Some of you may have seen supermodel Cameron Russell’s recent TED talk on the topic of beauty (and, more to the point, its social construction). In the talk, Russell enters the stage wearing a tight, revealing black dress and very high heels, but as the substance of her speech ensues, she quickly changes into a far more demure (not to mention much looser) skirt and sweater. Her point, it is clear, is to demonstrate that who she really is (the “skirt and sweater girl”) is a far cry from the facade she must present to make money. While the audience watches childhood photos of Russell at soccer games and sleepovers (juxtaposed with her Vogue cover and underwear modeling shots taken within days of the kid stuff, she adds), she explains her success by telling the story of how she has won a “genetic lottery” and is thus able to “cash in” on a construction of beauty that is born of privilege and power. Russell’s thesis, in short, is that beauty is entirely constructed on privileges – the product of an industry that thrives on convincing women that illusion is reality.
Theorists of identity would likely be very quick to question Russell’s claim that her everyday, sweater-wearing self is the “real Cameron” compared to the “fake” image that sells magazines, and certainly it’s interesting to ask whether there’s anything that’s not a construction (I’m inclined to answer “no”). What may be even more interesting to question, however, is whether her authority is compromised by her public dissection of her power. If you read the scholars who’ve defined the field of critical theory for very long, you’ll find that most of them eventually end up talking about how society’s power structures are established not through brute force, but through the normalization of certain power relationships that are simply taken for granted. They work because they are both ubiquitous and anonymous.
Thus what is perhaps more intriguing than the admission that Cameron Russell is famous because she won the “genetic lottery” is that Russell’s voice still remains authoritative even after she discredits the reason for her authority; to put it another way, we still listen to her even she tells us we really shouldn’t. We continue to listen even after she questions why anyone would want to become a model, when she hesitates to call her source of income “a career,” and even when she remarks that the sum total of her professional knowledge involves a smile, a head movement, and convincingly walking in place.
So what do you think Russell reveals about the relationship between identity and authority?