Last month, a strange thing happened in the fashion world: Salons cultural critic Charles Taylor rhapsodized adoringly about supermodel Kate Moss (specifically about a nostalgic fashion spread in the June 2002 issue of the British magazine i-D)... and nobody wrote in to complain.
Can it be... that its finally okay to say you like Kate Moss?
If so, its about time. As recently as five years ago, you could search long and hard in the mainstream media and still be unable to locate a single person willing to admit to finding the British supermodel sexy -- let alone call her "my idea of female perfection... a perfect 60s dream girl" the way Taylor did.
Indeed, it was much more commonplace for Moss to be discussed in terms of outright loathing. "[I have] a predisposition against Kate Moss," reads a typical Web posting, "and [think] she deserves a slow, agonizing death.... I mean, Im not trying to be offensive to any of the skinny people, but she disgusts me."
"Hey women out there!," wrote the webmaster of a site called Heartless Bitches International. "Don't believe the hype! If we buy into the horseshit of having to look like Kate fucking Moss we are going to collectively waste the rest of our lives in a quagmire of self-perpetuated self-hatred!"
"Kate Moss and [similarly waifish French singer/actress] Vanessa Paradis are disgusting," wrote another Web poster. "Even healthy non-obsessives know this."
For a while, street posters featuring Mosss ultrathin image became a common target of vandalism --most often, the words FEED ME would be scrawled across her belly, although I can recall seeing several posters in bus shelters where the vandal had gone so far as to scratch out Mosss eyes and draw blood seeping from the "wounds."
Anti-Moss sentiments werent confined to the Internet (traditionally a hotbed of anti-celebrity sniping); academics hated her too. When the author of the manifesto for an anthology of queer commentary called "Revolutionary Voices" lists the terrible social ills she saw around her that inspired her to assemble the book, she names the rape/murder of Brandon Teena, the murder of Matthew Shepard, the lynching of James Byrd... and the popularity of Kate Moss. (Oh yeah, and also the fact that the U.S. government was building more prisons than schools.)
A video by Maciej Toporowicz at the controversial recent Mirroring Evil exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York actually juxtaposed scenes from Leni Riefenstahl pro-Nazi propaganda with Kate Mosss Calvin Klein ads. (In other words: if you like Kate Moss, youd probably find concentration camps sexy as well!)
There were thin models before Moss came along, of course, with Carnaby Street icons like Twiggy and Penelope Tree probably being the most famous. But while Twiggys unusually sticklike figure was the subject of much comment at the time, her personality was so perky and unthreatening that she tended to be viewed with more amusement than scorn. However, by the time that Moss, a much more dour personality, emerged on the scene in 1992 with attention-getting spreads in Britains The Face and Harpers Bazaar in the U.S., a new wave of feminist cultural commentators had emerged -- most prominently Naomi Wolf, author of the influential study "The Beauty Myth" -- who were not about to look so kindly on the fashion industrys celebration of superskinny models like Moss.
Some critics accused Moss of helping to perpetuate a ridiculous, completely unrealistic standard of beauty among North American women, the vast majority of whom could never hope to duplicate Mosss petite physique. Others, including Wolf, went so far as to blame the fashion industry for turning a generation of young girls into anorexics -- a shaky, anecdotal accusation that would nevertheless be repeated in dozens of anti-Moss rants.
Fanning the flames of the controversy were two particularly extreme photos of Moss that appeared within a few weeks of each other in 1993: one was a photo by Sante DOrazio that ran in Allure depicting her in a sheer Helmut Lang crop top and a pair of Gaultier hip-huggers that left her bare from her ribs to her hipbones; she appears to be sucking in her stomach so that the outline of her ribcage is visible beneath her skin -- not exactly an erotic sight.
The other photo ran as an ad for Calvin Kleins Obsession perfume; it showed a naked, decidedly un-curvy Moss lying on a couch, her figure looking more like that of an adolescent boy than the then-popular, conventional notion of a fashion model.
However, it was the very fact that Moss didnt look like a conventional fashion model that was part of what made her so very appealing. In the 80s, the most popular models tended to be tall, Amazonian types like Brooke Shields and Paulina Porizkova and über-California blondes like Christie Brinkley. Kate Moss has become so synonymous with the notion of "unattainable beauty" that its easy to forget what an anomaly she was, what a collection of flaws, when she burst onto the fashion world back in 92.
