Frilly pink bra and stockings; lace-trimmed silk négligée; playful, buttock-baring knickers; sheer, turquoise babydoll...
Alice Hawkins and her beloved Agent Provocateur are inextricably linked in her short film Hello Rory; the lingerie transcends the role of costume to become an intrinsic part of her character. As feminist academic Elizabeth Grosz writes in her book Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism, ‘Anything that comes into contact with the surface of the body and remains there long enough will be incorporated into the body image.’ There is both literally and figuratively nothing between Hawkins’ skin and the silks and satins of her intricate undergarments, and the adoption of these clothes is a transformative act.
By adorning her body with such overt indicators of female sexuality, Hawkins references the modern feminine ideal and plays with the concept of empowerment through sexual display. Such blatant exhibitionism raises the question: is it paradoxical to feel empowered by looking desirable to others?
It’s an idea that has evolved alongside changing attitudes towards women. At the time of second-wave feminism and the sexual revolution of the 1960s to 80s, a new, highly sexualised culture was hailed as a sign of women’s liberation. They were finally free to celebrate their sexuality, no longer confined to the ideal of the chaste virgin or the monogamous housewife. Prancing around in provocative underwear at this time would have been an unambiguous symbol of empowerment.
But with the passing of decades, this freedom of sexual expression sees itself threatened from the other end of the spectrum. British feminist Natasha Walter explains in her 2010 book Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism that a new female image now dominates western culture. Removed from the confines of chastity, woman is now faced with the impossible demands of an increasingly sexualised ideal. Its model has its roots in pornography, but it is far from limited to X-rated websites; it pervades our magazines, our billboards and our televisions, and is emulated in clothing stores, nightclubs, and even workplaces. ‘Far from giving full scope to women’s freedom and potential,’ Walter argues, ‘the new hypersexual culture redefines female success through a narrow framework of sexual allure.’ For women in the western world, ‘sexiness’ is the currency of the twenty-first century, and following very specific codes of appearance in order to look desirable (to men) is not only portrayed as a social norm, but is often implied as a requirement for social advancement.
This modern ‘sexiness’ is not a celebration of feminine sexuality in its natural sense; frankly, it requires a lot of work. It demands all the trappings of the glamour model - and trappings is the right word, for Simone de Beauvoir’s observation that ‘costumes and styles are often devoted to cutting off the feminine body from any activity’ is as relevant now as ever, with inch-long false nails and skyscraper stilettos ruling both catwalk and high street. Today’s idea of beauty is a heavily commodified and stylised look that, as the title of Walter’s book suggests, is better suited to a doll than a naturally flawed and unique human being.
There is no denying that Hawkins' portrayal of feminine beauty in Hello Rory resembles this sexed-up Barbie image. Her hair, Britney-blonde of course, is perfectly coiffed, her make-up flawless. The camera pans in on her breasts, manipulated into the unnatural positioning of the push-up bra, the candy-coloured lighting all the while emphasizing the falseness of this toy-town aesthetic.
In embracing the fakery of today’s idealised sexual allure, Hawkins turns herself into an object. She makes an exhibit of herself so that we, her audience, are forced to objectify her too. We become her fetishists.
But while Hawkins imitates the ideal of woman as sexualised mannequin, her act is in fact one of subversion. The filmmaker takes this ubiquitous type of fetishism - the woman-as-object fetish that panders to male desire, wrapped up as it so often is in lust for dominance and possession - and uses it for her own personal and artistic goals. Although her character basks in her self-appointed role of object, she never goes so far as to relinquish her autonomy as subject.
‘I’m doing this all for you,’ she tells Rory, but her audience is not fooled. She’s doing this for herself, and enjoying every second. Indeed, while the film is ostensibly addressed to Rory, his participation is determined by Hawkins alone, and he is ultimately denied the opportunity to enjoy her fantasy pin-up show at all. His role may be implied as that of voyeur, but he remains unseeing, a mere voice on the phone; he is demoted to auditeur. ‘Rory, you’d love this underwear,’ Hawkins taunts, ‘because it’s feminine and it’s girly and it’s pretty...’ It’s feminine and girly like Hawkins, who confidently takes ownership of the lingerie and, more importantly, of the image she projects whilst wearing the lingerie. Her own fetish in the film is a kind of exhibitionism: She draws gratification from her objectification, and so reclaims the ‘sexy’ doll-like ideal for her own purposes.
This type of subversion is difficult to pull off, precisely because it looks so much like conformity. Hawkins is successful because she is such a strong woman and artist, in complete control of herself, her sexuality, and her creative vision. She is able to project a common image of fetishisation that has been propagated largely by and for men, and to turn it into a display of empowerment. It is a defiant act, and one that skirts dangerous territory. After all, by complying with this ideal of sexualised beauty, even with the best of intentions, she runs the risk of reinforcing it. But in the end, a woman who values her freedom simply cannot deny herself the liberties of lipstick and lingerie, of ‘dolling herself up’ and exhibiting herself, if that is what she genuinely enjoys. To forgo a personal pleasure on the basis that it may also indulge male desire would be utterly self-defeating.