In Karl Marx’s manifesto, under ‘The Fetishism of the Commodity and the Secret Thereof’ he uses the example of a piece of wood altered into a table, stating that “as soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent” (Marx, 1867), ie the moment the wooden table is tagged with a price, with monetary value placed on for purchasing purposes, it becomes a property that can be exchanged/traded. This property otherwise known as a commodity has ” properties…capable of satisfying human wants.” (Marx, 1867) Seemingly straightforward but complicated by variables such as “labour” and “value” etc making it difficult to categorise ‘things’ into commodity and non-commodity or reaching any concise definition. Marx acknowledges this and thus calls commodity “a mysterious thing.” (Marx, 1867)
The concept of a commodity and the word itself changes meaning when dealt with in various capital industries which engage in trade. For the purpose of exploration, the meaning of commodity shall be narrowed down to “an economic good, that is subject to ready exchange or exploitation within a market “.
The ‘sick’ culture that i am going to explore is that of the commodification of the female body and how it is exploited in the beauty “market”. Beginning with the obsession of attaining that “ideal” female face
and “perfect” female body through means of plastic surgery and then going on to commodity fetishism that is presented as completing the look of what it “means” to be a woman through purchasing branded items and fashion labels. Using examples of distribution channels such as television, magazines which have the ability of reaching a global audience.
Deleuze and Guttari in their opening chapter of Anti Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia explored how “everything is a machine” (1972) and that there is “no such thing as relatively independent spheres or circuits” (1972) such that “production is immediately consumption…without any mediation…” (1972) Referring to the body, which this section of the essay is concerned with but taking their notion to think first in terms of the television as a distribution point, part of the machinic process of consumption. Imagine the “organ machine plugged into an energy-source machine” (Deleuze & Guttari, 1972) ie the body in front of the television and the body on screen.
Beginning with the television business, there is no doubt that it is “closely connected to consumer culture and the desire for commodities,” (Bignell, 2008 ) because everything that is aired, from commercials to drama serials that make it to screen have gone through a long process of careful research, detailed planning and gruelling production.
Talking about the female audience in specific, behind the scenes, they have been painstakingly segmented by age, with specific test groups set up, at times even involving scientist, mathematicians, even astrology taken into account, so as to be able to accurately “speak” to the women viewers. All the background work done, hoping for a hook-line-sinker strategy for women to become almost instantaneously hooked to, be it a serial or a product. The process of it all, similar to that of an unbreakable circuit that runs invisibly around the sphere, made up of women.
In the past, the television was considered “female” because it was usually found in the domestic realm of the home which was equated to being a woman’s territory. Many studies have been done to connect the television to women but more importantly, there are two things that anyone living in this postmodern era cannot deny, that women of today, are consumers and that they do watch the television.
In addition, the fact is that almost everyone in this day and age has at least one television set or at least heard of and have an idea of television making it a commonly used and acknowledged distribution channel to entice/lure/seduce. To top it all off, now, as women today, try to juggle all aspects of their lives (grandmother, mother, mother-in-law, sister, aunt, daughter, friend, employee, boss, chef, driver, shopper, fashionista etc) there is the mobile internet ‘tv’ to turn to when not in the confines or home/work.
Members of the beauty industry (make up, accessories, clothes, skin care, perfumes, fashion magazines etc), have long set aside large advertising budgets and focus their marketing strategies to the promotion of their products through the television medium. This is because the television as a media machine, effectively combines audio and visual elements unlike the radio (audio) or print (visual) presenting to perspective consumers/viewers at an international level with a “wow” factor that reaps monetary rewards, in the words of cologmerates, “more pay backs.”
The people behind “television programmes and regulations have been largely made by well educated and socially powerful eleite groups in society” (Bignell, 2008 ) who know very well how to manipulate the machine and audience, working together with their investors /partners to create an image like say the “celebrity-machine”, presented to the “female-machine” as someone they can relate to, turn to, emulate even, essentially turning ‘on’ the “female-desire-machine”.
This becomes worrying as not all female viewers have had the benefit of education to discern or have the financial capability to afford what they see. Many impressionable women fall into the “cultural trap” (Adorno and Horkhemier), leading them get stuck in a whirlpool of “indiscriminate consumption” (Bignell, 2008 ).