At 57", she was, technically speaking, too short for the runways. Her breasts were almost nonexistent, especially compared to the overflowing bazooms of Brinkley and Porizkova. Her teeth were irregularly spaced and overly prominent. And unlike clean-living role models like Shields and Brinkley, Moss smoked too much, drank too much, liked wild men and stayed out dancing much too late at night.
In fact, that somewhat atypical Allure photo aside, the true nature of Mosss appeal has very little to do with how skinny she is. Its Mosss face thats her fortune -- those heavy-lidded eyes spaced just a little farther apart in her head than normal, those high cheekbones, that long hair, those cute, irregular teeth.
Mosss detractors -- probably thinking of how she looked in that Obsession ad -- like to describe her expression as "blank" or "childlike," but to me, her gaze has always seemed mysterious, knowing, deeply sexual, the precise spiritual opposite of an elfin gamine like Twiggy. (Taylor describes Mosss eyes as being "ready to surrender to seduction or signal you to fuck off... the image of a girl whos just risen from bed and is looking at you with a frank, couldnt-care-less provocation.") Its truly a classic, unforgettable, irresistible camera face, and its the reason you recognize Mosss name immediately but have probably never heard of other, equally waifer-thin models like Tasha Tilberg, Josie Kidd, Amy Wesson and Shalom Harlow. And its the reason Moss continues to be in demand as a model when other well-known mannequins of her vintage -- Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer -- have faded from prominence... along with Moss detractors like the hopelessly behind-the-times Naomi Wolf.
Indeed, Ive talked to several young women who see Moss as, believe it or not, a role model -- or at least by far their favourite fashion icon. Skinny chicks with flat chests need people to look up to too, and its about time Kate Mosss reputation was rehabilitated. (My friend Judy, a naturally thin woman with a decidedly Moss-like figure, says, "The people who hate Kate Moss always go on about how she doesnt have curves like a real woman. And I always think, Well, arent I real?")
Few women have had their physical appearance as relentlessly and cruelly condemned in the media as Kate Moss, and youve got to admit, she weathered the criticism and abuse with remarkable grace and dignity. And even if you prefer women with a little more meat on their bones, can we at least agree that, on the grand scale of historys greatest forces of evil, the Nazis were probably worse?
Paul Matwychuk is managing editor of Vue Weekly, in Edmonton, Alberta.
When they were released back in 1994, the Tim Robbins prison saga The Shawshank Redemption and the Robert Redford-directed morality drama Quiz Show were the object of much speculation by Hollywood pundits, who expressed puzzlement over the fact that two such universally well-regarded films (both were nominated for Best Picture Oscars) could have performed so poorly at the box office.
Most people blamed the films' misguided marketing campaigns -- and coming in for particular ridicule were the two films' posters, which depicted their main characters from the back, hiding their identity from potential moviegoers. (The Shawshank poster, you will recall, showed a rear view of star Tim Robbins, his arms outstretched in the rain; Quiz Show went with an imposing image of the back of Ralph Fiennes's head, headphones over his ears as he stood in a game show isolation booth.) To this day, Shawshank and Quiz Show are regarded as two of the most ineptly marketed films in Hollywood history. How are you supposed to engage people in a story, the conventional wisdom went, if you don't show them a human face?
That wisdom still hasn't spread to the publishing industry. You literally almost never see a human face on the cover of a literary novel -- and if casual readers feel a little alienated from buying literary fiction, well, given the way these novels are packaged, I can't say I blame them. I spent a recent afternoon browsing the fiction section at the local independent bookstore, and was stunned to observe how deeply ingrained the notion that faces must be avoided at all costs has become among publishers and graphic designers.
Sometimes, publishers will simply use a blurred photo that renders their subjects' appearance either subtly indistinct (as with Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost), intriguingly murky (Anne-Marie MacDonald's Fall on Your Knees) or completely unrecognizable (Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans). A much more common tactic, however, is to use a photograph or a drawing in which the person's back is to the camera, Shawshank-style, viz. Melissa Bank's The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, Doris Betts's Heading West, Anne Michaels's Fugitive Pieces, Anne Tyler's Back When We Were Grownups, Kelli Deeth's The Girl Without Anyone, Alice Mattison's The Book Borrower, Gwyn Hyman Rubio's Icy Sparks, Emma Richler's Sister Crazy and Paul Theroux's Hotel Honolulu. Rachel Seiffert's The Dark Room features 15 people with their back to the camera! (The most absurd example of this trend is the cover of Joyce Carol Oates's book Blonde, which features a photo of a woman posed mysteriously and anonymously with her back to the camera, even though everybody knows the book is about Marilyn Monroe!)
