iconic: remixing the fame, beauty, and influence of icons

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For this hack, I wanted to expand upon a idea that played into hack 4, on social profile reincarnation (explanation training for social id mods). In brainstorming about that hack, I began by thinking about particular archetypes that appear in society throughout history. Figures like Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, Pamela Anderson, Lil Kim, Kim Kardashian all fulfill a very similar societal role built around beauty, sex appeal, and fame. In my previous hack I was thinking about taking these social archetypes to the extreme — in which people choose a archetypal social media profile and spend their life curating it based on the profile personality, so that the profile can be “passed down,” creating a system of not human immortality, but profile immortality. For this project, I wanted to use remix as a jump point to delve deeper into the role of an iconic sex symbol.

I first identified four core women I wanted to examine: Marilyn, Madonna, Pamela, and Kim. I chose them because of their astronomical fame but also because they are polarizing figures — people either adore them or despise them. I also chose these women because they are and were deliberate about pushing on the social norms of the society that they each lived in, while also embodying the beauty ideals of that time. I combed through interview footage, photo shoots, online clips, and articles about the women in order to gather the audio and visual components that make up the remix.

In Virginia Kuhn’s “The Rhetoric of Remix,” she describes the remix as having “affordances of the digital, [which] create a broader range of available semiotic resources through which one may speak; thus, remix is a form of digital argument that is crucial to the functioning of a vital public sphere. Competent control of the available semiotic resources is key to digital fluency.” She goes on to argue throughout the piece that remixes of existing content can carry important digital arguments that point to a concept or idea or belief beyond the confines of the original material. By cutting and re-stitching materials together with attention to the semiotic messaging each material carries, remixes can become a tapestry imbued with meaning.

My video opens with a deliberate attempt to skew time: Marilyn Monroe in a pink gown and diamonds, performing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend,” surrounded by men in suits doting on her. Audio from the last interview she gave before committing suicide plays beneath: “Actually,” she says, “if I’m going to be a symbol of something, I’d rather it be sex than some other things they have symbols of…We are all born sexual creatures it’s a pity so many people despise and crush this natural gift.” The video blending layers then kick in, and we another woman in the exact same pink gown and diamonds, with the same men in suits doting on her, in the same performance hall — but this time it’s Madonna, performing in her music video “Material Girl” as an ode to Marilyn’s performances decades earlier. Then we see a flash of a young Pamela Anderson laughing while in a interview, before a series of blended images of all of the women (videos of Madonna and Pamela mixed beneath images of Marilyn), followed by a Kim Kardashian photoshoot with images from a Madonna photoshoot layered over top. I mixed these mediums and time periods to immediately allude to my previous point, that these iconic women are often social reincarnations of each other — even down to the aesthetic, clothing, and type of performances they give.

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Marilyn’s audio frames the rest of my digital argument as it unfolds in this video. I feel that polarizing figures like Pamela and Kim are hated because of their overt celebration of their own bodies and owning their feminine sexuality. Often these figures are demeaned, told that they don’t know what they’re doing, that they are exploiting themselves, and that they don’t do “legitimate work”. My hope with this video was to challenge those notions and present these women from their own point of view. By showing the less-often described side of sex icons, I also hoped to present these women as powerful, influential, and valuable figures. These women use their bodies and sex appeal to subvert dominate notions about sex, work, and femininity: in a hetero-normative society that demeans the hyper-feminine, tells women they can’t be professional and also sexual, and engenders a puritanical view towards sex, we need the Marilyn’s and Pamela’s and Kim’s of the world as a counter-weight.

