Film Studies: A bad taste in the mouth

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The Independent Culture

Somehow or other, the Audrey Hepburn estate has made a deal with The Gap that lets the store use moving images of Audrey - it's one of her dances from Funny Face (1957) - to promote their clothes. If you remember that film, Audrey played an egg-head assistant in a New York bookstore who is taken up by a fashion magazine as the new woman. What that meant, in the 1950s, was an unexpected celebration of the flat-chested, twig figure. Audrey was lovely, cool and gamine, and it seemed that there wasn't an ounce of flesh on her. This in an age when the beautiful movie stars were Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Jayne Mansfield, Kim Novak or even Doris Day - big busted girls, with flesh to dream over. Whereas Audrey was... well, she was like a little girl.

If you go to the late 1950s, and to Brigitte Bardot, she was still too much cream filling for her bikini. And the pin-up was the measure of the star. Audrey was thin, but she was "adorable" as a star without being sexy. Yet Audrey today, in those Funny Face scenes, looks cute and curvy. She has a woman's body. Whereas these days some of the most appealing women on the screen look like aliens. Or they look like boys.

As Fashion Week hit London and the cadaverous panthers prowled the runways, the cry came up again from teachers, nutritionists, parents and well-upholstered women everywhere as to what we are doing in fostering this haunted, lean look as the iconography of attractiveness. It's an old subject, and it seems to me that there's very little to be done about it until the human race learns to live without the idea of attractiveness. And do you really want to be a part of that brave new world?

So, in a last effort to wake us up, let me suggest that the extraordinary current emphasis on emaciated models, stars and birds is, quite simply, the expression of men's deep urges to go to bed with boys.

More or less, since the coming of photography, modern societies have wanted their women (and their men) to be thinner, thinner. It was in the 1930s, in movies, that the cult of fleshy bathing beauties passed away and women wore sheath and pencil dresses. There were exceptions, like Jean Harlow, but most of those women - Hepburn, Davis, Crawford, Myrna Loy, Stanwyck - were very slender. They paid a terrible price for it sometimes. There were women who were hardly allowed to eat a thing. There were others encouraged to throw up as soon as they had eaten. And here's the creepiest touch of all - but I have it on good authority - there were stars impregnated with worms by the studios to keep their weight down.

As I said, in the Forties and Fifties, there was a return to the bosom: it was the hallowed sight in pin-up photography. Some cultural theorists have argued that women's thighs were round and smooth again to match the shape and polish of our bombs - culture is so vulnerable to theory! But this fulsomeness ended in the Sixties, and it shows no sign of returning. Meanwhile, every danger reported is real: children - very young women - are being encouraged in terrible eating habits that endanger their health. We have reached a stage now where the old juxtaposition of magazines (a famine victim facing a Dior fashion model) has been merged: the one is the other today. How long before some very cool magazine actually dresses up child brides in some African countries in Prada, or whatever? Do you flinch from that, or would it be a thrill? Taste goes once appetite is deformed.

We could ban photography and advertising. Well, no, of course we couldn't, or at least we couldn't enforce those orders any better than we could ban appearance. But we could at least introduce the subject into our educational curriculum as a way of diverting or stilling the madness. We could ask ourselves in a thorough way, do we honestly believe in the code that goes with "good-looking", that most treacherous phrase in the language?

Of course, the "real" problem you will be told in America is not thinness but obesity. As I write this I am watching a TV show, The Big Losers, in which teams of massively overweight people compete in losing poundage. And truly, carrying too much is more likely to kill you, or to restrict your life, than being thin. America is an obese culture: so many of its best inventions are too big. And it is just as absurd a cultural code that says being fat is gross or sickening or "obscene".

It is one of the religions that has replaced God: be thin, avoid fat.

And it is mad as religions always are. I cannot see how any sane reform stands a chance. Only vile and violent satire will shock enough. So bring the dead and the dying on the runways; let Fashion Week go fully fascist.