idolising the image

Every day, we circulate in the same spaces as our friends, families, acquaintances, colleagues, peers and strangers, conversing under the same roof, passing each other without a second glance in the streets, dawdling in the aisles of the same shops, people watching in the same parks, etc.

But sometimes, we meet or pass an individual who leaps out above the rest, whether it’s a talent they possess, how their noticeable presence silently captivates the room, their striking appearance that forces you to take a second glance in the street, or just the way in which people gravitate towards them and their words hold such gravitas that people cling to with anticipation. What is that alluring intangible quality they have that you can’t quite put your finger on?

Without realising, we create social hierarchies in our psyche, whether it’s based on our relationship with those people and their significance in relation to our own lives, or perhaps to the extent of which we wish to emulate the way in which they conduct their lives, because of how we perceive them to be. We attach relevance to names of people we associate ourselves with or wish to be associated with, or recognise in the world of fame who we choose to acknowledge and follow in the media. Whether we’re talking about celebrities or the ‘popular’ figures from school, university, work etc, whatever your setting, have you ever wondered what makes certain people rise above the others to a certain level of interest? Why are certain people talked about more than others? On a larger scale, what is it that causes people to become iconic?
These questions have particularly come to my attention following my recent visits to the National Portrait Gallery, where I enjoyed two temporary exhibitions about iconic figures.

The first visit was to purchase my ticket for the Audrey Hepburn ‘Portraits of an Icon’ exhibition, and I thought I would make the most of my visit by exploring Simon Schama’s ‘Face of Britain’ exhibition in the meantime. What I loved about Schama’s exhibition was the distinction made between defining celebrity status and fame, the latter of which has to be someone who adds to our national story.  Schama had divided his selected pieces into the following five themes of British figures through time: Power, Love, Fame, Self and People. Across the exhibition, there were three key figures who captured my attention.  

The first one was a series of photographs of Alice Liddell, who is said to be the real life inspiration behind the fictional Alice in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ written by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pen name Lewis Carroll, although throughout his life he denied that his characterisation of the fictitious ‘Alice’ was ever based on a real person. If we look at Alice Liddell in this image, she appears to be fairly normal looking, in an innocently tucked up position with short dark hair, contrasting with the image of the fictional Alice, whose key features are long golden hair, with her blue dress, white smock and little black bow.

Kitty Fischer was also a key figure I learned about. Having come from a poor background, she became the most celebrated courtesan of the eighteenth century, and what gave her such a title was her beauty, wit and charm which captivated fellow Londoners in the mid-1700s. Using her own knowledge of marketing skills, she carefully managed her image and developed her own celebrity status using carefully choreographed publicity stunts and managing her portrayal in painted and printed images. She knew how to manipulate the general public through public exhibitions which generated ‘a demand for her face, her body and her sensuality” and worked with artists such as Sir Joshua Reynolds, and his rival Nathaniel Hone. If you look carefully at the right corner of the portrait (below), you will see a kitten is attempting to fish from a goldfish bowl, a choice made by the artist to indicate the woman’s identity - Kitty Fischer.

The final, and probably most globally recognisable figure (along with Alice in Wonderland) was William Shakespeare, a male Elizabethan writer whose words maintain enough gravitas for him to remain a household name in the twenty-first century and one of, if not the most, influential writers throughout history, whose words seem to be everywhere.

Initially, these three figures caused me to question the relationship between reputation/imagery and the real person behind closed doors and how they inspired/created such legacies.  

It was the ideal lead into my anticipated visit to the next exhibition which I would attend in two days’ time. The question on my mind was, to what extent does ‘hype’ (or in the long term, a legacy) come from talent, character or image, or is it the combination of them all? What gives certain figures longevity and popularity over others?

The Audrey Hepburn ‘Portraits of an Icon’ exhibition was one of my favourite exhibitions I’ve been to, as it gave me the opportunity to explore further why Audrey Hepburn has had such a powerful influence in the colliding worlds of film and fame, after I learned more about her at the Paramount Pictures Studios in Los Angeles last summer, whilst getting to indulge myself in quiet rooms filled with famous black and white photographs of the iconic actress. 

What is interesting about her is that she is celebrated for living a full life as opposed to being a ‘live fast, die young’ symbol who, as well as maintaining an extensive and successful acting career, frequently helped children’s charities overseas in her older years before passing away from cancer at the age of 63, leaving behind a family of her own (she played the role of Holly Golightly just three months after the birth of her son, Sean, after two previous miscarriages). Both on and off screen, Hepburn demonstrates a unique positive spirit which makes her a loveable favourite in the public eye. What also comes in quite handy is her beautiful face and feminine beauty, and how she is photographed frequently in such a way that captures her spirit, whether it’s with her coy smile, surrounded by animals or with the focus on her reputation of exquisite style.