Indeed, Pamela’s audio comes next: “I did Playboy out of spite, out of pure spite.” she says. “My boyfriend told me I couldn’t, so I said I’m going to, see you later.” If the dominate perception of Playboy models is that they are victims and don’t fully understand the “consequences” of their photoshoots, Pamela’s lines immediately strike that down. She is a woman bucking expectations, bucking a boyfriend’s control, and doing what she wants — and certainty doesn’t see herself as a victim. “I’m an adventurous person,” she continues, “but just hadn’t had the chance to express myself.” From her point of view, modeling was about freedom and self-expression — two powerful messages to impart for women. (Not to suggest that the end game of freedom and self-expression is the same as Pamela’s, but that these two ideas are worth pursuing and can be pursued).

*Note: While I am illuminating which woman spoke which audio here for the sake of the statement, I was deliberate in mixing and masking the identity of the speaker in the video itself. Like mixing time periods via visuals, I also wanted to mix time periods via audio — and make it feel as if any of the women could have spoken the lines.

Madonna also shatters the notion that she didn’t fully “understand” what she was doing when coming out with hyper-sexual music videos and live shows: “I knew I was going to get into a very shady area and I knew I might offend people but I felt it needed to be done so I did it.” This happens over the motif of the second half of the video, which is page flipping through Kim Kardashian’s book of selfies, Selfish, which also includes sexual selfies.

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I think Selfish in itself is an extremely powerful cultural artifact. So many were quick to call it vain, narcissistic, and ridiculous. But the Venus di Milo and countless nude women painted and sculpted and artistically rendered by male artists throughout the past several centuries weren’t viewed as vain, narcissistic, or ridiculous. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger wrote: “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.” When the woman herself reclaims ownership of image production and performance of herself as a sexual being, it is condemned. This is why Kim’s book of selfies — which include sexual selfies! — it so important, since by compiling and publishing the book, she actively taking ownership of her image and self production.

I cut the page flipping of Selfish with paparazzi footage surrounding Pamela, Kim, Madonna, and Marilyn. I wanted to again point to their immense social and cultural capital — that we are obsessed by them, but also so often also condemn them. Kim says, “I think the biggest misconception about me is just the question when people say what do you do, as if I don’t work, as if I don’t have two books and one on the way and a TV show and 7 fragrances and a make-up line and a hair line.” I think a large part of why Kim is denied legitimacy in her work because she is also known for her body. This is why her audio is layered beneath images in Selfish of her breasts and her other more sexual selfies — for many viewers, I think the first inclination is to laugh (indeed, many did at the viewing I noticed!), but my intention here was to challenge the viewer. Why can’t the woman icon be sexual like this and also conduct legitimate work that she is given credit for?

Kim Kardashian has built her family an empire and has been consistently on the cutting edge and relevant to our culture since 2006: she made reality TV happen, she made celebrity app games happens, she made Selfish happen, she made personal celebrity apps happen, and not to mention the countless other influences she has had on fashion and beauty via her own identity performance but also her involvement in fashion, hair, and make-up lines. We deny her these successes because of the hetero-normative standard of demeaning the feminine-oriented endeavors (feminine-oriented not to be confused with womanhood-oriented — here I am referring to the feminine as a process of adornment that anyone can participate in — this would include make-up artists who are men, queer, etc etc) and also because of her own celebration of her body. She has consistently fought against this and pioneered on, and the result is a new cultural icon.

This feminine performance work and sex positivity work done by all the women I examined is, I believe, valuable. In several older interviews with Marilyn and Madonna (not included), both women spoke of how people either hated them or adored them. Given the distance of history, Marilyn has become not just a sex symbol but also a cultural icon — the same has happened for Madonna. These women were also ahead of their times, in my opinion — when Marilyn speaks on sex being a natural gift to be celebrated, when Madonna championed gay rights and told an incredulous talk show host that of course she could be a mother without getting married to a man — so by combining these women’s histories with the present landscape, I hope to shift the perception towards modern women who are sex symbols or even just women who are overtly sexual. While they celebrate sex and their bodies, we can all make an effort not to render our own perceptions of them as so one-dimensional. The modern sex symbol does legitimate work, is powerful and necessary — and like Marilyn, she is and will continue to be an icon.



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