First a series of oppositions—the young femme as vamp, virtual nudity while revealing nothing, instead of supple flesh, a mask. A blond cloaked in darkness for the GQ Men Of The Year Awards. She’s beautiful alright. More than a little bit defiant. Hair the shock of a horse’s mane atop a calculated, smoldering gaze. She’s owning it. In a lace number from Burberry Prorsum, before London’s Royal Opera House on 2 September 2014, we infer a legacy of gabardine; and amid unspoken trademarks of Burberry Check’s interwoven warps and wefts of Scottish wool, we draw yarns of British Antarctic expeditions, Equestrian Knights, and the quests of countless aviators, imperialists, and explorers.
On either side of the red carpet, the paparazzi would seem to multiply themselves into a proliferation of gazes, a panoply of photographers documented as they document the cut of her frame. Ensconced within that yawning open abyss, the surface of the image marks a bisection of space as if in a mirror, suggesting it is not only about the popularity or professional success of the ‘it’ girl, but a compelling line that draws you in. Is the power in anticipating the gaze—ostensibly as a means of ultimately controlling its vectors of relation and objection? Or is it about the last-ditch effort of reclaiming one’s subjectivity in the face of such overt objectivity?
Slippery. Well, my choice of British model-turned-actress Cara Delevingne is a bit arbitrary. A few years ago, it might have been an American counterpart like Kristen Stewart, much more the dark-haired beauty. For sure, Cara is the decided tomboy of the two, despite Kristen’s recent—though plausible enough—pretensions toward androgyny. And Cara’s the girl who at once embraces and lampoons the celebrity culture that engulfs her. During her ‘off’ hours she sports sweat pants and trainers, torqued baseball caps, and fleeced hoodies like a second skin; at her professional appearances, innumerable selfies situate her face—which twice-earned her the “Model of the Year” title at the British Fashion Awards—at galas, premieres, award shows. And of course there is Cara’s funky English accent, which to the American ear is almost irreconcilable with her pixie face.
But countenances are tricky things.
This is exactly what talented models intuitively know, and what discerning photographers, producers, and publishers recognize and around which capital accrues. A blank, listless face is like an anagram. It can be shaped, organized, rearranged, troubled, set on its edges. Filmmaker David Lynch explores this mutability in his chiralic duplication of women as if in a mirror askew, the constant restaging of female pairs as a kind of twinning, two sides of a single coin—blondes coupled with brunettes, the saintly entwined with the naughty—Laura Palmer and Donna Hayward, Betty and Rita, Diane Selwyn and Camilla Rhodes. So too, for Cara and her ‘gal pals’—the near-at-hand female companions the press cannot seem to reconcile—it is about the inherent grain and distortion of a telephoto lens, that conduit of contemporary media which promises much more than it can lay bare (part of the prevailing rhetoric and critique of photography and its ‘evidentiary truth’), but it is also about the ultimate inaccessibility of a space of intimacy among these women.
This is why the subjective creeps into Cara’s headlines and why the public imaginary traffics in the circulation of such images. On the one hand, there is the hypothetical relation between Cara and her both presumed and confirmed female romantic partners, which can perhaps be inferred visually (currently she is paired with the musician Annie Clark, last year it was actress Michelle Rodriguez, no doubt the swarm will identify others); and on the other hand, there is the material and immaterial reality of their connection, which visual inscription fails to depict: “Michelle Rodriguez And Cara Delevingne Might Be Dating (REPORT)” in the Huffington Post on 18 February 2014; or already on 8 January 2014: “Michelle Rodriguez, Cara Delevingne Get Very Cuddly At New York Knicks Game.” (The straight-up tabloids meanwhile take out all improbability: “It’s official! Cara Delevingne and Michelle Rodriguez ARE dating.”) Their primary discursive space is inhabited by storytelling, not of fact-finding and fact-making, but imagining a true relation between subjects.
Although many gestures and poses inscribed within the photographic image can be traced within historical experience, the open question is whether one particular sequence of signs is differentiable from any less urgent and less immediate physical interrelations between bodies. In Belgian photographer Marie-Françoise Plissart’s 1985 photo-novel Droit de regards [Right of Inspection], the dynamics of this relationship is perhaps easier to discern. Two women enact an erotic choreography amid architectural spaces. In subsequent frames, a camera or an additional figure (or two) is introduced. Eventually, the narrative divaricates into alternate plots and subplots. As Jacques Derrida intones in his colloquy on these images, the “right of inspection,” not only inscribes the juridical, but also the assumed authority of the photographic gaze. Regardless of what they may seek to reveal, Plissart’s photographs, like Cara’s tabloid images, withhold full disclosure; it is the viewer who must both discern and interpolate between them.
