Archive for Thursday, January 17, 2002

examines history of marketing feminine image

January 17, 2002


Hollywood likes to roll out the biggest movies during the holiday season, hoping to garner critical consideration from pundits, while, more importantly, getting the consumers to part with their money before the year ends. But Hollywood studios are not the only group that plays that game; book publishers have been doing it for decades. And for many brick-and-mortar bookstores, the winter holidays are make-or-break time, where they gladly accept and stock a variety of items from suppliers that they know will be big sellers during the Christmas season.

It's a costly gamble to stock up on what are usually called coffee table books slick, smoothly packaged works on a variety of subjects from gardening to yachts to celebrity lifestyles. And proving the never-ending appeal of pop culture, some of the most successful are ones revolving around Hollywood and the media. It's a cyclical situation that seems to benefit both publishing and production houses.

One of the best of the new books is "Femme Fatale" by Serge Normant. It contains a streamlined narrative by Bridget Foley, which strikes right to the subject matter, accompanied by pictures of some of the world's most popular and beautiful actresses and models. More than just window dressing, the pictures complement the ideas behind the text, while simultaneously, they are the main reason to buy the book. That's Normant's point: that a portrait of a beautiful woman will make the consumer stop and spend a few minutes considering the product, whether that product be alcohol, clothing, cars or big-ticket motion pictures.

The conceit works admirably, with Normant's premise spelled out in manageable prose that is more than just cutlines to accompany the photos on the page. The author looks at each decade of the 20th century and talks about some of the main styles and imagery used to sell the feminine form to the general public. That makes the photos laid out on the following pages work as a counterpart to the text, explaining and supporting his ideas to a very successful degree.

Equally important to the overall success is the work of art director Ranee Palone Flynn and photographer Michael Thompson. The layout and images are simple, straightforward and evocative without being provocative. Using established actresses and models, part of the book's strength is the model's ability to immerse herself into the role and capture the character she is asked to portray.

Taking a scenic tour through the pages and decades, readers will find Carmen Kass as a 1900s ingenue, Kate Dillon as a study of Edwardian elegance in the next generation, and an almost unrecognizable Julia Roberts playing a 1920s flapper a la Louise Brooks (which is used as the cover shot of "Femme Fatale"). The ensuing decades find Ellen Barkin as a 1930s platinum blonde in the image of Jean Harlow, Julianne Moore as a 1940s career girl, Britney Spears as a 1950s siren and Elizabeth Hurley as a 1960s model capturing the spirit of English fashion trends.

Afro-chic and disco of the 1970s make appearances, while Christy Turlington, a model who made her fortune in the 1980s, shows up as a 1980s model (what a stretch that is). The 1990s follow up with appearances by Faith Hill, Ananda Lewis, Pam Anderson, Hilary Swank, Meg Ryan and Jennifer Aniston.

Some of the models, including Cindy Crawford and Susan Sarandon, appear several times, and almost all of the women successfully convey the right mood to back up Normant's premise. There are a few misfires, with the most notable being Spears' appearance as a 1950s actress. She looks like a vapid pop icon in period costume. Who knows, maybe wearing so many clothes in such a demure photo made her uncomfortable.

Barkin, on the other hand, does an amazing turn as Kansas City native Harlow before showing up later in the book as a breathtaking 1960s Brigitte Bardot. Winning the award for best actress, however, is model Kass. As the sensual but innocent girl from the 1900s, through her 1960s and 1990s shots, she undergoes stunning transformations that make the reader wonder if it could really be the same person. If she can talk at all, this girl has film career written all over her future.

More than a leering look at the fairer sex, "Femme Fatale" captures the importance of an attractive woman in the marketing world, and each portrayal is an accurate reflection of the times. It's a must-have selection, whether readers put it on their coffee table or not.

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