Peter York On Ads: Women of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your split ends
Sunday 03 February 2008
All those lovely old words, such as "struggle" – as in "our struggle" – are all but goners now. They're just part of the collective unconscious of Babyboomers with deep lefty parents, people who knew what a Soviet Realist picture looked like long before they used them as ironic interior decoration.
But capitalist spin has co-opted a lot of the language and imagery of the later Left, especially those crucial BBs, the '68-ers who were involved in all the events of '68 – London, Paris, Washington. The marching-in-the-street boys and girls.
There's a wobbly dotted line from the people's struggle to our generation, from the women's thing to the struggle for loveliness, played out in hair and cosmetics advertising and in the makeover shows. All the ideas and imagery are there. In 'Extreme Makeover' the story almost always involves a modest woman trapped by a crippling lack of self-confidence about her looks. She's a martyr to her family or her job. She's lost her figure after three children; her teeth are brown stumps; her hair's a home-dyed haystack. Her friends and family say she's done nothing for herself. You might suggest she'd be better off leaving them all and entering a nunnery, but the 'EM' team think differently. Their answer is aesthetic medicalisation – a six-week round of violent surgical procedures, untroubled by doubt.
It's a very emotional journey. There are tests, like when a child's voice on the telephone asks them to give up the quest. There are tears, after practically every operation. Then there's the shopping, when caring gay boys with degrees in retail therapy take them to get party dresses and stilettos – they need to be women again. They can throw away their chain-store jeans, their shapeless tops and their flat shoes now they're thoroughly resexualised.
And at the end, after the Reveal, when they appear practically unrecognisable, they tell the world that they've turned into confident monsters, completely unstoppable, determined to assert and express themselves. Their struggle has been worth it. You don't have to be a left-wing feminist 'ology professor to read this particular parable.
They're fighting for beauty in L'Oréal commercials, too, waging the war against wrinkles or cellulite, led by a glinty-eyed celeb. I always find Claudia Schiffer credible in this role; you can't see her putting up with imperfection in anything.
The latest Alberto V05 Smooth and Shine commercial is focused on a new condition, stressed hair, which absolutely demands a medicalised metaphor – the prone patient wheeled along the hospital corridor, with a doctor and nurses briefing him as they go. She has dry, stressed hair; God knows what she's been doing.
Once in the operating theatre – a dramatic shade of pink – they dim the lights and give the doc the Smooth and Shine. In a second the healing hands are at work – the minimum-wage hairdresser's helper's job elevated to grand therapy. The patient is borderline orgasmic, looking like early Demi Moore in Oscar mode: sleepwalking perfection, hair as shiny as acrylic.
This fluffy little piece won't win any prizes. But it's still in the line of succession from "Because-I'm-worth-it" and it's still on to a great truth. Anything that threatens the struggle for beauty is a very big monster indeed. The fight-back is urgent, imperative, medical and scientific. It's the struggle for self-actualisation and there are no holds barred. As the great Canadian heroine Helen Reddy so tellingly sang back in 1972, "I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman."
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