Celebrities who are famous for being famous often try to distance themselves from the shallowness of their fame by emphatically articulating what they want to be: an entrepreneur, a businesswoman, a DJ. They turn their hobbies into passions, to add depth to their persona and legitimise the attention trained on them. But they do not originate their own fascination: while they benefit from it, we too are implicated. We desire ‘heroes into which we pour our own purposelessness,’ looking to apparently notable people to divert us and amplify the events of our own lives, celebrities thereby functioning as ‘ourselves seen with a magnifying mirror.’
In contemporary Iran the way women dress has become a political statement. Officially, there is no choice in the matter of female clothing, but during my trip I witnessed women expressing their personal preferences continuously. Theirs is a fashion sustained by everyday choices, and negotiated on an everyday basis. By subtly reinterpreting the rules and sensitively opposing the Morality Police, the women here are aware that accommodating changes takes time: baby steps leading to more changes.
I really must try to make him change the way he dresses, she told herself. His suits are just too ridiculous for words. There had been a time when she thought they were wonderful, those Edwardian jackets with high lapels and six buttons down the front, but now they merely seemed absurd. So did the narrow stovepipe trousers. You had to have a special sort of face to wear things like that and Cyril just didn’t have it. His was a long bony countenance with a narrow nose and a slightly prognathous jaw, and when you saw it coming up out of the top of one of those tightly fitting old fashioned suits it looked like a caricature of Sam Weller. He probably thought it looked like Beau Brummel.
Enter: resplendent male warriors known as baris enter carrying sharp, pointed spears. They wear embroidered gold and red shields over loose white garb and sit at intervals holding the space. Finally, the costumes parade by. They are not worn but carried above the head by aides in bit parts: the crazed but joyful painted masks of three Barong separated from their shaggy bodies and the grey-haired witch, Rangda, hoisted high on a stick. More special water is spritzed about; a swath of incense is lit, and a high priest sits at the nexus of it all, praying.
Who can imagine a 1980s shoe that was absolutely white, without any logo, with no swoosh, not a single slogan? Sunday evenings, before the school week, I crouched down on the pink bathroom tiles and painted my shoes into the absolute of whiteness; like the Alice in Wonderland gardeners repainting roses. This task was performed with a toothbrush and with special paste that annihilated so many design features. Purity was attained by the application of a whitener that stank of scientific poly-syllables.
Of what does a woman consist? Where does her selfhood reside? In some Platonic form Woman, the theoretical perfection of the breed? If so, we human, embodied women are always compared, found wanting, found always lacking and excessive all at once. Or is she the grotesque creature of bodily function that Aristotle describes? Or is she dangling above the Cartesian mind-body abyss, kicking her little legs like Jane on a vine, or is she Hume’s empty stage upon which perceptions play?
What was difficult for Marilyn – or for Norma Jeane, who lived inside the Marilyn persona – was her need to be regarded as a fully realised being (difficult, although it may not sound like much, for famous women). Her authentic self was not a pale erotic phantom after all, but a New York intellectual: a method actress, and the wife of a playwright, and a wearer of discreet and modest clothes, a poet and a diarist. What frightened her the most was thinking Norma Jeane might, over time, disintegrate, and that she might be left with only Marilyn: a hollowed outline in a woman’s shape, a white dress hanging empty like a shroud; a spooky horror-movie bed-sheet, two holes showing panicked eyes, an animal confusion.