I’ve got a new candidate for my list of twenty-first century geniuses. Joining Malcolm Gladwell and Jonti Picking is Virginia Postrel, who I just discovered from an article in the October Atlantic Monthly, Superhero Worship.
I did a little research to find out more about Postrel, which isn’t very hard since she’s all over the Web. It’s not like I’m uncovering some hidden gem. She’s a well-known, well-published writer, editor and blogger on politics and economics. And honestly, I disagree with most of what I’ve seen from her on those topics. Hey, I linked to Mike Huben’s Critiques of Libertarianism back in 1995!
What I find valuable from Postrel is the clarity that she brings to the idea of glamour. One fascinating point is the fact that the word “glamor” used to mean a magic spell. The OED says that it came through the Scots language from the same root as “grammar,” so the meaning pathway was, roughly, grammar > learning in general > magical skill > magical spell > charming someone with looks and style.
So far I haven’t read much more than the Atlantic article, but here are some choice quotes from it:
If that sounds crazy, it’s because we tend to forget what glamour is really about. Glamour isn’t beauty or luxury; those are only specific manifestations for specific audiences. Glamour is an imaginative process that creates a specific, emotional response: a sharp mixture of projection, longing, admiration, and aspiration. It evokes an audience’s hopes and dreams and makes them seem attainable, all the while maintaining enough distance to sustain the fantasy. The elements that create glamour are not specific styles – bias-cut gowns or lacquered furniture – but more general qualities: grace, mystery, transcendence. To the right audience, Halle Berry is more glamorous commanding the elements as Storm in the X-Men movies than she is walking the red carpet in a designer gown.
The superhero fans who wear costumes to comics conventions, buy miniatures of their favorite characters, or line up for artists’ autographs aren’t themselves glamorous. But neither were the Depression-era housewives who bought knockoffs of Joan Crawford’s gowns or wrote fan letters to Gary Cooper. And neither are the InStyle readers who copy Natalie Portman’s latest haircut or wear a version of Halle Berry’s Oscar dress to the prom. But all are acting on glamour’s promise. Glamour is, to quote a fashion blurb, “all about transcending the everyday.” The whole point of movie glamour was – and is – escape.
Still, glamour is always vulnerable to those who love it. The more we’re drawn to a glamorous person, place, or thing, the more we scrutinize it, seeking to fill in the details – which ultimately destroys the mystery and grace. Someone will always look for the hidden flaws, the seamy side of the story. Hence the demand for gossip about Princess Diana’s bulimia or Jennifer Lopez’s romantic problems.
Just in case I need to spell out what blew me away about this article: Postrel absolutely nails the feelings that drive my cross-dressing. I feel “a sharp mixture of projection, longing, admiration, and aspiration” for attractive women, and I may not be glamorous myself, but like the superhero fans, Depression-era housewives and InStyle readers, there’s a part of me that has longed to escape from the everyday. It reached a critical point when I started cross-dressing in 1982, but the longing has been with me for years.
I love scrutinizing the glamorous to deconstruct their artifice, but as a well-known fictitional practitioner of magic said, “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
In response, you could argue that our ultimate goal is not to find out what it is, but to free ourselves from the spell. After all, it’s pretty clear that for the Gables and Spearses of the world, achieving glamour doesn’t bring happiness, or even a real escape from whatever our everyday lives are. So why are we wasting our time longing for something that’s almost by definition not going to bring us fulfilment? And how can we stop?
In that case, the spell is the longing, and the solution is to find out what we’re really longing for. What do we really feel a need for when we’re envying women with pointy shoes? What everyday horror are we really trying to escape from?