saying is that puberty is about more than just sexualy maturity. it is about growning minds, conflicting emotions, a grasping of self identity in many different forms. let's nurture the WHOLE teen/young adult. not just pander to their ranging hormones.

Kyla said...

I think the problem is that her sexual awakening is being exploited. It might be a natural process, something everyone goes through, but in most cases it isn't used to sell magazines or start a controversy like it was in Miley's case.

we_be_toys said...

I'm still shaking my head: at Annie Liebowitz, at Miley's parents, at the barely concealed pedophilia that seems to dominate our idea of feminine beauty these days.

We've come so far, only to be put back in our places as objects?
Reminds me of the post The Queen of Shake-Shake wrote a while back about feminism and the negative meaning the word has now.

Adriana said...

Hello Julie. I'm Adriana, the girl in the first picture and painting. Thankyou very much for all the beautiful things you said about my picture, and about Mele's painting.

The picture itself was taken about 2 or 3 years ago, I was probably 19, and the photographer and myself tried to catch a view of a young girl looking through horizon as if thinking "hey, look, there's is my future... I'm going for it" but in a young and innocent kind of way. It was not meant to be sexual at all. It was meant to show an innocent girl with eyes that could show her soul.

So thankyou very much for all of your comments, I truly appreciate it. Hope you enjoyed the pieces of art.

Suki said...

I don't watch Hannah Montana, but my boyfriend's little sister - also a 16 year old - does. I'm sure she doesn't know a thing about the Vanity Fair magazine, and has more sense than to consider Hannah Montana her idol, but still. That photo is gross. And I would hate for someone to feel it's okay to pose that way as a teen.

Sure, we have girls losing their virginity at 15, getting their periods at 10(er... I was one of those early bloomers), getting shoved into casual sex at 16. Does that make it okay? It's about as okay as this picture, I'd say.

That said, I really enjoyed and identified with the two photos by Mele Florez-Avellan. I'm 19 now, in transition from the protected, sheltered and rather small life I've had so far to a harsher, yet bigger life full of dreams, hopes, fears, possibilities - so much more.
Lissa, Adriana, Mele if you're reading this, thanks for helping me feel less alone :)

Angela said...

I agree with you, Julie. For some reason--and I don't intend to open a can of worms--I get caught up in the intent behind the art, particularly when children are involved. Art for its own sake sits better with me. My gut tells me that AL's shots of Miley had a lot more behind them than art for its own sake. And its that intent that bugs me a bit.