The consumption here being that of the commodified female body. Obviously this does not stop at the television, try, for just one day, deliberately, consciously taking in every possible visual/audio around, even ads on public transports, the semiotics are everywhere. Telling women how they should put on their make up, dress, the way their body should be sculpted to have that womanly figure.
We are all born with certain hair color, features that are inherited from our parents, or from the genes of the sperm and egg donors, which form our chromosomes and gives us the “look” that we have. But with products and services such as hair dyes, and plastic surgery, women can now turn their bodies into the beauty-machine, which can be “serviced” “upgraded”.
Plastic surgery in the past was once a hush hush sort of procedure where people who had, had “work done” would vehemently deny it ever happened. Yet plastic surgery has now become a widespread phenomena, openly talked about, celebrated and some celebrities talking to cameras about how it has boost their self image and so on. Plastic surgery procedures and the industry itself has secretly, quietly sneaked into the living rooms of homes through the television, not through in-your-face advertisments but with reality series and drama serials. Women’s bodies cut up on screen with females watching everything as they sit on their sofa sets. Both on screen and off screen, the women body has been commodified.
In her article “It’s the great body swindle” in the Sydney Morning Herald, 3 November 2007, Cosima Marriner wrote “cosmetic surgery has become almost mainstream in the 21st century… … … … the notion has been reinforced by reality TV shows such as Extreme Makeover.”
Extreme Makover shows “ordinary” women who are not happy with their looks going under the knife in order to look “better”, upgrading their faces/bodies. Every part of the body turned into “parts” of the beauty-machine. You can get a “new” everything, brow, nose, cheekbones, chin, breasts, abdomen, hair and the list goes on. Anything that is on the outside can be changed. Even largest organ of the body, skin can be updated.
Every episode begins with a ‘sob’ story, that goes along the line of the prospective ‘patient’ expressing their dissatisfaction with the way they look or their unhappiness with their dress size, and how they can achieve more in life, have more confidence, get over their intimacy issues and so forth if they “just had that better looking” body part. Needless to say part of the producers ploy to get viewers to sympathize/empathize with the person.
Seen in this particular clip, (be warned that her post op face before healing looks like a piece of overstretched skin covering her face and can be frightening to some)
this slightly older woman who is about to go for surgery, states with a quivering voice “what i feel on the inside is not what is showing on the outside…” (00.42-00.51) thus equating her outer apperance with both her self confidence and ability to express herself.
At the end, the show (extreme make over) usually finishes with a big reveal to family and friends, the patient’s emotional ending expressing her gratitude and so on. In the clip above, the same woman, in her ending, says “i think i looked better then i have ever looked.” (9.08) The notion of aging gracefully here is no where to be found. The question is what happens when it all starts to fade, more surgery? It has reached a stage where it becomes like “producing a product: a producing/product identity… … … the whole process will begin all over again…” (Deleuze & Guttari, 1972).
Then there is the “hit” series Nip/Tuck, the story revolves around two male friends who are plastic surgeons, and they perform surgeries on various clients who come with their own story. A bit like extreme makeover ‘patients’ only the format of presentation being a drama series. The patient’s face/body existing features/structure lying on the table is first deconstructed by the surgeons and then reconstructed through sculpting and shaping in order to achieve that “perfect” face/body that they wish for.
In what i feel is the most classic scene of the series and a rather realistic take is this clip of an episode where one of the two plastic surgeons (Christian) , shows his then love interest, Kimber what it means to be a perfect 10.
In the opening Kimber is telling Chrisitian how some bouncer at a night club called her a “10” and she seems comfortable with her looks/body but once Christian convinces her otherwise it is almost as if her “facet” collapses. Similarly, in real life certain women feel pressured or become influenced into believing that the body and face they have a not good enough.
At the end, Christian says after, in my opinion “disfiguring” Kimber, “when you stop striving for perfection, you might as well be dead.” This is the disturbing mantra that some women, live by. The female body reduced to a commodity that this particular ‘sick’ culture (plastic surgery) industry feeds and preys on. Creating a social obession with the body aesthetic, causing women to constantly seek reaffirmation of their body through ridiculous ideals of beauty, going under the knife repeatedly to “fix” themselves, striving for that perfection that can never be attained.
The Accessorized Body
There is a saying ‘clothes maketh a man’, not surprisingly the fashion industry reaps billions per annum, everyday cash registers on the clothes floor of shopping centres are ringing. The commodified female body is deemed incomplete unless she or rather her face is “painted” with make up and the body donned with the “right” clothes/shoes/accessories (eg: bags).
