The Image in the Mirror

BY KELLY JEAN COGSWELL | Everything boils down to image, especially in an election year. Paying consultants millions of dollars to shape theirs, Hillary has become efficiency and experience embodied, Obama the poster boy for carefully crafted authenticity and boundless hope, and McCain the straight-shooting vet that will defend the nation in these troubled times.

Queers know something about image, too. Fags are still fighting the ones that label them hairdressers and pedophiles. Dykes are ugly, humorless, man-hating monsters.

At first we tried the suit and tie, and pearls and dress approach to show we deserved to exist, but then moved on to denim cutoffs and combat boots for ACT UP and the Lesbian Avengers to reclaim the power of queerness. As we gain ground politically, it's too bad we're creeping back into gender-appropriate dresses and suits.

Everything boils down to image, especially in an election year.

Images and reality aren't always in sync. A black actor in the White House foreshadowed Obama's run before he was even elected to the Senate. But while there's a black female running a division of detectives on “Law and Order,” I wouldn't hold my breath waiting to see a woman of color become a common sight at the head of anything in the NYPD.

Women are still hookers and harpies on the one side, and saints and myths on the other. While I've always been partial to the Statue of Liberty raising her torch – and in France, the elegant, shapely, and scantily clad woman symbolizing Liberty leading the people to freedom – it's a little annoying when you crunch the numbers and realize just how far behind you really are in job equity and political power.

When she ran for president of France last year, Segolene Royal got ripped to shreds by her own party, some even daring to say she belonged back in the kitchen. Now it's Hillary getting literally portrayed as the HRC nutcracker with metal spikes between splayed thighs. There are T-shirts reading, “If only Hillary had married O.J. instead!” The South Park comedy team put a bomb in her vagina. That's not satire, it's pure hate.

I'm so demoralized I couldn't even face the Women's Day demo this Saturday here in Paris, and went to see a movie instead. I should've aimed for something more escapist. As it turns out, Antonioni's 1966 film “Blow-Up,” which uses the plot of a thriller to meditate on the nature of reality and media and the imagination, is also a biting critique about women in the fashion industry.

There's not a scene of greater mutual loathing anywhere than the one between the models and the photographer, Thomas, who, sick of the beautiful women he only sees skin-deep, longs to do something really worthwhile to prove his artistic mettle, like shoot undercover in a flop house. His photos expose the skinny arms and the swollen bellies of homeless men, along with his own indifference.

Meanwhile, the women he was condemned to photograph quickly had enough of the domineering photographer shouting at them to move their arms up and down and sideways, and smile on command. The rage behind the emptiness of their unlined faces reduces the superficial suffering of the girls in America's Next Top Model to the sugarcoated entertainment it is.

Antonioni wasn't criticizing the objectification of women. After all, turning women into images is part of his business as filmmaker, and we aestheticize things and people all the time. And with regards to fashion, there's nothing inherently wrong with longing for the beautiful.

For Antonioni, the problem was image-making itself, how it can drain the beauty from the beautiful, and reduce even the reality and humanity of the homeless men to just another image. Beautiful women aren't just beautiful. Miserable men are more than their visible misery. There's a difference between image and reality, even if there's a dialog between them especially in the areas of advertising and politics.

I'd like to sneer at image-making myself, but for queers image is how lawmakers are persuaded to legislate, and even how bullies identify their targets. We're engaged in a war of media, of language. In other words, image.

To that end, on Saturday – while I was at the movies – a new feminist direct action group called La Barbe celebrated the International Day of the Rights of Women by going to the center of Paris, scaling the statue of the Republique, putting a beard on the woman symbolizing Liberty, then denouncing the rise of women in French politics.

“France is a country of men, led by men, that has little place for feminine ambitions,” the spokeswoman said with a wink. “Render unto Cesar the things that are Cesar's.”

The women, of course, all wore fake beards. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Maybe Hillary should give it a try.

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