Monday, July 11, 2011

The Media Machine and the Bodies It Feeds On

There needs to be a new word for the editorial point of view demonstrated in the constant rotation of articles in the UK's Daily Mail devoted to the excoriation of the female form. Dysmorphomaniacal. Celebricorpusrabidity. Hyperbodyhyperactiviscrutiny. I used to take screengrabs in open-mouthed shock to document articles such as this:

or this:
or this:
...until I realized that the Daily Mail looks like that every day. Truly, every day of the year. It's a microscope! Photos catch female celebrities from multiple angles while chiding them for their clothing choices (too slutty, too demure, too fancy, too rumpled), their footwear (they went after Nigella Lawson for her bunions recently), their hair, their panty lines, for sweating while exercising--anything. Women intrusively photographed with telephoto lenses "flaunt" their (either) Perfect Bikini or Somehow Wrong--fat, old, thin, wrinkly--Body in their bathing suits. Every (transitory, misleading, temporary, sustained) facial expression or bit of body language captured in any still photograph is valid evidence of and captioned as part of whatever narrative about their love life the Mail is pushing--jilted, spinster, happy, cheated on, cheating. You can not win.

In a perverse way I almost (almost) admire the Daily Mail for its insanity. It's so thoroughly superficial, in the literal sense. It's only about how things look: an insatiable Gargantua of body scrutiny. It's not admirable, of course--it's awful--and I feel terrible for anybody caught in the papp's sights in the UK, for good or for ill. It all sucks, although in a kind of equal-opportunity way. Everybody/everything gets put out there.

Also, weirdly, humanity shines through sometimes--at least to my eyes. Bodies are just bodies, and you show enough of them, even with all the commentary, they just seem like...bodies. And in the meantime the Mail looks stupid, like a bully jumping up and down harassing somebody on a bus while no one pays attention. They make themselves look ridiculous.

I found a few recent articles chastising otherwise looks-sanctioned female celebrities for evidence of their age especially mean, even given the Mail's usual MO--although it proves this point. Both of the articles criticized the women's hands and arms. One was about Kirstie Alley:

and one was about Meg Ryan:

Their arms are a dead giveaway! The bracelet only brings more attention to Alley's 60-year-old hand! The summery dress only shows Ryan's bulgy veins! They're not getting away with their grand plan to...

...wait, what are these women getting away with? Nothing. Yes, they are aging female celebrities who engage in the dance of beauty ideals. WE ALL KNOW HOW IT WORKS. We all know what they--and we--are supposed to look like, what the requirements are and when people don't fit them. Being thinner (as Alley is for the moment) means she is OK, as is Ryan, but they both sadly, stupidly, forgot to magically de-age their hands. Boo-ya! Failure. The Mail grinds these women through the body ideals machine and finds them wanting, cleverly exposes the tests they don't pass, but the only 'weaknesses' it exposes is the machine itself. Because Christ almighty, old hands age. Bodies age.

It's shitty journalism and pointless crap and it does harm, but I can't help feeling that articles like this mostly point out the flaws in the media's body-scrutiny machine. Rather the way that this article in People does:

The article is about a dancer on "Dancing With the Stars," Cheryl Burke, who gained (she estimates) five to ten pounds a couple years ago while on break from the show (some estimates by other helpful people put it closer to 20); she also said at the time she went from a size 2 to a size 4. When photos of her in a bikini surfaced at this time she started getting a lot of flak. There was a story at that time where she defended her weight, and then this story in January detailing the the heartbreak of the original story...

Ungh, I can't keep up. Whatever. She gained weight, spouted the party line about "loving her curves" in public while panicking and dieting in private, then talked about it all later again. The point is that this is all this story is about: ten pounds. That's it. The media machine is fucked--because it exists, but also--if a ten pound-change triggers this kind of journalistic need (and note: there were two cycles of stories about this). You can see the spectre of money in it all--Burke gains attention for her autobiography and for the show--which creates its own impetus, but still. This is all we're talking about. Ten pounds. And 60-year-old hands. That's it. That's all. The trigger is filed down insanely low.

Unfortunately stories like this and the Daily Mail insanity are more convincing proof of a flawed system than the scrutiny tendered to people who "deserve" it--Alley, for instance, when she gained 90 pounds. Then somehow it's okay. Merited, even if we won't admit it. But lets take the proof where we can find it: if the detectors start blaring when there's very little to detect, maybe the machine is broken.

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