Beauty and fashion products are marketed to make a women believe that whatever they are selling will enhance her look and make her feel better about her self. As per the “famous” line by the ad people at Loreal goes: “Because You Are Worth It”. It is impossible to list the number of brands of make up and fashion houses or even to attempt to count the number of fashion magazines targetted at women.
Fashion magazines themselves are a thriving industry, featuring editorials such as how to better manage your time, fast diet methods, ways to greater sex etc but the hidden beneath all these so called self help articles, the core? Commodity Fetishism is being pushed and hard sold. Pages of branded fashion house advertisments, cosmetic brands new range of products, models with the “perfect” faces and bodies presented on colored pages, almost like mannequins. These magazines themselves are commodity products whose “cost of production are covered not simply by their purchase price but by the advertisments for products presented to their readers.” (Bignell, 2008 ) In other words, the brands pay good money to get these advertisments printed. Both parties willing readers to buy, buy, buy!
Going back to Marxist theory, commodity fetishism is the belief that “value inheres in commodities instead of being added to them through labor” (Marx, 1867) eg: how much it cost to produce a branded bag versus the selling price of it because of its brand name. And as Bignell writes “commodity fetishism this term dervied from Marx’s analysis of capitalist societies, describes the fascination with consumer objects whose value lies in their power to signify signs of luxury, social power, sexual attractiveness.” (Bignell, 2008 ) This is what the modern day women and the commodified female body is concerned with.
Using Sex and the City the series as a point of reference to discuss commodity fetishism, I was at a supermarket the other day and there on the magazine rack was Sarah Jessica Parker on almost every magazine cover, because of the Sex and the City the movie hype.
(these images are taken off the internet because 1. i did not have a camera with me in the supermarket and 2. i don’t think they would have been very happy with me taking pictures even if i had)
Some background to Sex and the City, the series, originated from “the book, Sex and the City, a popular bestseller by Candace Bushnell, derived from the newspaper columns she had published since 1994 in the New York Observer. She has also written about the New York party going elite for the magazine Beat before writing freelance for Self, Mademoiselle and other magazines.” (Bignell, 2008 )
Sex and the City the television series “focuses on the collective and individual day to day activities of four women friends in New York. The four charcters are very rarely seen at work, but they are wealthy enough to spend much of the on-screen time shopping, going to parties, lunching with each other and dating wealthy professional men.” (Bignell, 2008 )
Lead actress Sarah Jessica Parker’s character ‘Carrie’ and her friends are concern with being seen in public “to best advantage when wearing Manolo Blahnik shoes and carrying Gucci handbags.” (Bignell, 2008 )
not to mention always looking impeccable and with the growing influence of the series, these “ladies” have since inspired many looks and become some sort of a definitive style that women want to have.
Sex and the City storyline draws on concerns with components of the discourse of woman magazines ie what goes on in a “woman’s world” (Winship, 1987) the semiotics of it being, distinguishing what it means to be feminine, a woman. This is done through a lot of different modes of consumption, from the places they go, the drinks/food they have, attire they put together. Their lifestyle honestly consisting of the fetishzing of commodities.
Going back to the idea of machines working on machines, Sex and the City the series has gone on to create spin off’s or rather drama serials inspired by their success such as Cashmere Mafia, which was created by Candace Bushnell’s former creative partner from Sex and the City, Darren Star as well as Lipstick Jungle also based on Candace Bushnell’s novel. Two more drama serials to add to the existing least of serials which portray women who seem to have “have it all”, careers in various beauty industries and distribution points promoting commodity fetishism (eg: In Cashmere Mafia – actress Lucy Liu’s character runs a magazine. In Lipstick Jungle – actress Kim Raver, editor-in-chief of a hot fashion magazine and has her eye on becoming CEO.)
Reiterating the idea of “producing a product: a producing/product identity…”(Deleuze & Guttari, 1972) and how “the whole process will begin all over again…” (Deleuze & Guttari, 1972) with the forces of television and magazines merging on screen and off screen it just serves to remind how the industry drives itself and that women who are on the recieving end, have to realize that and not turn into blind mice.
On The Today Show in an interview with actress Sarah Jessica Parker (SJP), cast member of Sex and the City the series and movie (29/5/08 ) responded to a the first question from a viewer named Darlene, about how many shoes she had in real life in contrast to her on screen character Carrie. SJP said “I don’t mean to disappoint this early in the morning and at the first question but I ain’t footing such a bill.” In another related interview SJP said she is “not a slave to fashion and that clothes don’t play as big a role in her life as in Carrie’s.”
