Tuesday, August 17, 2010

the politics of appearance


This is a picture of Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, who was 19 years old when she was arrested after participating in a Freedom Ride in Jackson, Mississippi in 1961. A lot of people have talked about her courage, and a lot of people have talked about how lovely she is-- see this excellent thread at Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog, and this Jezebel post that discusses whether it's appropriate to evaluate a civil-rights hero in terms of her physical appearance. (For the record, I think it's probably not: it's reductive, and Ta-Nehisi followed up with a fantastic check-your-privilege post here.)

So, here's the thing: I have a lot of thoughts about this picture. Like, A LOT, because Joan (who's still alive, by the way!), at 19, possessed a moral courage most of us will never know if we can match. I think most people believe they would have stood up just like she did, but let's face it: in that time, most people didn't. In that time, we probably wouldn't have either. But that's one of the things that's covered quite well in Ta-Nehisi's post.

Then there's the other stuff that comes along with this picture, the gender stuff, the beauty stuff. There's the fact that maybe Joan's picture catches us the way it does because she is young, and white, and beautiful-- that maybe part of the weight of the image is in its aesthetics. That's some knotty, problematic stuff, and the Jezebel thread does its best to pick all that apart.

So I'm not going to get too deep into those things, because other people are doing it better. I'm going to talk about her clothes.

Which, okay, shallow-- but. This is the thing about that time, and the way people dressed. Part of the impact of Joan's picture, for me, is that she is not wearing clothes that set her apart as a member of the counterculture. One reason for that is that civil rights protesters made a conscious effort to present themselves as tidy, well-dressed, respectable people, just like everyone else. Often, the counterculture has a uniform-- you could tell just by looking if someone was a beatnik, a few years before this picture was taken, or a hippie a few years after. Civil rights protesters didn't do that. They didn't want to set themselves apart visually, because their actions were already setting them apart in ways that made people very, very angry.

I love the aesthetics of the period in which this picture was taken. I've said, more than once, that I basically lose interest in clothes made after about 1965; as far as I'm concerned, design took a serious blow then and never really recovered. I have an extensive rant prepared about how the most casual outfit a person owned, fifty years ago, would look formal to modern eyes. The phrase "goddamn comfy pants" gets used a lot; also, I complain about the '80s.

People have asked me, given that, if I'd like to live in that time, and they're usually surprised by my answer, which is: OH HELL NO.

Because that time? SUCKED to live in. It was stiflingly sexist, narrow-minded as all get-out, and so racist that people arrested a girl who looked like Dorothy Gale for her insistence that segregation was wrong. People think that if we wear vintage today-- which I do, and often-- we must want the other parts of that time back, and I really, really don't. Given the choice between ubiquitous hat-wearing and Jezebel comment threads, I'll pick feminism and the Internet every time.

So look at Joan. Look at her lace-trimmed gingham blouse (or dress; I wish I knew), at her soft hairstyle, at the rose pinned to her collar. Her clothing is sending us a message: it's saying she is a part of that strait-laced, narrow-minded time. But that girl is a fucking revolutionary, even in gingham. So the question is, can you be as strong as her?

(On an intensely shallow note, holy crap I love her hair, it is so, so romantic and perfect. The soft waves are probably thanks to pin-curls, and I'm guessing she has some long bangs pinned aside there. The little gather where the sleeve hits that band at the hem is just perfect, and I am totally in love with the two narrow strips of crochet lace on either side of the button placket. Part of me is DESPERATE to know whether that is, in fact, a gingham dress, or just a blouse and skirt. Whatever it is, Joan wears it well. It probably helps that her whole face is alight with righteousness; moral surety is a good look in any season.)

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