The aftermath of Princess Diana's death provided stunning uniformity all around. Every magazine, from The New Yorker to People, applied a high-gloss template to her short life. The photos tracked Diana's transformation from gawky gamine to stiff-backed bulimic monarch to faith healer to saintly corpse, accompanied by breathlessly sentimental text. In death, a woman who was never all that ordinary since she married Prince Charles was now, it seemed, positively saintly. Her contemporary fairy tale of 'self-improvement' captured the tenor of the '90s perfectly, as did the orgiastic but wrongheaded rounds of Blaming the Press that followed her death.
Same Lens, Different Filter
No one expects Italian designers to think differently about women when they pour their models into yet another tarty frock. For years, Gianni Versace, whose violent death gave new meaning to the term 'fashion victim,' outfitted a bevy of models and starlets with 'do me' dresses. Those images returned with a vengeance after his assassination. But the most marked post-murder picture was a yearbook photo of Andrew Cunanan. The "homicidal homosexual," as Tom Brokaw called him on NBC, was often represented by an adolescent picture in which the killer was bare-chested except for a loose-knotted striped tie, and striking a jaunty Rob Lowe pose. The photo came with its own caption -- "nice bod" -- written across Cunanan's torso. No need to think differently: Cunanan's blandly clonish look in other dredged-up photos, buzz-cutted and bleary at a party in one, or bespectacled and femme in another, could serve as a blueprint for the 'perverted' gay murderer that crops up in your average, mildly homophobic Hollywood screenplay.
The photos of Cunanan's off-kilter self-recreations contrasted with the constantly noble, Medici-style portraits of Versace. This also was a familiar lens, albeit with an unexpected filter. Celebrities, like Diana, are routinely exalted for their physical recreation of self, but when the unfamous (or the infamous?) change their looks with an eerie frequency, they are perceived to be hazards, even threats. Cunanan filled the bill like a dream -- or a nightmare.
One image with a true difference came from eco-aware retailer the Body Shop. The "Ruby" ad featured a zaftig Barbie, naked and supine, and the sentence: "There are three billion women who don't look like supermodels and only eight who do." The red-haired size-18 doll was a hearty jibe at the standard images of female beauty that continue to flood us (including the commemorative photos of Diana, which couldn't help but focus on the princess' buff royalness). The image of a Rubenesque -- hence, Ruby -- doll was truly jarring (note to advertisers: naked fat women retain their shock value. Go to it!).
Strangely enough, plastic or animated women are allowed more authentic self-expression than their flesh-and-blood media counterparts. MTV's new adult animated series, Daria, spun the 5-foot-2 high-schooler Daria Morgendorffer out and away from the likes of Beavis and Butt-head, where she first played super-ego. She's given to unsparing, too-cool-for-school critiques of the ordinary adolescents around her. Daria does not try to please, the behavioral impetus of most television ingenues.
Trying to please also seems to have been the farthest thing from the minds of some of Daria's darker real-life peers. Daphne Abdella, a 15-year-old Catholic schoolgirl, was baggy-eyed, baggy-trousered and banged-up in photos taken with her lawyer. Had Abdella ordered her boyfriend to stab to death 44-year-old Michael McMorrow in Central Park? Eighteen-year-old Melissa Drexler birthed and disposed of her newborn in a bathroom stall at the prom and was caught on film either right after or right before the birth, with her date and corsage. Drexler's case resembled Amy Grossberg's, who was on trial for killing her baby earlier this year. Remorseless girl slayers from financially comfortable homes -- it's a spate of TV movies waiting to happen, with a potential blueprint provided by The Bad Seed, the classic '50s B-movie about evil offspring. The year's 'bad teenagers' seemed so familiar that they could have learned their guiltless mannerisms and amoral systems from that schlocky thriller. Hollywood has already scored recent box office triumphs by somehow capturing that same mood, updated for the '90s. Scream, a gorefest gone mainstream, along with the tamer I Know What You Did Last Summer, set off a spirited revival of the Teenage Rampage theme.
Especially when it's on stage or on a film set, one person's misery is another's entertainment. The folks at Diesel know it only too well, given that Paradiset DDB's last campaign for the denim peddler was shot on location in North Korea -- a country where, by most accounts, chaos and mass starvation are the order of the day. Diesel's series of anti-ad ads is one example of the space between looking different and thinking different. In the clothier's signature image, North Koreans crowd into a bus that bears an advertisement of a slim -- no, a thin -- blonde model wearing jeans dubbed Brand-O. Like the shock tactics of another Italian company, Benetton, Diesel's approach just might work. At the very least, the company gets irony points for its politicized comment about advertising itself. As Jethro Marshall, marketing director at Diesel, explained to a British newspaper earlier this year: "Everybody wanted to disassociate themselves from the uniform anonymity and excess of that designer consumerism." Uniform anonymity? Consumerism? When North Koreans think about Western consumerism, it's probably rice or missiles.
Some of 1997's mere handful of images not engineered by the consumer economy were photos of the Hale-Bopp comet and of Mars' surface. While 3-D renderings of Martian boulders dubbed Yogi or Barnacle Bill were not thought-provoking unto themselves, at least the reminder of the rocks' existence could produce feelings of Ur-awe and astonishment that a splashy ironized ad campaign couldn't hope to achieve. The brightest comet in 20 years, Hale-Bopp streaking the night sky was a sight of celestial beauty.
The profoundest appreciation for it was probably felt by members of the Heaven's Gate cult, who chose to die so that their souls could board the invisible spaceship in Hale-Bopp's swooshy wake. Did somebody say swoosh? The fact that the cult's corpses were shod in nice new Nikes invariably made it into news reports, and the famous logo even appeared prominently in some of the death pics. Once more, Nikes were the most famous/notorious footwear in the world, a position the sneaker king had previously lost to Bruno Maglis, those "ugly-ass shoes" that O.J. Simpson, suffering from more bad memory loss, swore he'd never worn.
While we're on the subject of cults, let's talk about Apple. The "Think Different" ads associate pictures of Albert Einstein and Frank Lloyd Wright, among others, with Apple's products. Quite literally, original invention was apparently absent from Chiat/Day's campaign; according to Wired, the agency developed the concept much earlier for, well, IBM. Given the events of the year, "Think Same" may be a more Apple-appropriate imperative. It certainly was for most of 1997's photo stories.
Alissa Quart is a culture critic based in New York. Her articles appear in The