Then there's a whole host of books that combine those two techniques and use blurry photos of people with their backs to the camera: Caleb Carr's The Alienist, Paulo Coehlo's Veronika Decides to Die, Alice Elliott Dark's In the Gloaming, Margaret Drabble's The Peppered Moth, Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, Helen Dunmore's The Siege, Sebastian Faulks's On Green Dolphin Street, Wayne Johnston's The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Regina McBride's The Nature of Water and Air, Jon Redfern's The Boy Must Die, Gayla Reid's All the Seas of the World, Julian Rios's Monstruary and John Wray's The Right Hand of Sleep.
Even if designers do take the bold step of putting a classic painting or a photographic portrait of a person on the cover, much more often than not, that image is severely cropped or chopped in half -- in effect, disguising their appearance as much as a blurred snapshot would. I'm thinking of books like Giles Blunt's Forty Words for Sorrow, Anne Carson's The Beauty of the Husband, Susan Cokal's Mirabilis, Nick Hornby's About a Boy, Helen Dunmore's Ice Cream, Justin Hill's The Dream and Drink Teahouse, Brad Leithauser's A Few Corrections, Heather McGowan's Schooling, Kenneth Radu's Flesh and Blood, William Safire's Scandalmonger, Greg Hollingshead's The Roaring Girl, Katharine Weber's The Music Lesson, Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, Todd Babiak's Choke Hold and Thomas Wharton's Salamander.
And there are other tricks, too: on the cover of Tim Pears's In a Land of Plenty, there's a picture of a young kid holding a camera over his face; Dave Margoshes's I'm Frankie Sterne uses a photo (blurred, naturally) of a guy tipping his hat over his face; the guy on the cover of Michael Dibdin's Thanksgiving has his hand over his face; the guy on David Czuchlewski's The Muse Asylum has his back to the reader and a giant book covering his head and the features of the handsome guy on Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho can't quite be made out from behind the giant lettering spelling out the book's title and the name of the author.
That's a long and tedious list of titles, but I wanted to emphasize just how widespread this trend has become -- the "no-face" dustjacket are as predictable and boring as the fake-looking double-portraits of smiling co-stars that decorate so many unimaginative video boxes. During my admittedly quick safari through the Greenwood's shelves, I was only able to locate four significant examples of literary novels that actually used unaltered, uncropped photos of recognizable human faces on their covers that weren't simply portraits of the author: Roddy Doyle's A Star Called Henry, Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Englishman's Boy, David Ebershoff's The Danish Girl and, most memorably, Bruce Robinson's The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penham.
I've heard it argued that publishers use these anonymous kinds of covers because they don't want to impose a specific image of what the characters look like upon the reader's imagination (in much the same way that it's hard to read a book after watching a movie adaptation of it without thinking of those actors saying all the lines). I don't buy it. I think it's a copout. First of all, I don't think that's how people read books -- I think people's visual impressions of characters tend to be a lot foggier than that. And hell, I know I had no trouble at all getting through, say, my old paperback copy of A Confederacy of Dunces without having my own mental image of Ignatius Reilly colonized by the cartoonish drawing on the cover.
More importantly, I think these book covers betray a very dangerous and even snobbish attitude on the part of publishers (and readers) -- an attitude that views reticence and anonymity and abstraction and emotional evasiveness as being inherently more "literary" than shock, force, impact, punch, vividness and emotional directness. A lot of these covers I've been complaining about are quite beautifully designed in and of themselves, but taken as a whole, they embody a kind of kneejerk, genteel middle-class tastefulness I find suffocating. All those heads turned away from me, all those blurred backsides seem symptomatic of a literary world whose unreasoning fear of The Image has inspired it to turn its back and retreat farther and farther from its former place at the center of North American cultural life -- a world, moreover, that seems perfectly content to go on playing the wallflower. Many of these book covers seem to shrink away from you even as you look at them, as if the idea of making someone actually want to buy them had been rejected by publishers as being so outmoded as to be positively gauche.
If literature is the art of translating abstract ideas into vivid characters, clear stories and concrete language, surely publishers are exhibiting a failure of imagination and nerve on the part of their authors by refusing to put a human face on their creations.