Friday, January 22, 2010

The Problem of Heidi Montag

This week, Heidi Montag revealed her new look to the world. After a whopping ten plastic surgeries, Montag has altered her slightly quirky face into that of the transsexual wife of an Orange County republican.

Almost as soon as these pictures broke, a collective cry rang out. She was such a pretty girl!! Why would she do this!!??? What is wrong with her??!! What kind of doctor would conduct such a surgery??!! Where are her parents??!! What kind of message is she sending to her young fans??!! It's all wrong wrong wrong!! Except that on some level it's not.

Heidi Montag is a walking metaphor for the inconsistent message women and girls receive about their appearance and its relationship to their worth in our culture. While girls are regularly TOLD that their intelligence, humor, and competence are valued, women of proven intelligence and humor continue to be subjected to commentary about their appearance. Whether it's Hillary Clinton, who endured far more physical scrutiny than Obama during the 2008 primaries, including one piece by Republican blogger Emily Miller that focused on her cankles, or Tina Fey, who's impressive list of comedic accomplishments receive secondary coverage to her nerd chic appeal, the message is clear. Intelligence, wit, and competence are not enough for a woman's physical appearance to avoid scrutiny.

Meanwhile, the only industries where women have consistently made significantly more money than their male counterparts are the modeling industry and the sex industry, both of which expect their women to meet certain appearance ideals but neither of which requires mental facility. In spite of lip service to the contrary, money has a quantifiable relationship to value and power in our culture. The fact that we choose to pay women far more on average for being supremely beautiful and for acting freakishly sexual than we pay them for being competent intellectually is not lost on girls and young women.

In effect, Heidi Montag is telling her young female fans the unfortunate truth that they already instinctively know - their looks have at least as much value as their personal qualities; and she is as much a victim as she is a metaphor for this confusing message.  This is why she failed to see the irony in espousing the message "beauty's really within," during her post-op interview with Good Morning America's Juju Chang (  After all, our culture gives excessive lip service to the "beauty is within" mantra while outwardly placing far more importance on external beauty.  Therefore, what's wrong with her embodying the same hypocrisy?  

Some have suggested the problem lies not in this hypocritical message.  Rather, Montag has been labeled an addict.  Perhaps she is.  But this is not singly important. Such over-indulgence is bound to happen in a culture that places a high value on physical appearance while offering a myriad of plastic surgery options. Moreover, our culture is largely accepting of plastic surgery as a means to improve self-esteem (a further admission of the importance of looks). According to a Consumer Attitudes Survey conducted in 2008, 56% of women approve of cosmetic surgery and 31% would consider having it themselves. To be sure, Montag was not heavily criticized after her first breast augmentation and nose job. This was seen as within the realm of acceptable tweaking. But when does that tweaking become unacceptable? It's only when someone radically changes their appearance in the way that Montag has that we cry foul. But, in a culture with questionable integrity regarding the qualities it claims to value most in women, can we really be that surprised by someone like Heidi Montag?  Perhaps the greater crime is the perpetuation of the myth that looks don't matter when their value is so obvious.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Knowing the Why: The Importance of Clear Purpose in the Face of Artistic Commercialization

Ok artists of the's what I want to know: What is your point? What is the specific unifying purpose behind your work? Why should anyone care about it? Whether you are a musician, an actor, a writer, a comedian, or a need to have something to say that extends beyond a self-indulgent look-at-me-and-how-good-I-am-at-what-I-do mentality if you expect to be truly relevant and/or find lasting success. And now, as the relationship between commerce and art evolves in the face of technology, there is an even greater need for us artists to develop a clear and specific sense of purpose that we can articulate with confidence. Without it we may lose the very creative flexibility and freedom we so value.

Perhaps the need for purpose sounds obvious to some. But, sometimes what is obvious in theory is absent or at least under-developed in practice. For example, a musician might say something like, "I want to write great songs that really move people to think." A writer might say "I want to write stories that give voice to voiceless characters." A comedian might say, "I want to be edgy and make people laugh at their own discomfort." These may sound like valid purposes...but they aren't specific enough. If a musician wishes to make people think...she must have a clear idea of what she wants them to think about. A writer who wants to give voice to the voiceless must have a sense not only of whose voice she seeks to embody but also of the value in doing so. And a comedian who wishes to make people laugh at their own discomfort should have a specific idea she wants to communicate through that discomfort.

Many artists resist the notion of specificity of purpose because they see it as an artistic failure in the face of commerce; and they believe they must be fully un-tethered in order to create successfully. However, this is a misunderstanding of specificity, which is not synonymous with limitation. Rather, specificity is the unification of our varying artistic interests into a definable singular vision. A great variety of things may inform, inspire, and impact our work. But we MUST be able to synthesize those influences into a succinct and focused vision. Without that specificity, our audience becomes difficult to define, our work becomes unruly and vague and our overall success cannot be calibrated.

Take for example, Lady Gaga. In her work, she primarily seems interested in challenging and examining notions of celebrity. What is it? Is it real or a created construct? How does it relate to artistic expression? How can it be useful? How is it destructive? What does it say about us as a culture? Now, there are many aspects to Lady Gaga’s music, performance, and overall presence. She has an outrageous sense of fashion. Her performance is marked by suicide and murder imagery. She has a strong interest in issues of gender and in gay iconography. But these different aspects act primarily as tools to comment on celebrity…which is the driving purpose behind her work.

Comic Sarah Silverman is another example. Silverman is obviously inspired by a wide variety of political, racial, religious, and gender-based issues. But her work is primarily interested in pointing out and challenging hypocrisy in prejudicial thinking. Her ironic endorsement of various forms of bigotry, which creates discomfort in her audience, forces that audience to consider their own prejudices. Race jokes become not about race…but about the ridiculousness of prejudice…and this is what she wants her audience laughing at and thinking about.

There is no doubt that modern commerce has impacted the life and work of the artist. But our answer to this as artists cannot be a stubborn refusal to acknowledge commerce. Instead, we must understand that a focused, specific artistic vision is NOT a failure of art in the face of commerce. Rather, it is the best way to keep control of our creativity and to build and maintain artistic relevance. For if we aren’t sure what it is we’re doing, and why we are doing...if we can’t articulate it clearly and confidently, someone in marketing will; and that is when art fails in the face of commerce.