GIRLS AND MONEY: DANIELA ROSSELL AND LAUREN GREENFIELD
THE ART ISSUE
In her essay ‘Women on the Market’, Luce Irigary states that “the society we know, our own culture, is based upon the exchange of women. Without the exchange of women, we are told, we would fall back into the anarchy of the natural world.” This exchange signifies and organises the foundation upon which our economic, social and cultural values are founded — the transactional value and consumption of women establishes a sociocultural endogamy that excludes female interaction. Women can be made commerce of by virtue of their exchange value, but cannot partake: the economy that uses them as currency prohibitively excludes them. “Participation in this marketplace requires that the body submit itself to a specularisation… a standardised sign” — that, in order to measure the worth of women, they must be uniformly categorised, rendered subject to a male gaze that delineates an aesthetic hierarchy and therefore value. This is how women and money are instructed to interact in a capitalist framework; in order to participate in legitimate socialisation, girls must develop to fit into a predesigned mould, so that their commodity value can be determined and concreted through a specific set of criteria. Through this process, one is not born, but becomes a woman.
Both Daniela Rossell and Lauren Greenfield negotiate the myriad tensions that arise during the coming of age of women in a capitalist framework. With book titles that immediately identify this relationship (here, Rossell’s Ricas y Famosas or Rich and Famous and Greenfield’s Girls and Money) there is a specified association between the women they represent and the wealth that they engage with.
The way that Rossell engages her subjects with their own self-awareness is starkly different to Greenfield. In Rossell’s images, the women immediately appear empowered by their own beauty — the matriarchs of their own image, staring confidently into the camera. However, there is a dissonance here: somehow, these women in their designer dresses do not stand apart from the backdrops that are eerily evocative of film sets, but almost blend in with their lavish surroundings, unified by commercialism. They become less ‘themselves’, less individualised people, and instead blend in to the background as mere symbols of wealth. Upon examination of the images, the women become like Tiqqan’s Young-Girl, who “relates to herself like she does to all the commodities she surrounds herself with… feels as if she were with family when she’s among commodities, all of which are her sisters.”
Rossell describes the women in her series as “women who are eager and willing to be photographed — they have studied and memorised these roles of what they were expected to do, how they were expected to stand and perform to the camera, roles that were already written by someone else.” These are women who have internalised what it means to be women and perform their roles with confidence and enthusiasm, women who have learned their selfhood almost in spite of themselves. Gender theorist Judith Butler describes gender itself as “the repeated stylisation of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance” and there is something particularly interesting about this image of a subconscious and “congealed” image providing an illusion of reality when we look at these pictures. These are women who have been societally coerced to learn how to simultaneously stand out and blend in to their background, to operate in the same way as the stuffed lionesses, as signifiers of commodity value rather than individuals.
This awareness is particularly complicated by this first photograph of Paulina. We are offered two images of Paulina: one where she is almost infantalised by her bedroom, which is crammed full of stuffed toys and Disney balloons and pink marble. She is simultaneously dressed in PVC and heeled platforms, her posture almost a glamour shot, and she seems almost like a little girl dressed up, playing models with Rossell, learning the poses required of a woman in order to be sexually desirable (and therefore, implicitly valuable).
The second image is even more complex. Wearing a Moschino t-shirt emblazoned with ‘Peep Show! $1.00’ across her chest, she is actively engaging in her own monetary value, whilst the irony of the combination of a designer shirt, a lavish surrounding and the low price of the services she purports to offer reads in her expression. She stands beneath three portraits of disembodied female busts, women utterly abstracted from their own identities but who can be revered exclusively for their conventional beauty — made-up faces, coiffed hair, diamond earrings. These are what she has to imitate; these are the acceptably passive faces of valuable femininity.
Rossell, who describes Paulina as playful, reads her expression in the second image as saying “I’m with it, I’m down with this situation”. She continues to say that “we’re living in a place where we are so liberated that we are playing with being prostitutes, with the prostitute aesthetic… but you are objectifying yourself, you are sexualising yourself, where is the progress? Where is the liberation? What is that freeing her of?” It is almost as if this is the completion of capitalist patriarchy, the internalisation of the relationship demanded between women and money. Like Butler preempts, the girls/money dynamic has congealed into an illusion of substance and certainty.
In the third image, however, a girl sits on her sofa, lined up next to her dolls. Her hands lie in her crotch, her legs bare, her pose and expression suggestive of a sexuality that bores her. She is the epitome of Berger’s infamous assessment that “men act and women appear,” exchange with woman who is automatically rendered passive. She is as static and ornamental as the dolls that sit next to her, she reads without agency but is immediately provocative. She has entered into the role required of her but is disinterested in active engagement in her own autonomy.
Greenfield’s photography engages with a similar emotional aesthetic, of women growing into predetermined roles, and yet with a difference in its subtlety of approach. The image inGirls and Money, of a child in fancy dress lying on the sofa in an expensive shoe-store, offers almost an ominous inevitability rather than direct commentary, a dissonance between the relaxed and playful posturing of a little girl in fancy dress and the designer shoes on the other side of the sofa. This ease of self-representation, an existence yet to be coerced into the approved mould of what it means to be woman, is in stark contrast to Rossell’s image of the girl on the sofa.
