I’ve seen a lot of them, lately: the bland, glamorous faces of models in advertisements for fashion and various luxurious commodities. They’re ubiquitous anyway, but my exposure has been amped up considerably by recent prolonged stays in airports and hotels, and a brief stint in hospital (I’m fine), where I’ve found myself leafing through glossy magazines.
The empty, blandly aloof gaze is everywhere in these magazines, in photo spreads as well as advertisements—a gaze we know from models on catwalks, too, a gaze so universally available that young people can mimic it effortlessly for the selfies they post on social media. But what lies behind that gaze? Why has it become the universal form of expression for glamorous images of human faces?
One possibility is that it exists to invite the viewer—that is, the potential consumer—in. As cool and off-putting as the expressionless face of the model may seem, it is, after all, an expression placed on the face of the consumer’s aspirational self. Whether the images appeal to the sexually objectifying male gaze is of secondary importance in most of the images, which exist to sell fragrances and clothing and accessories not to men but to women. The female viewer is, of course, expected to feel inferior to the woman in the image, but only because she has not yet acquired the product that (it is hollowly promised) will transform her, Cinderella-like, into the glamorous woman in the image. So a lack of expression could be a kind of invitation, a blankness or abstraction into which one is invited to project oneself.
The appeal of relative abstraction as a method of inviting the spectator to project his- or herself into an image is a well-established principle of graphic art. Scott McCloud, in his seminal study Understanding Comics, tells us “When you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face, you see it as the face of another,” however, “when you enter the world of the cartoon, you see yourself…. The cartoon is a vacuum into which our identity and awareness are pulled.” This has everything to do with the abstraction, the relative blankness, of the way characters are represented. We identify with the more abstracted features of the character, write McCloud, but
…on the other hand, no one expects audiences to identify with brick walls or landscapes, and indeed, backgrounds tend to be slightly more realistic. In some comics, this split is far more pronounced. The Belgian ‘clear-line’ style of Hergé’s Tintin combines very iconic [that is, abstracted] characters with unusually realistic backgrounds. This combination allows readers to mask themselves in a character and safely enter a sensually stimulating world. One set of lines to see. Another set of lines to be.Certainly there is something to this, but it is equally true that, along with the pulling-in effect of the glamorous face, there is a pushing-away, a remoteness or aloofness. Roland Barthes, in his famous essay “The Face of Garbo,” gets something of the effect when he describes the blankness of Greta Garbo’s face in the film Queen Christina:
…the make-up has the snowy thickness of a mask: it is not a painted face, but one set in plaster, protected by the surface of the color, not by its lineaments. Amid all this snow at once fragile and compact, the eyes alone, black like strange soft flesh, but not in the least expressive.The abstraction of the face and the inexpressivity of the eyes elevated Garbo above the realm of ordinary mimesis: in Queen Christina she represented not a particular woman, in particular existential circumstances, but “offered to one's gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature,” a creature “descended form a heaven where all things are formed and perfected in the clearest light.” Her remoteness is the remoteness of an ideal, and the blankness of the gaze is an important part of this removal from the sublunary world of particularity.
The blank gaze of the glamour model shows how she inhabits a purer, more ideal world than ours, a world beyond contingency and circumstance, a world where everything is sufficient unto itself. It repels us and our messy, flawed world—even as it provides a blank space into which we can project ourselves, as the consumers of the advertised products (and therefore as the inhabitants of the idealized world). John Berger, in the passages on envy in Ways of Seeing, describes exactly the self-sufficiency portrayed in the glamour model’s bland gaze:
Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely on not sharing your experience with those who envy you. You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest—if you do, you will become less enviable. In this respect the envied are like bureaucrats; the more impersonal they are, the greater the illusion (for themselves and others) of their power…. It is this which explains the absent, unfocused look of so many glamour images. They look out over the looks of envy which sustain them.There’s a reason the blank gaze has become the ubiquitous expression in advertisements for aspirational products: the combination of exclusion and potential inclusion, of aloofness and space for us to project ourselves, is a powerful vortex. And unless we enter some future mode of social organization in which social ratification is satisfied in more substantial ways than the promise that one will be envied if one buys what a particular glossy ad is selling, it’s a gaze to which we will continue to be subjected.