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Lisa McInerney: The rise of personality in Hollywood gives us something to aspire to

We don’t want goddesses to worship. That’s why women like Jennifer Lawrence, Mindy Kaling, Laverne Cox and Melissa McCarthy and are as much loved as they are lauded.

Lisa McInerney

EARLIER THIS WEEK, Elle magazine found itself in a bit of a bind (pun totally intended) when its readers took to social media to protest its latest collection of covers. For its Women In TV edition, Elle created four separate covers, featuring actresses Amy Poehler, Allison Williams, Zooey Deschanel and Mindy Kaling.

Mindy Kaling’s portrait was the only one in close-up and the only one in black and white. It’s hardly a coincidence, readers suggested, that Mindy Kaling is the only one of the four who is a woman of colour. Plus, she wears an American size 8. (That’s an Irish 12, you guys. Hardly what you’d call irresponsibly fleshy.)

There’s little to be learned here in terms of debating whether the fashion industry is fearful and shallow (it is) or whether Kaling was hard done by (she tweeted that she loved her portrait), but it does suggest a refreshing facet to our appetite for celebrity gloss.

There is an insidious undercurrent of racism in the fashion world – it’s not been long since Elle was accused of lightening Gabourey Sidibe’s skin in a portrait – and women who don’t match model dimensions are practically invisible. Almost literally; Melissa McCarthy appeared under a shapeless coat in her Elle cover. But readers also rushed to protest Kaling’s cover because Kaling’s celebrity comes from her talent, and her likeability, not her ability to look flawless in a frock. Neither a doe-eyed cyborg or a fame-grubbing foghorn, Kaling is instead seen as representative. She is “one of us”.

imageMindy Kaling attending the 65th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards held at the Nokia Theatre at LALive in Los Angeles, USA. (Image: O’Connor-Arroyo/AFF/EMPICS Entertainment)

Back to the personality-heavy tradition of Hepburn and Davis

So the Elle controversy is about visibility, and it might have been circumvented if its fashion-savvy staff had kept their bejewelled ears to the ground. Stars aren’t meant to thrive in serene silence, and the pop-culture conscious are glad to see female celebrities drifting back towards the personality-heavy tradition of Hepburn and Davis. It’s certainly agreeable in the era of Photoshop and endless examination of showbiz diets, don’t you think?

Take the unanimously treasured Jennifer Lawrence. This week, she told The Sun that she was trying to “clean up her act”, seeing as she was prone to gaffes and occasionally foul-mouthed. Cue a collective roar of anguish; that Oscar-winning, Oscar-tripping, goofy, smartarsed Jennifer Lawrence might try being bland and inoffensive for 2014 is wholly unnecessary. Lawrence would have won fame and fortune in any case – she’s an immensely talented actress and blessed with distinctive features – but her appointment as Everyone’s Favourite Person Ever, Ever came about because she’s so… normal, which is an abnormal quality indeed in Hollyweird.

This begs the bitter question: are we obliged to somehow feel grateful to famous women for being “normal”? Is that what’s suggested when we talk about Mindy Kaling and Jennifer Lawrence, women who have, despite their status, failed to achieve celestial perfection? Kaling’s still at least two sizes larger than Hollywood would like, and Lawrence falls over her dress even when she’s collecting an Oscar.

Rather, the point is that it’s one thing to see an extraordinary woman doing ordinary things, but quite another to see an ordinary woman doing extraordinary things. That’s something we can identify with. It becomes inspirational.

imageJennifer Lawrence stumbled as she walked to the stage to accept the award for best actress in her eading role for “Silver Linings Playbook” during the Oscars at the Dolby Theatre on 24 Feb, 2013, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

The concept of ‘role model’ is a troublesome one

There was a great point made by another awesome woman this week: Orange Is The New Black star Laverne Cox. In an interview with Katie Couric, Cox rejected the term “role model” in thoughtful terms, saying that she preferred “possibility model”; the fact that she had the opportunity to work towards her goals publicly, she explained, highlighted the possibilities open to her fans.

Laverne Cox has overcome more specific and demanding challenges than most; as a trans woman of colour, her experiences cannot be glibly likened to Jennifer Lawrence’s endearing red carpet clumsiness, and it wouldn’t be fair to cheapen her point by pulling it too closely to the idea of making the ordinary visible in show business. And yet there’s a universality to Cox’s words. The concept of “role model” is a troublesome one, and the label a burden to bear. “I would never be so arrogant as to think that someone should model their life after [mine]”, Cox explained. Here’s a woman who gets it.

The idea that there are paragons of class, or conduct, or femininity for us to emulate is a tired one. In Cox’s words, we get something a lot more appropriate: the upside to celebrity culture is its visibility, and in seeing people like us achieve great things, we see our own potential. At its worst, the world of celebrity is vapid, draining codswallop, but at its best, it’s a boisterous pep talk.

We want people to identify with

While writing this column I found myself drifting, as I so often do (don’t judge me), to a Buzzfeed article. It celebrated Kate Middleton’s 32nd birthday with “32 Reasons Kate Middleton Is The Most Perfect Human Being Alive”. The “reasons” were as preposterous as a notebook made of Victoria sponge, ignoring anything remotely personality-driven for points like “She has glorious hair” and “She’s elegant”. Giving us something unattainable to aspire towards is pointless, and the thing about the duchess’s hair and teeth is that they’re actually hers and we can’t just go take ‘em.

Aspiring instead towards actual achievements, made appear achievable to us through the honesty of the women already working it: that is something to celebrate. Perhaps this is why women like Jennifer Lawrence and Mindy Kaling and Laverne Cox and Melissa McCarthy and Gabby Sidibe are as much loved as lauded. We don’t want goddesses to worship, Elle magazine. We want women to identify with. Perfection is so last year.

Read more of Lisa McInerney’s columns here >

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Lisa McInerney

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