Ironically she is the face of many other fashion houses and beauty products and herself has launched her own line of fragrance , cashing in on her celebrity status. As much as she may try and seperate her onscreen character and her real self, or try wriggle in some form of “warnings”, pearl’s of wisdom to women out there, there are still many who just want to emulate her. Women want to have her (be it Carrie/SJP) hair, her dresses, her shoes, her overall LOOK. Maybe with a spritz of SJP fragrance for that finishing touch.
There is also wardrobe designer for Sex and The City series, Patricia Field
who also consults for Cashmere Mafia, who has made her name for herself and gain semi-celebrity status. She has gone on many television interviews and said in magazines interviews that it is not about brands, and that if a viewer wants to have a certain look they should not blindly follow trends, they should dare to mix high and low, meaning wearing brands with pieces of unknown labels. She and SJP may mean well and trying indirectly warn ladies out their, the pitfalls of “indiscriminate consumption” (Bignell, 2008 ) but it falls upon deaf ears upon on certain segments of women who simply want to look like they have walk off the set of the drama serials they see on screen.
Women turning into slaves for brands adopting the believe that without a certain brand name under their belt, they are not “in style”. Their existence becoming dependent on the market trends churned out by the beauty/fashion industry, season after season. The number one rule they live by is to never ever be caught committing any form of fashion ‘faux pa’ , to them, a deadly sin and unforgivable mistake.
If one earns enough and has the ability to afford these branded accessories, or occassionally spoiling/giving a treat to oneself by buying something branded simply based on the fact that you like it, is well within reasonable limits. It gets out of hand when the female “desire machine” (Deluze & Guttari, 1972) overwhelms one’s entire being. Draining financial resources so as to have the latest most up to date branded wardrobe. Self worth being measured by material goods owned. In extreme cases not being able to function because one does not have ‘that pair of shoes’, sinking into depression even. Then it becomes official, the female desire machine has turned into a obsessive disorder blinded by commodity fetishism.
Everywhere we look or don’t look, (just listen) the average female is bombarded at least three times a day by some form of media to do something/ buy something. In the end it all boils down to women knowing where to draw the line, which requires some sense of agency not simply as mentioned repeatedly “indiscriminate consumption” (Bignell, 2008 ). When a women finds herself never satisfied with her face and body, scrimping, saving, borrowing, sacrificing a quality of life even nutrition so that she can own that branded piece of cloth or item or have an extra “botox” done, alarm bells should ring and she should become aware that something in the mental machine has gone awry.
Referring to Walter Benjamin (1968 ) who argued that mechanical reproduction processes gave rise to the media of photography, cinema, and that television subsitutes ‘a plurality of copies for a unique existence’ and Deleuze and Guttari who have reckoned the body to that of a machine, “machines driving other machines, machines being diriven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections,(1983) unless women want to become commodified COPY like all other machinic bodies of the beauty industry, learning to be comfortable in one’s own skin, being a discerning consumer, knowing whats best for one’s body and not becoming a puppet of the industry is essential. Somehow establishing one’s own identity and resisting this sick culture industry that we live in, trying at every opportunity to tell us how to look.
Film and Television
Sex and the City (the series) 1998-2004
Extreme Make Over, 2002-2007
Sex and the City (the movie) 2008
Adorno, T., Horkeimer, M. “The Culture Industry: enlightenment as mass deception”, in The Cultural Studies Reader, ed. Simon During. London & New York: Routledge, 1993
Benjamin, W. “The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction” in illuminations, ed. H. Arendt, trans. H. Zohn, New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968
Bignell, J., “An Introduction to Television Studies, 2nd Ed” London, New York, Routledge, 2008
Deleuze, G., Guttari, F. “The I Desiring Machines” in Anti Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Minneapolis: University of minnesota Press, 1972
Marx, K. (1867) ‘The Fetishism of the Commodity and the Secret Thereof”, [Das Kapital] Karl Marx Capital: An Abridged Edition, ed. David Mclellan, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999
Miklitsch, R., “From Hegel to Madonna : towards a general economy of commodity fetishism”, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998
Winship, J. “Inside Women’s Magazines”, London, Pandora, 1987