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Essay: The Objectification of Women through Fashion in Funny Face

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  • Published: 1 April 2019*
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  • Words: 1,497 (approx)
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  • Tags: Fashion essays

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In Funny Face, Dick recreated Jo’s body into a more idealized version of what a feminine body ought to be through the use of photography and fetishized narratives, providing support for Mulvey’s argument of women as the passive object of the male gaze. However, Jo is further transformed into a feminine woman through the very clothes she is wearing. As will be discussed later, the free will and expression she exhibits when wearing a black turtleneck and black pants is replaced by a loss of independence when she dons more feminine attire and brings to life Maggie and Dick’s vision of how a woman ought to look and behave. It is this last point that portrays fashion as a form of expression of cultural beliefs, like Barthes claims.

When we first meet Jo, we are introduced to a woman who is dressed in simple fashion and rejects the idea of fashion, preferring the topic of philosophy. Jo is in her bookstore when the staff and fashion models of Quality magazine storm into her bookstore for an impromptu photoshoot. In this scene, Jo is wearing a shapeless outfit consisting of a black turtleneck and a tweed skirt with a tweed jumper over it. Her clothing stands in stark contrast to the very form fitting clothing that the model whom Jo is told to pose next to is wearing as well as to the vibrant pink clothing that the female staff of the magazine all wear.

The opportunity to travel to Paris leads to her transformation from a woman who fails to represent and embody femininity through her individual rejection of fashion to one who, by fashion being imposed on her, comes to represent the feminine ideal for a mass audience through her representation of fashion on the cover of a fashion magazine. In this way, Jo comes to represent fashion “for the woman who isn’t interested in fashion, the fashion magazine for the woman who thinks” despite her being a woman who prefers philosophy to fashion. Travel creates a transformation that pushes her further into the feminine masquerade.

Moreover, it is through fashion that Jo’s beauty is made apparent to and accepted by others. It is the masculine gaze of Dick that decides there is beauty and potential in Jo. As we discussed in lecture regarding Laura Mulvey, the male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female body and thus turns objectifies the woman.  In the film, It is Dick who persuades the Quality staff to transform Jo into a fashion model and, thus, Jo becomes an object of Dick’s fantasy and subjected to the male gaze. With Dick’s narrated fantasies and the fashion change she undergoes ( from simple masculine clothes to couture fashion), her individual style is hidden, concealed, and replaced by layers of clothes that have been constructed to represent the feminine ideal.

When Jo arrives in Paris, she is wearing a masculine outfit, pants, a turtleneck and a loose fitting trench coat. She wanders and explores the city, sits in a cafe, and has the autonomy to decide what she wants to do. Jo is dressed in a similar outfit later in the film when she is confronted by Dick after having missed a fitting for the photoshoot. In response, she expresses herself through physical movement through the form of dance, moving and dancing throughout the cafe in her simple and ‘masculine’ clothes which grant her the physical mobility to move and act in whatever way she chooses to. In fact, in regards to dance itself and Dick’s argument that ‘where [he] comes from the man asks a girl to dance’, Jo states, “you must come from the stone age, we think freely here…we’re not inhibited by outmoded social conventions…isn’t it time you realize that dancing is nothing more than a form of expression and release.” The ability to dance alone represents free expression, independence, and the ability to live outside of social constraints, in addition to physical mobility. Through this scene, we see Jo in an outfit that fails to represent either femininity or idealized fashion but rather represents her individual style (and distaste for fashion) and individual volition. As Barthes argues, fashion does not simply represent a practical use (such as pants for dancing) but rather it express conventions and social beliefs (such as the ability to think freely and not be inhibited by social conventions).

This attire in this scene stands in stark contrast to the clothes Quality is forcing her to wear.  The next time we see Jo, she has accepted the notions of femininity Quality has imposed on her, wearing a white and pink dress. In this dress, it would have been impossible for her to express herself as freely and physically mobile to the extent she did in the earlier outfit. When asked how she feels in the dress, Jo responds “It feels wonderful but it’s not me.” She has, through fashion, been transformed into the idealized Quality woman, but has been stripped of her physical mobility and the ability to express herself freely.

Simiary, the modelling montage scenes, in which Dick takes Jo around Paris to photograph her at various locations serve as a direct juxtaposition to the Bonjour Paris scene in which Jo explored Paris on her own and danced in the cafe. In Bonjour Paris, she was able to move freely and act as an individual, choosing which sights to see and how to express herself, while wearing simple/‘non-feminine’ clothing. In her modeling scenes, however, Jo is directed by Dick and fashioned by Quality and ultimately developed into the image of femininity that they have in mind. In each shot throughout the modelling montage, notions of femininity are imposed upon her through Dick’s creation of a made-up storyline that Jo must make real in the scene. She is the object of the male gaze and objectified to represent what it means to be a woman to the mass American audience through the the resulting photographic images that will be published in the pages of Quality magazine.

Focusing on the scenes previously discussed, we can incorporate both Barthes and Mulvey into our analysis to understand the ways in which fashion challenges and changes Jo’s mobility, independence, and femininity as she becomes the subject of the male gaze and subject to social constraints of what it means to be a woman as expressed through fashion.

As aforementioned, Roland Barthes postulates that fashion offers meaning that surpass its physical appearance or its uses/practicability. Rather, fashion can be used to connote and represent the culture beliefs and societal norms in much the same fashion as other forms of expression. He writes:

Fashion is not only what women wear, it is also what all women (and all men)

look at and read about: our fashion designers’ inventions please or annoy us just

like a novel, a film or a record. We project onto Chanel suits for women and on to Courreges shorts everything that is to do with beliefs, prejudices, and resistances,

in short the whole of one’s own personal history, what we call in one

(perhaps simplistic) word taste.

Fashion Face portrays fashion as directly living up to this potential. When we first see Jo, she is seen as a different kind of woman, one that does not embrace fashion or have an interest in it because of her attire. In her masculine attire she is free and unconstrained acknowledging that, “we’re not inhibited by outmoded social conventions” while wearing a black turtleneck and black pants in the bohemian cafe.

Later, however, when she wears more feminine fashion — skirts, dresses, form-fitting clothes, etc — her womanliness and beauty is not only acknowledged and accepted by society but becomes an example and standard for the everyday American woman. It is through the fashion that Jo wears as the Quality woman that she became an expression for what it means to be a woman in society. As Maggie states in the “On How to Be Lovely” song, “They’ll want to know who does your hair, what you eat, what you drink, what kind of sheets you sleep on. You will be an authority on how to be lovely”. It is the fashion that Jo wears that has transformed her into an expression of what it means to be a woman and thus into an authority of how to behave like a woman.

Funny Face is a film with a huge number of references to how fashion is used to express different cultural beliefs. Fashion and the male gaze work together to transform Jo from “a waif, a gamine, a lowly caterpillar” to a “bird of paradise” through a cocoon (or layers of clothes and fashion). Fashion in the film, then, is a medium through which editors like Maggie Prescott can express notions of what it means to be a feminine woman in society.

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