Friday 24 January 2020

Meadhbh McGrath: What's a 'real woman' anyway?

Marketing ploy: Dove's 2004 'Real Beauty' campaign
Marketing ploy: Dove's 2004 'Real Beauty' campaign
Meadhbh McGrath
British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman. (Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images)
Vogue's 'Real Issue'. Photo: Instagram/British Vogue

Meadhbh McGrath

Tomorrow sees the launch of British 'Vogue''s November edition, ambitiously titled "The Real Issue".

The magazine boasts that this is an issue "where none of the fashion is shot on models" (gasp!) and where the subjects of their fashion and feature spreads "are looked at with a 'real' filter" (how brave!).

The magazine has teased shots of an ice cream maker in an Hermès suit and a charity director in Michael Kors, with the tantalising promise of female railway workers inside. It adds that the beauty team will pose the question, "What is real anyway?" - the same question I was left pondering on hearing the new theme, because I have some real issues with Vogue's Real Issue.

For a start, Alexandra Shulman, the magazine's editor since 1992, hasn't always been so supportive of the idea of putting "real" women in 'Vogue'. A couple of years ago, she got into hot water when she argued against putting "real people" in her magazine, insisting that 'Vogue' was "all about fantasy" and offered readers "an escape from real life".

British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman. (Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images)
British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman. (Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images)

In an interview with BBC Radio 2, she told guest host Lily Allen that she was "fed up" with questions about models being too thin. "People always say, 'why do you have thin models? That's not what real people look like.' But nobody really wants to see a real person looking like a real person on the cover of 'Vogue'."

She added: "People don't want to buy a magazine like 'Vogue' to see what they see when they look in the mirror. They can do that for free."

Well, that's us told. But not quite - Shulman has changed her tune all of a sudden, and now seems only too thrilled to hop on the "real women" bandwagon, although I have to say, 'Vogue' is a bit late to the party.

We all remember Dove's wildly successful "Real Beauty" campaign, first launched in 2004. The Unilever-owned company managed to capitalise on the rejection of heavily airbrushed models and narrow definitions of female beauty, but over a decade later, that message feels more than a little hollow and patronising coming from a corporate source.

British 'Vogue' are trying a similar trick, but this time we won't be fooled. The novelty has worn off, and we can recognise it as the same form of aggressive pandering as Dove's 'femvertising', following in a similar vein to US 'Vogue''s headline-grabbing Kim Kardashian and Kanye West cover in 2014, or the same publication's Kendall Jenner-starring September issue this year.

Of course, Shulman still draws the line at putting any old tawdry civilian on the cover, and instead, we have the British actress Emily Blunt, a woman so beautiful that the make up team on her latest film, 'The Girl on the Train', had to go to great lengths to dull her down with prosthetic under-eye bags, chapped lips and rosacea colouring.

Vogue's 'Real Issue'. Photo: Instagram/British Vogue
Vogue's 'Real Issue'. Photo: Instagram/British Vogue

Shulman defended her decision by explaining Blunt had been chosen for her CV of "relatable" roles, while the actress joked of her cover look: "It took three hours of hair and make up to get me looking this real!"

The November issue also declares the magazine a "model-free zone", a brazen claim given the inevitable slew of advertisements featuring the likes of Gigi Hadid and Cara Delevingne.

From the promo shots, it looks as if 'Vogue''s idea of "real women" means attractive women who don't necessarily fit the standard model dimensions, and many of us won't find anything "relatable" in this bevy of tall, white, straight-sized women.

Then again, if I was really looking for a "model-free zone", a fashion magazine is the very last place I'd go to find it.

Elena Ferrante was not 'asking for it'

The news that the true identity of the fiercely secretive author Elena Ferrante has allegedly been uncovered has set the literary world ablaze. Fans are not impressed. Her publisher is horrified. But the journalist so committed to doxxing the best-selling author is standing proud, basking in his 15 minutes of fame.

Writing in the 'New York Review of Books', Claudio Gatti claims to have unmasked "the real Elena Ferrante", whose Neapolitan novels became a multimillion-selling global sensation when the English translations were published in 2013.

I won't do justice to Gatti's 'investigation' by naming his supposed Ferrante, but it's worth considering how he framed his big reveal. He cites a letter between Ferrante and her publisher, in which she says that, if pushed, she may resort to lies "to shield my person, feelings, pressure". This, according to Gatti, amounts to Ferrante "relinquishing her right to disappear behind her books". As far as he is concerned, her success made the discovery of her identity "inevitable". He writes: "Indeed, she and her publisher seemed to have fed public interest in her true identity."

I think most women will be familiar with the underlying message here: she was asking for it.

This is a woman who has never courted publicity, who has remained invisible for 24 years. Despite the occasional authorised email interview, she stayed out of the limelight and allowed her work to speak for itself. By writing under a pseudonym, Ferrante could escape the autobiographical criticism to which many women writers are subject and the cult of personality that surrounds celebrity authors.

And yet, Gatti reads her unwavering "no" as an enthusiastic "yes". In an audacious invasion of privacy, Gatti shares details of her income and payments made by her publisher, as well as listing the addresses of properties she is said to have purchased. He delves into her family history, and even suggests that her books were at least partly written by her husband.

So now what? We know her name, we know where she lives, we know who her parents were and who she is married to. Does that have any effect on her books? The siege of Elena Ferrante adds nothing to her work, it only serves to boost the profile of one fame-hungry journalist.

While Gatti seems to have interpreted her use of a pseudonym as a sort of trick or hoax, as the notorious literary persona of JT LeRoy was a hoax, Ferrante's desire for anonymity never seemed like a marketing ploy.

In an all-seeing, all-knowing digital age, this real-life literary mystery was a rare and delicious thrill, and I imagine most readers had no interest in knowing the "real Ferrante". We were happy to forget about the author - and the real-life woman behind the pseudonym - and enjoy getting lost in her stories.

Irish Independent

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