However, Greenfield’s images prove that sense of freedom and autonomy of self-expression to be short lived. The next image, ‘Ashleigh, 13’ is taken from Fast-Forward: Growing up in the Shadow of Hollywood, a book which focuses on the accelerated maturity of young women in a capitalist framework. Dressed in high heels, pearls and an expensive dress, Ashleigh reads as far older than her stated thirteen years and her attention is already focused on her appearance — particularly her weight.
Greenfield’s 2006 directorial debut, Thin, is a painful reflection and exploration into how the maturing female body can become contorted into the primary expression of identity for women, focusing on those hospitalised with eating disorders. However, as in Greenfield’s photography, it is not the exceptionality of these women that is made subject, but their coalescence with societal constructions of normality. Whilst these disorders are clearly borne from far more than a desire to be thin, the fixation on the female body as a site upon which understanding of selfhood is negotiated offers vast scope for confusion and difficulty. A lot of the girls in the documentary are adolescents, in their early teens, coming to understand their own sense of identity — an identity rigidly framed within the confines of the idealised female aesthetic.
When a nurse asks Brittany, who has had an eating disorder since she was 8 years old, why she worries what other people think, Brittany responds with frustration: “because it’s all I’ve cared about my whole life, it’s the reason why I lost weight in the first place.” She colluded with her mother on techniques for extreme weight loss; this is a frighteningly familiar narrative of cross-generational female obsession with appearance. One woman who wryly describes her suicide attempt as “over two pieces of pizza” goes on to explain how it was her family who taught her the methods by which she lost so much weight, that she was counting calories by the age of 11. It is this familial collusion that reads so clearly in ‘Ashleigh, 13’, whose parents look upon their daughter measuring her weight on the scales, tacitly endorsing her fixation. She may only just have entered her teens, but already she is engaging with the requirements for female value in a patriarchal market.
Greenfield’s most recent documentary, Queen of Versailles, explores capitalism’s impact on contemporary Americans in its most blatant and extreme manifestation. The narrative is that of the exceptionally wealthy Jackie and David Siegel as they build their gaudy Versailles house, the largest and most expensive house in America — an enterprise interrupted by the financial collapse. The irony of the house itself being modelled on the Palace of Versailles, a focal point for the resistance during the 1789 French Revolution attacking societal inequality, appears entirely lost on the Siegels. They open the film with David’s smug pride at the wealth he has amassed in a time-share business, built on hardselling dream holidays to those who can often scarcely afford them; there are montages of travelling in private jets, Jackie dressed in expensive furs and with a face (and body) that have clearly afforded expensive maintenance. Jackie speaks of gradually falling for David, who she met through the Mrs Florida competition that she was a part of, explaining that “it felt so good to be adored — that’s what attracted me.” There is an unspoken agreement which becomes patently clear; David is very rich, thirty years Jackie’s senior and can afford to build Jackie’s dream home with thirty bathrooms; Jackie is glamorous, engaging, glad to be out of the one-bathroom home she grew up in, and eventually fell for David’s seduction.
Once the financial crisis impacts their business and they lose their fortune, building progress is halted, and the focus of the film turns to Jackie’s new way of life. Yet again, it is not her bizarre circumstance that is made feature, but her normality and exceptional likeability in an outrageously unlikeable circumstance. Cast aside by her husband, who is exclusively fixated on making back his fortune in his home office, it is the disintegration of their relationship rather than the Siegel empire which is most fascinating. Jackie is resigned to shopping in discount stores with admirable enthusiasm, whilst David is notable only by his absence: he is literally present within the house, yet refuses to leave his room stacked with paperwork and telephones. He describes Jackie as like “having another child” and she is no longer a part of his narrative of economic success or a symbol of his wealth, but rather a burden.
What Queen of Versailles consolidates is that, in a capitalist economy, not only does money come and go with frightening ease but so too do the relationships and identities built on such fallible conditions. Jackie, whose garish clothes blend almost seamlessly into the vulgar décor of her Versailles-style dream home, depreciates with the negative equity of the houses that David long-since mortgaged for immediately available funds for reinvestment. She is the depressing completion of an exhaustive narrative of how consumerism affects women; if one views them, or we view ourselves, in a capitalist framework that is falliable and insatiable, it is inevitable that we will fall short of our own expectations and leave our understanding of our own identities vulnerable to collapse. Queen of Versailles reminds us is that, no matter how enthusiastically women participate in the rigid confines of a patriarchal society that aligns ideal femininity with specific requirements — even for Jackie, the infinitely compliant beauty queen and trophy wife — if we do not exist on our own terms then our identity will be perpetually unstable and liable to crumble. It is only through rejection of a set of principles that allow woman to be considered as a commodity — valuable insofar as they are static, passive and ornamental — that gender equality will offer true liberation, and women will be able to exist and appear on their own terms.