There’s a piece in The Drum this week by Clementine Ford titled “We’re all real women…” My first thought was, is that like in the “real” Julia Gillard, or what? Since the PM adopted that manner of self-description the word “real” appears to have entered a state of extreme fluidity, and I don’t really know what it means anymore.
This is disconcerting because “real” was one of the words in our language that one used to be able to rely on through consensus. The term “unreal”is also clear when used as praise, and we can’t really apply it to describe what women are when they aren’t “real.”
I almost wrote “being real” just then. But I don’t think we should go there this morning. One step at a time.
There are millions of words that are totally unreliable and change meaning at the drop of a hat, often appropriated by politicians to obscure rather than reveal. “Real” was not, until the PM co-opted it, one of those words, at least not in the sense of being used to reassure the populace that the subject of enunciation was now entering a novel phase of authenticity.
No politician in my living memory has ever risked admitting they’d previously been false, before Julia Gillard did it.
What her claim to have suddenly become “real” signified was that prior to her announcement, the PM had apparently been inhabiting a hyperreal universe in which, according to French theorist Jean Baudrillard, human consciousness is tricked into detaching from real emotional engagement, opting instead for simulation and endless reproduction of fundamentally empty experience from which it is compelled to continually move forward.
This is the equivalent of emotionally experiencing theme parks such as Disneyland as real suburban living, and Las Vegas casinos such as the Paris and the Venetian as real cities. That is, reality has been replaced with signs and symbols, making it ultimately irrelevant. I can testify to this. I haven’t been to Venice, but I have been to the Venetian in Las Vegas. Watching a program on television filmed in Venice I found myself thinking, that’s just like the Venetian in Vegas. This is but a small example of Baudrillard’s theory, and I am appalled at myself.
However, in comparison with the Las Vegas Venetian and Disneyland other places seem very real, and this is the purpose of it all. The hyperreal conceals the fact that the real is no longer real, by making the no-longer-real look real when one leaves the hyperreal and re-enters the “real” world.
Who is responsible for this mind-fucking post modern conspiracy I cannot say, except to suggest that the media and capitalism play a pivotal role.
Then there is the question of what value one attaches to the “real.” In the case of women, if anti pornography campaigner Gail Dines and her ilk are to be believed, the hyperreal destroys all value in the real, and men who inhabit the hyperrealistic world of pornography either attempt to persuade “real” women into imitating the simulacra (now there’s a mind-boggling concept), or they become incapable of interaction with the “real” because she isn’t exciting enough.
In the case of Ford’s article, I think “real” signifies women who feel themselves to be whole without the trappings of fashion, considerations of weight and size, and male approval. Whereas in Ms Gillard’s case I believe she was referring to a political presentation that apparently went from not real to real in a nano second, though given the magazine cover above, I’m inclined to think there was also a physical dimension to her claims.
I myself personally have never seen much difference between what the PM considered not real about herself, and what is apparently the genuine article. This is almost certainly my own fault, an unfortunate inability to detect subtle nuance for which I should be punished.
So, if both the PM and Ms Ford find it necessary to assert the “realness” of women, albeit in differing ways, is this an attempt to reclaim us from a hyperreal existence in which we cannot distinguish reality from fantasy? A frantic effort to rescue us from the consequences of struggling to maintain our sanity in a world teeming with simulacra?
The news in Jezebel today that Swedish fashion house H&M have stopped airbrushing human beings and instead have replaced them with computer-generated virtual bodies with “real” female human heads digitally imposed, would suggest this is the case. Such a move does confirm that as Baudrillard suggested, simulacra work to obliterate the notion that reality is in any way relevant to our understanding of our lives. If Jezebel hadn’t outed them, we would have assumed we were looking at human beings (albeit enhanced) rather than cyborg hybrids.
The question is, what does all that mean?
Well, absolutely sod all according to Baudrillard, who claims that all meaning is rendered meaningless by being infinitely mutable. Which brings me back to the meaning of “real.” Along with Clementine Ford and the PM I was labouring under the illusion that “real” meant something. It doesn’t. It’s a crock. It’s as mutable as any other word. There is nothing to hold on to, we are drowning in fluidity, and this is not a pipe.