Literary critics have tethered British writer and poet Rudyard Kipling’s encounter with a woman in New Zealand—whose “face and voice,” as he writes in his 1937 memoir Something of Myself, enchanted him for years—to his 1904 fictional story “Mrs. Bathurst,” a fragmented narrative of sexual desire and longing. While attending a local Cape Town circus, a naval officer unexpectedly glimpses a woman he once knew in Australia in a bit of newsreel footage shot in the streets of London. Mrs. Bathurst “walked on and on till she melted out of the picture—like—like a shadow jumpin’ over a candle.” Determined to find her, he deserts the military and is later suspected to be dead in the jungle.
Sitting uncomfortably within Kipling’s oeuvre, the narrative of “Mrs. Bathurst”—identified as one of the first literary reflections on cinema—and its meta-linguistic framing, by way of Kipling’s own biography, implicitly ties the circulation of reproducible images to global hegemonic power. Written just after the turn of the twentieth century, the story charts lines of demarcation across the British Empire—Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, British Columbia, and England—transmogrifying Mrs. Bathurst, and all women like her, into roving, animated corpses. Nestled within this geopolitical translocation lies “it”—Kipling’s unexpected abstraction of Mrs. Bathurst’s appeal as a singular, capitalized, monosyllabic epithet: “’Tisn’t beauty, so to speak, nor good talk necessarily. It’s just It.”
Resolutely un-gendered, neutral, yet finely pointed, the term was later revived, first in the fashion industry, and then again in 1927, in a Cosmopolitan article by British novelist Elinor Glyn, becoming the basis of the Hollywood comedy It that launched the career of its star Clara Bow the same year. At the start of the film, a well-meaning interloper in a silent pantomime reads aloud from Glyn’s article. The accompanying title card announces: “The possessor of ‘IT’ must be absolutely un-selfconscious, and must have that magnetic ‘sex appeal’ which is irresistible.” Clara’s Betty Lou Spence, an ordinary shop girl seemingly unaware of her own “it” qualities, orchestrates a series of traps for ensnaring her paramour, the young owner of Waltham’s department store. In the film’s stunning pivotal sequence, Betty Lou and Cyrus Waltham partake in a series of locomotive boardwalk amusements—each one enabling the increasing physical proximity of their bodies. As they sit on a spinning horizontal circular platform—which throws passengers to the perimeter with ever-increasing speed—she purrs, “Hold me tight, Mr. Waltham.” Later, her silky bloomers are exposed as they tumble on top of each other in a rotating hollow drum, their evening outing culminating in a scene of them slipping down a gigantic, undulating slide together with their bodies intertwined like two nestled chevrons.
While Clara is all brass and brawn on film, Cara embodies an aesthetic of fugitive, unconsumed possibility at the other end of a rapidly evolving spectrum. In a thirty-second My Burberry spot nearly a century later, Cara flirts and feints, not with a wealthy male business mogul, but with veteran supermodel Kate Moss with nothing but Burberry trenches and the suspended mist from bottles of perfume between them. In The Face of an Angel—Michael Winterbottom’s 2014 film localizing on the media spectacle surrounding American student Amanda Knox, recently acquitted of murder charges in Italy—Cara seems cast as herself, an impulsive party girl without pretensions who keeps the main character Thomas amused amid his writer’s block and divorce proceedings. Her Melanie operates for Thomas much more like an echo of Knox, a window into the kind of seemingly untroubled and unfettered young collegiate life experienced while traveling abroad. And yet, despite her apparent charms, Cara is resolutely desexualized throughout the film (Thomas never actually has a sexual encounter with her) even as she appears on the beach joyfully stripped down to her skivvies.
Winterbottom’s lens does not linger too long—nor long enough—on Cara. And in Paper Towns, her recent vehicle, her character Margo literally disappears. What seems to compel filmmakers to cast models in their leading roles is the desire to assimilate the intensity of the singular image to the screen—but although the corpus of Cara’s online reflection is ubiquitous—on the red carpet, on runways, in newspaper and magazine feature articles, and in ad campaigns and editorials by Mario Testino, Steven Meisel, and Bruce Weber—it is exactly these representations that do their best to occult her.