Jennifer Lopez & Posh: The New Landscape of American Beauty

Victoria Beckham and Jennifer Lopez // © Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage 

About four months ago, I attended a curated lecture, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The lecture, conducted by the very talented Anna Daveare Smith, was an intrepretation of a photo of Julie Harris, Carson McCullers, and Ethel Waters.

The snapshot of the three women after the Broadway opening of McCuller’s play, Member of the Wedding,  encapsulates much of the personalities and relationships which existed, not only between the three women, but also the characters they originated (or in McCullers case, imagined) in the Broadway show. Harris, who plays a young girl, is quick to shrug off her character’s youthful persona – shown at once with a cigarette, champagne glass, and coffee. McCullers, seated between Harris and Waters, looks to have taken on the full mantle of her protagonist’s vulnerability and youthfulness. Allowing us to see, just how autobiographical Member of the Wedding was, at least inasmuch as it captured the fluctuating emotions, excitement, nervousness, shyness, and vulnerability of being a female pre-teen – seesawing between womanhood and an aggressive love of childhood’s freedoms. We see McCullers at a time and place of stress and vulnerability – waiting for her first Broadway reviews, regressing. She leans sheepishly and indulgently against Waters, who seems comfortable – laughing, hardly aware of this young white womyn, very literally taking nourishment and comfort at her busom; a reenactment of so many U.S. domestic narratives and imaginings.

How then, does this photo of Jennifer Lopez and Posh Spice (a.k.a Victoria Beckham), bring to mind Waters, McCullers, and Harris? It seems yet another snapshot of versions of womynhood: Posh on the one hand grasping for comfort, belonging, caught amidst a pose, and Lopez, clear-eyed, above the fury of paprazzi, dream-like in her posing. 

There is an uncanny resemblance between McCullers and Beckham, not only in the way their bodies are positioned, but also in the very real similarity between their physical features. Both are small-boned and bird-like – McCullers’ frail body a result of years of physical pain and the whittling done by the rheumatic fever she contracted at age 15, while Beckham’s diminishing frame has been widely rumored to be the result of a severe eating disorder. Ironically both conditions, the rheumatic fever and the severe eating disorders, are known to cause strokes. While Beckham has never had a stroke (and certainly I hope never will), McCullers suffered many, beginning in her early twenties. Both Beckham and McCullers have dark hair, cut short. Beckham, like McCullers, has a similar tilt to her head – as if she is leaning into an imaginary Waters – both of their necks angled and revealed, just so, toward the photo lens.

It is the look in their eyes that solidifies it for me: defiant, direct, looking into a middle distance, and mysterious – if only because we, the viewing public, are unsure of how this womyn will express the complications and paradoxes in herself and her life. There is, lurking below both McCullers’ and Beckham’s eyes, a very real sense of an ability to create destruction. For McCullers, it was a fight against the destruction or her body and her own alcoholism. One can only wonder at eckham’s tendencies toward defiance and destruction. Though if her skeletal frame is any indication, certainly it is the denial of the posh luxury of eating, that suggests what method Beckham has chosen. Beckham, unlike McCullers, has no Waters to lean and gain comfort against. Instead, it almost looks as if the cameras themselves, the vulture paparazzi we hear so much about, have become the comforting shelter Beckham seeks – and for which she may so vigilantly work to control her image.

Beckham is not McCullers, McCullers is not Beckham. It is only a trick of the camera that recalls them to one another, that offers these instances (one  post-war and the other post-modern) of a womyn captured by that most modern media, the camera, in a deep well of vulnerability – one who knows it and does not shy away (McCullers) and one who seems unaware of her own self, posing, in what a teenager might imagine as coquiettishness, but which a grown womyn should recognize as an unecessary display for others (Beckham).

John Huston in his 1980 biography, said of McCullers, “She was then in her early twenties, and had already suffered the first of a series of strokes. I remember her as a fragile thing with great shining eyes, and a tremor in her hand as she placed it in mine. It wasn’t palsy, rather a quiver of animal timidity. But there was nothing timid or frail about the manner in which Carson McCullers faced life. And as her afflictions multiplied, she only grew stronger.” McCullers does not recoil or pretend for the camera here, she allows nothing to be obscured – her fragility is not paired with a lack of courage or bravery. It is full of depth. Beckham so many decades later, is doing the opposite of McCullers, and yet her core fragility seeps out.

McCullers was on a mission, one that led her to say that, “Writing, for me, is a search for God.” Beckham seems as if she is on a search for high fashion only – sample size. And yet, the look in her eye, calls one to some form of compassion; some recognition that she is trapped in a role – a grown womyn, playing at being an ingenue, playing at being a coquette. How exhausting – how representative of the roles womyn are so often trapped within, of the only roles, that allow us to be called beautiful. But to me, McCullers, Harris, and Waters are truly beautiful – for they give us a moment of womyn not wearing any masks – of being in the very instant of a moment; of being entirely engaged in their own internally navigated needs.

Lopez, beside Posh Spice, has an eerie distance from it all. As opposed to Beckham, so wholly outwardly engaged, Lopez seems to be holding her own counsel. She is caught posing – looking up, we’re not quite sure at what. Nevertheless, it is clear she is distant: the Julie Harris of the photo. There is a very small hint of a smirk tugging at the corner of her mouth. As if to say, “I know that you’re here. I know that you are watching, and isn’t it all a little bit silly.” But other than this, Lopez seems unflapped. Posh is in full pose mode – bony, emaciated clavicles, childlike body, and all. Both womyn seem to represent some unattainable and unhealthy image of beauty – the distant self-contained beauty, remaining still while being watched, and the other eager to please.  

If I am honest, in this image, I feel so gratetful for Lopez, distant and dreamlike though she may be, because she looks healthy. She has the blessed body of a womyn. She is not under the complete thrall of the media. She is contained, she is performing, on her terms. She is controlling her image, not through starvation, but through her knowledge of the situation she is in – she has that allusive allure. In a culture where as a famous womyn, you can and will be devoured, self-containment, the ability to hold one’s counsel, to serve as one’s own navigational guide, is as in real life, a powerful tool for survival. This is not to chastise Beckham for seeming to enjoy being viewed or displayed, for often womyn are also punished for daring to be seen – daring to be brash or liking to be looked at, it is, however, to suggest that a womyn who cannot escape the spotlight, who manages not to become craven for the spotlight, has attained something which the media seems to want to deny womyn: the role of an adult womyn.

That is what makes Jennifer Lopez so stunning in this photo. She is wearing her clothes, her clothes are not wearing her. She is in possession of herself. And that possession is in such stark contrast to Beckham’s lack, that all those things Beckham may try to cover in her posing, are moved that much more to the forefront. Self-denial may get you into high fashion’s sample size, but it will not help you wear it or be in possession of yourself. Lopez is a womyn for whom haute-couture is intended.  Possession of self, no matter the emotion or place, is always the highest form of beauty.

Perhaps that is why Beckham is so painfully thin – she is feasting only upon the spotlight. Such a feast could never be filling. After all the spotlight only follows designated members. Maybe that is why Beckham is in a frenzy to capture and keep the camera’s eye, even as her own show a very real destitution. She like McCullers’ character in Member of the Wedding, is desperate, ambivalent, overwhelmed, and yet steadied by her membership, in this case in the cult of celebrity. It is as McCullers wrote in the opening lines of her most famous novel, “It happened that green and crazy summer. It was a summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and she was a member of nothing in the world. And she was afraid.”

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