For those of you in Australia there is a documentary worth catching tonight on SBS about the French Film Star Brigitte Bardot. My wife loves old film stars and is a fan of Bardot, so for years we had a picture of her in our kitchen. However it was not until I was doing some research for my second book that I discovered what a fascinatingly symbolic character Bardot was. Her life is somewhat of a cautionary tale that our culture needs to hear. Many of you who will have heard me teach on the concept of Public selves and Pop Sexuality will have heard me refer to Bardot as the woman who shaped the contemporary disposable identity of “sexy’ that influences so many young women and men today.
Sexiness carries strong connotations of power. For many men sexiness accompanies their cultural power, but increasingly for women sexiness has become a culturally acceptable means of exercising social power. This power can be exercised to gain power over men but it can also be exercised by women against other women. Brigitte Bardot pioneered the media mask of sexiness that we see everywhere today. Bardot was a new kind of woman, in contrast to the classical female beauties of her time with their tightly curled and coiffured hair styles, her long, lush and almost messy hair was described as bedroom hair, one commentator at the time writing that her hair made her look like she had just gotten out of bed after making love.
Whilst older film stars such as Jayne Mansfield, Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth, were obviously groomed by their movie houses to appeal to male audiences with a carefully rehearsed performance, Bardot seemed to be sexy because she wanted to be. On screen her public face of sexy seemed to be a message to the world rather than just a ploy to men, it was a challenge to women, just as much as it was an appeal to men as movie historian Sean French writes in his biography of Bardot,
“She embodied – all too visibly – a youthful sexual arrogance, an arrogance that was all the more shocking for being justified. If anything, her affronting self-assertion was addressed more to women than to men: I can have any man I want, she seemed to say, and any other qualities, all your qualities – intelligence, charm, humour, ties of affection or duty – are useless”
Bardot became symbolic of a new kind of female public self, her whole life seemed to be defined by her sexiness, it was a new way of life. She was often photographed at the exclusive French seaside of St Tropez in a shocking new swimming costume known as the bikini. She became also symbolic of the sixties sexual revolution, open about her appetite for sun, sex and pleasure. When she first appeared Bardot caused a sensation with her public self of sexiness, however the public self she pioneered is now ubiquitous amongst young and not so young women. A public self which used sexiness as power, a way of gaining social status and meaning in the age of the horizontal self.
Many young women grew up with the advent of the post-feminist phenomenon of girl power as exemplified by groups such as the Spice Girls. Instead of being passive sexual objects, girls were encouraged to use their sexuality and femininity to their advantage. Just listen to the popular music today that is marketed towards young women, song after song reaffirms the message that young women’s sexuality is a pathway to their social success. The female who has a mastered the social sexy self carries tremendous social power in our culture today. Sociologists have termed this phenomenon Performative Sexuality, noting that often this very public display of sexual power is often completely disconnected from one’s personal sex life. What is important is not what is going on in someone’s real life but the show they are putting on for the audience of their peers.
However this is where we can learn from Bardot. As I initially commented Bardot’s life is a cautionary tale, as she aged her looks deteriorated, she became a recluse, and she was forced to face the reality of her existence minus the social power her display of performative sexuality afforded her. Bardot’s aging and loss of her beauty pulls down the mirage of hyperreality, and the shallowness of the contemporary obsession with sexiness and reminds us of the words of the Psalmist who when contemplating human mortality wrote
“They are like a breath. Their days are like a fleeting shadow”
We are as believers are called to look beneath the surface, to look beyond looks, to not conform to our hyperconsumerist culture’s agenda of turning young women into simply products and objects for sexual gratification. But before we go off on a holy rampage to destroy the concept of physical beauty, we must continue to read the same psalm (144), the writer goes onto extol youth and beauty,
“that our sons in their youth will be like well nutured plants, and our daughters will be like pillars carved to adorn a palace.”
In one Psalm the writer manages to put Bardot’s life into perspective, yes sexiness and beauty are nothing to build a life upon, that eventually we all get old, youth passes, we all must face our mortality. And yet who upon seeing Bardot in her youth cannot but be struck by her beauty? Thus we must hold the tension, we must learn to appreciate physical beauty as the handiwork of the creator. Beauty cannot be worshipped in of itself, rather it points us back to the source of all beauty. The holy person manages to appreciate those who are beautiful and also managed to remember the beauty is fleeting and only skin deep. Lets leave the last word to Brigitte (my wife will love this video as it combines many of her favourite things Retro French Style, Sixties Kitch and Brigitte Bardot)