I'll go into a little background here, because the story's emblematic of how information gets pushed around in 2012.
My son saw a post by my daughter on the timeline of her friend's Facebook. Her friend is a smart ass who, with my daughter, tried to foist a few Situationist schemes on their high school. Smart kid, as well as a smart ass.
Anyway, I look at the clip my daughter posted. It's on YouTube, in a section where young teens do a self-shot video asking the world if they're pretty.
Within me, buried not too deeply, is the hardwiring of a Latin patriarch. So, for a split second, I was overwhelmed with shame and horror and immediately wanted to lock her away. With the nuns, perhaps. But only for a fraction of a second. Then I realized it was some take, some joke, some meta-play on the theme of "Am I Pretty." particularly because of the context -- she'd posted it on her wise guy pal's page. Then I experienced a burst of paternal pride. I'm glad she can see through the dome the media likes to construct, and that she can manipulate a meme.
Next, her clip shows up as an illustration on Jezebel. For anyone who doesn't know, it's an online publication written for and by simple-minded and programmatic feminists. The writer's take on the Am I Pretty phenomenon, then, is utterly predictable: horror, outrage and a call to make these videos illegal. A typically low-grade totalitarian response. My daughter's video was chosen because it illustrates the writer's thesis in a backwards way.
My daughter is objectively and certifiably pretty -- something which both astounds me and worries me as her father (see Latin patriarch hardwiring above). So the tacit theme is: if even pretty girls are doing this, then what hell the poor ugly ones must be going through.
Jezebel is read by many young ambitious women on the make. One of them read the article, saw the clip and passed it along to the czars of the Today show. They contacted my daughter. They must have been in a warm sweat, with a story that combines elements of teenage sex, girls, narcissism, easy righteousness and concern, all in a single spicy stew. My daughter, easy on the eyes, would be a much better interview subject that an actual plain girl, eliciting both sympathy and incomprehension.
Even though she was tempted to take the Situationist prank to a whole new level, she decided to tell the truth about her age and motivations. It was an art piece, created as a project dealing with the same themes as the media wanted to deal with, but in a more nuanced way.
Of course, the producers lost interest. They want an innocent to feed up to the cameras, not someone who is in control of the narrative.
But then the local newspaper became interested. The Today Show had gone with the story about Am I Pretty videos. The Kansas City Star found a new, local angle: An art student who's work investigated the theme. IN the meanwhile, her video appeared on television stations around the country and during a montage on the Today Show itself. YouTube viewers left comments spanning the range from encouragement, praise and the usual fucked up foulness. (I only read a few; my daughter isn't reading them, but collecting them as part of the work.)
The local TV station, clued in by the newspaper, sent its interviewers over, and that's the end of the story. It all happened over a few days.
Friends have asked me how I feel about it. I'm proud of her work, and it's an insightful way of cracking the problem open, or, at least, examining it from a new angle. I'm glad she's getting attention, and I wonder if it presages some kind of Warholian ability to ride the zeitgeist. I'm also impressed by my daughter's smarts; she's used the exposure to mention her upcoming gallery show in a prominent space. She's handling everything well, and I hope that this becomes an opportunity for exposing the rest of her work, which I think is funny, moving and brilliant by turns.
About the issue itself, of Am I Pretty?
I think they're painful to watch, with their naked yearning for validation and for acceptance. An adult, if any are around, should tell them that what other people think doesn't matter, and point out that many women with unconventional features became attractive, had as many lovers as they wanted, and became great by force of will and by cultivating themselves. By work, in fact. The girls won't believe that adult, but maybe it a few years, they may start to learn it on their own.
Older people, who should know better, are caught in that hell of making the world a mirror to hold up to themselves.
But, who knows? Most people never really certain at any age. Am I pretty, handsome, attractive? At a point, if you're smart or tough or, perhaps, so goddam attractive or so obviously hideous, you move beyond that need to be stamped with a seal of approval. It helps if you just decide, yes, I am. And then forget about it.
These girls, like the rest of us, are caught in the horrible cycle of narcissism and critique that's the foundation of a consumer society. We're all little critics who can't distinguish between rating things and then people on their surfaces. People become things for consumption, or interchangeable parts in a machine. That's the real tragedy, that most of us can no longer see the difference between a shiny new iPad and a breathing, imperfect person, and use the same standards on each.
My daughter has used the resources of art and acting, subterfuge and analysis, shape-shifting and crafting to come to terms with the madness that's all around us.