She should not be underestimated. In the twenty-first century we like to think that it is a modern concept to be non-conforming to gender expectations and roles, but like many key woman in history, Audrey Hepburn was already doing just that. On a superficial level, she demonstrated her challenge with female expectations by sporting a short haircut, something we frequently consider as a bold choice made by the ‘modern woman’. More significantly, she often took more controversial acting roles such as in Breakfast at Tiffany’s where the female protagonist (more so in the book) had strong undertones of a sexual nature, and The Children’s Hour, which also deals with sexuality, a controversial topic portrayed by women at the time in mainstream cinema. However, although her image is recognised by most people, it is intriguing to me how little people actually know about her life and her as a person (to the extent of what we think we can know about a famous icon, anyway).

I concluded that our knowledge of such key figures is formed by an amalgamation of selective portrayal of truth, emphasis and marketing (being in the way that desire is created from the way people are photographed in particular). Although we all buy into this whether we know it or not, I find it slightly unnerving how some people’s lives are slightly romanticised and consequently almost seem fictionalised to an extent, because we choose to believe what we are shown/what is created rather than knowing the full story, and we put people on pedestals which cannot be realistically maintained.

A key pop culture reference to this notion is depicted in John Green’s novel and film adaptation of ‘Paper Towns’. Whilst I don’t consider myself a John Green fan, and felt the film fell short of what it could have been, I am intrigued by the characterisation of his female adolescent protagonist ‘Margo’ (played by Cara Delevingne) and the perception of her through the eyes of his other protagonist Quentin (Nat Wolff). Green explores the typical archetype of the teenage girl being an object of desire, similar to the American construct of “the hottest girl in school” which seems to feature in every single high school chick flick ever made. Although I felt the film was a bit flimsy, I did appreciate John Green’s attempt to deconstruct the notion that girls in high school are flawless because of the way in which they are placed on pedestals in our social hierarchies. Unfortunately, these hierarchies are so powerful in both school and society by the way in which some individuals have the power to influence more than others. Margo is constructed to be this mysterious, attractive girl who is so energised by mystery that she is hard to ‘pin down’ so to speak; is it her or the people around her who create this perception of her? The film deconstructs this in the ending of the film when Quentin realises people are not what they are often made out to be, and thus the film makes the point that women are often portrayed as these mysterious, angelic higher beings because of their beauty and allure, which cannot be maintained in reality.

The other night I watched a panel interview online at London BFI Film Festival for an upcoming film to be released in November called ‘Carol’ an adaptation from the novel ‘The Price Of Salt’ by Patricia Highsmith, which follows the romantic story of two women caught up in the oppressive society of 1950s New York. In the panel show, a journalist posed a question to Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett along the lines of “Are you considered to be strong women for taking on this film?” to which Cate retorts in good humour, “What does that mean?” and continues her puzzlement for what that means: “Driving the narrative?”. Rooney contributes a response to Cate’s bewilderment, “Because we have fully realised parts in the movie it’s somehow strong, but it should be normal”, to which Cate adds: “and we’re meant to say ‘thank you’ haha”.

The director of the film, Todd Haynes, adds “The problem is it suggests an agenda, that because these are less represented people although they occupy over half the population, that they have this sort of social agenda in that they have a responsibility to be strong in the roles that they pick…” but he highlights that Mara and Blanchett have always demonstrated their capabilities of so many different roles, all roles which are part of being human. Cate Blanchett’s fame is potentially being used to bring the matter of gay rights to the forefront of mainstream cinema, but then again, as Haynes alludes to, perhaps there is no agenda. To what extent should there an agenda, and is this the same for famous women through time in how they have presented themselves? 

I also noticed the power of setting a story in the past. Some of my favourite photographers are female photojournalists from the 1950s, many of whom had projects based in New York, such as Ruth Orkin. Their photographs possess a certain authentic quality that makes us romanticise these images and ideas simply because they are removed from our lives or seem to be from a different time.

It all forms the basis of how consumerism seems to work, selling an image, essentially. What all of these topics have in common is how we are manipulated by what we are shown or told, which makes us idolise things, not necessarily for their reality, but for what they seem to be or what people want them to be. Fame and celebrity seems to be a complicated construct, and I’d like to think that, with those who have longevity and power, it is because we recognise them for their talent and as a full, real person, rather than their fame being a product of us idolising their image only.

Even the concept of 'the girl next door' has become a term so manipulated that it now has its own pedestal expectations. I’d like to think that we as members of a modern society are gradually becoming more aware of the inaccurate depictions of those in the spotlight, characterisations of figures portrayed to certain demographics of people, or the people in our everyday lives, and that we focus more on allowing someone to be a human being with real issues, difficulties, colloquialisms and flaws that we are understanding of rather than critical of, and we can erase the unrealistic pedestal we insert into the constructions of such social hierarchies, therefore erasing the chances of the unfair depiction of a ‘downfall’. Let people be fully recognised people who do what they choose, whether they have been attached to an agenda or not.

Can you imagine having a chat with an iconic figure who is essentially worshipped for being flawless, over a cuppa with them dressed down in jeans, no make up and a baggy jumper, letting them just be normal for a moment?

‘Moon River’, Breakfast At Tiffany’s - I'm crossing you in style some day

Tears For Fears - "Everybody Wants To Rule The World"