Masquerade of living dolls

February 2, 2007

Is there a 'real' woman behind exaggerated performances of femininity enacted by Kylie and Jordan? Hatty Oliver investigates

This month, the Victoria and Albert Museum launches Kylie - The Exhibition , a two-decade retrospective of the pop star's ever-changing image, featuring costumes and accessories. Kylie Minogue is something of a national obsession, as witnessed by Madame Tussauds' recent decision to display a fourth waxwork of the singer.

Glamour model Jordan is one of the few female stars who can rival Kylie's popularity. Although she hasn't yet been immortalised in wax, Jordan is the subject of innumerable column inches and magazine covers, and her autobiography, Being Jordan , sold more than a million copies. But whereas both combine their sex-symbol status with huge popularity among females, they offer the eternal pit-and-pedestal dichotomy for women.

Both Jordan and Kylie have built their fame on exaggerated performances of femininity. Jordan's career as a glamour model makes this charade explicit, while Kylie's singing career serves to disguise it. However, Kylie is a self-confessed mediocre singer and dancer: it is in enacting the poses of femininity that she excels. Her live performances confirm this - strangely static affairs in which she moves from one exaggerated tableau to the next.

Nevertheless, Jordan and Kylie's diametrically opposed sexual scripts disguise the similarities between the two women. The press may maintain a relentless focus on her bum, but Kylie still retains the squeaky-clean aura of Ramsey Street. At 38, the eternal pop princess miraculously clings to a preternaturally extended adolescence. Ten years younger than Kylie, Jordan seems older and more knowing: her penchant for porno-chic and blatant exploitation of her sexuality have given her a world-weary air that contrasts with Kylie's studied joie de vivre . The versions of female sexuality that they present may be oppositional; Kylie is the nation's favourite girl next door and Jordan its resident tart with a heart, but ultimately what both women demonstrate are not the specifics of the roles they play but the artificiality of femininity itself.

Kylie and Jordan exemplify Joan Riviere's 1929 theory of the masquerade. Riviere contended: "Women who wish for masculinity may put on a mask of womanliness to avert anxiety and the retribution of men." Riviere, a psychoanalyst and translator of Freud's early works, used one of her patients as an example, a successful intellectual woman who yet felt drawn to "ogling and coquetting" after publicly demonstrating her intelligence.

Jordan and Kylie may have made careers out of "ogling and coquetting", but they also conceal the masculine characteristics of ruthless ambition, drive and business acumen behind the excessive femininity of their smiley or pouting facades.

The two are shrewd businesswomen who have created successful brands; their names are used to sell everything from perfume to underwear. The elaborate femininity that defines their public personae serves to create a distance between their bodies and their business identities. However, Riviere's theory goes beyond the simple idea that womanliness may be assumed as a mask to hide masculine characteristics. Her more radical claim is that there is no distinction to be drawn between "genuine womanliness" and the masquerade, but that "they are the same thing"; in her analysis, femininity is dissimulation. The complex relationship between public and private personae that both Kylie and Jordan demonstrate seems to support this conception of femininity as burlesque.

Kylie and Jordan refer to their public selves as a kind of mask. Both women speak of themselves in the third person, separating the money-making product from the "real" person. Jordan explicitly differentiated her glamorous product from its apparently prediscursive author by introducing Katie Price to the world during her appearance on I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! The programme marked the beginning of her self-presentation as someone with a dual identity: Jordan the sexy hell-raiser and Katie the down-to-earth businesswoman, mother and (later) wife. Kylie is less public about this division, but in her private life she is apparently known as Min, for she too sees herself as two people: "One is Kylie Minogue Enterprises Ltd. The other is me."

Kylie's status as construct is sometimes obscured by her naturalistic presentation. Whereas Jordan foregrounds the artificiality of her body, Kylie is presented as real. However, as Kylie's creative director, William Baker, acknowledges, she too is an example of "artificial femininity".

Baker, who has been key to the creation of her public image, likened working with her to "having your own real-life Barbie doll to dress up".

Since 2004, Jordan has included her alter ego Katie in her public image. Katie arrived as Jordan's out-of-control sexuality finally threatened to alienate the press and was presented as the genuine authentic woman behind the masquerade. Her advent seemed to come as something of a relief, proving that behind the mask there is always something real, a "natural" woman.

However, the characterisation of Katie as real and Jordan as product is extremely problematic. Jordan herself describes it slightly differently: "At first I was just Jordan, but after the jungle I realised that lots of people really like Katie as well. So I learnt to do both."

Where Jordan enacts an extravagant parody of female sexuality, Katie, through her marriage to Peter Andre, pantomimes domestic bliss. It has become abundantly clear that Katie is manufactured and performing her is just another branch of Jordan's career. As her manager, Claire Powell, says: "While the Jordan brand may have a shorter shelf-life, Katie Price can go on and on." Katie has proved to be just another image, and so "genuine womanliness" itself becomes a masquerade.

While Jordan insists on revealing the mechanics of her commodification, the relationship between Kylie's public and private face remains opaque.

Rivalling Madonna as the queen of reinvention, she assumes a series of identities, restaging iconic moments of female sexuality such as Brigitte Bardot's ...And God Created Woman tabletop dance and Jane Fonda's Barbarella space striptease, but is defined by none. Baker claims: "In Kylie I have the perfect canvas for my fantasies." This description seems apt, as Kylie remains an exemplar, a staging point for archetypes of womanhood, from wholesome girl next door to absinthe-crazed seductress. She remains inscrutable, simultaneously revealing everything and nothing.

It seems inevitable that where there is a mask there will be a desire to see behind it, and the press have endlessly sought to see through Kylie's cheerful and professional performance of femininity to the "real" woman.

Her recent illness signalled a renewed desire for authenticity and an obsessive tabloid focus on Kylie's relationship with Olivier Martinez, her fertility and alleged marriage plans. In recovery, Kylie continues to thwart this desire for the "genuine womanliness" apparently signalled by marriage and children, eschewing matrimony and showing a determined desire to return to the stage.

Jordan's self-conscious status as construction contains possibilities for subversion that are missing from the more conservative performance enacted by Kylie. Jordan insists on revealing the mechanics, Kylie hides them with sequins and pink feathers. This refusal to reveal anything beyond the smoke and mirrors leaves the possibility for authenticity intact; Jordan's insistence on collapsing the "genuine woman" and the masquerade together threatens the integrity of the former with the artifice of the latter.

Vicky Broakes, curator of the Kylie exhibition, maintains that the retrospective is "not really like looking at a collection of clothes or visual imagery. It's looking at the human being behind it all." The contention that her stage wardrobe reveals her essence seems to suggest that Kylie really is no more than the sum of her costumes, which echoes Riviere's thesis that there is no distinction to be drawn between genuine womanliness and the masquerade.

It makes little difference if female fans choose to embrace Kylie's brand of froufrou showgirl princess or Jordan's ruthlessly instrumental sexuality. Ultimately, what the legions of little girls at Kylie's shows and the queues of women at Jordan's book signings are learning is that feminine identity is defined by performance.

Hatty Oliver is a PhD student in the department of media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. Kylie - The Exhibition is at the Victoria and Albert Museum from February 8 to June 10.

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