Category Archives: Visual Culture

The Only Way is Essex meets bell hooks. Yes, really. #TOWIE


The Essex girl and her commercial manifestation in the ‘structured reality’ show The Only Way is Essex, subverts notions of subcultures as ‘cool’. Rather, her middle class comfort and extravagantly ‘bad’ taste, represents a new kind of “semantic disorder” (Hebdige 1979, 90). Boundaries of money, class and taste are transgressed by the Essex girl; The Only Way is Essex serves to redraw these old distinctions. This essay establishes the Essex girl as a subcultural category, evidencing the markers of subcultural status: bricolage, identification, and perceived deviance. The Essex girl will be shown to have been incorporated by the dominant culture in two ways: the commodity form (The Only Way is Essex as a cultural product), and the ideological form (the situation of the show’s ‘characters’ within traditional family structures, and the sexual naturalization). Parallels will be drawn between bell hooks’ essay “Eating the Other” (1992), and the gender and class issues raised by the cultural incorporation of the Essex girl.

Germaine Greer offers a floral analogy for the outward appearance of the Essex girl, saying “the poppy is a real Essex girl of a flower, too loud, too bright, with too much eye-make-up “ (Greer 2006). But Chris Irvine of The Telegraph describes ‘Essex girl’ as a pejorative term, saying that the group can be identified by “significant amounts of fake tan”, giving them an orange appearance (2010). De Certeau may have attributed off-label use of a cultural product to the process of bricolage, a form of cultural subversion. He states that “users make (bricolent) innumerable and infinitesimal transformations of and within the dominant cultural economy in order to adapt it to their own interests and their own rules” (De Certeau 1998, xiv). The Essex girl’s bodily manipulation (Botox, implants), and the Bindi-like phenomenon of ‘Vajazzling’, could be considered forms of “sociocultural production” (De Certeau 1998, xiv) and as such, empowering acts of resistance (Hall 1981, 228-9).

Dick Hebdige describes subculture “not only as a metaphor for potential anarchy ‘out there’ but as an actual mechanism of semantic disorder: a kind of temporary blockage in the system of representation” (Hebdige 1979, 90). Irvine’s article “What is an Essex girl?” summarises the many derisive conceptions of the Essex girl as a threat to good taste. He describes her as wearing “low-cut tops and a short skirt, complemented with white stilettos, and can often be seeing (sic) dancing round a handbag at a club with their friends, usually enjoying alcohol”, as though their transgression of sartorial codes” and deviant behaviours are semantically linked (Hebdige 1979, 93). While bell hooks’ essay is concerned mainly with the concerns of Black America, her arguments can be applied to the incorporation of the Essex-girl-as-‘Other’.

Hebdige describes two strategies for dealing with the ideological “threat” of the subculture. He says

First, the Other can be trivialized, naturalized, domesticated. Here, the difference is simply denied (‘Other- ness is reduced to sameness’). Alternatively, the Other can be transformed into meaningless exotica, a ‘pure object, a spectacle, a clown’ (Barthes, 1972) (Hebdige 1979, 97).

The Only Way is Essex provides much evidence of normalization by way of situating the Essex girl in the family; The show features numerous appearances of an accepting and approving ‘Nanny Pat’, recurring inclusions of mothers in protective roles as various dramas unfold, and cousin ‘Chloe’ in an educational and protective role in relation to young and naive ‘Joey’). This normalization removes the group’s subversive power, presenting the girls as ‘one of us’. However, hooks’ essay provides a structure for addressing the trivialization of the Essex girl. Their TV representation, with its focus on cosmetic procedures and beauty, reduces Essex girls to sexual objects. The ostensible intimacy of the ‘reality’ TV format, the in-home access to intimate conversations enables a kind of vicarious sexual relationship, such as that described by hooks. She says

the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, (and here I would include ‘classes’) sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other (hooks 1992, 25).

hooks’s views on sexual and symbolic incorporation cross in an interesting way with the consumption of the Essex girl as a mediated product. hooks describes sexual naturalization and incorporation as placing an “emphasis on seduction and longing where the desire is not to make the Other over in one’s image but to become the Other” (1992, 25). While hooks is speaking about race tourism, the proximity of the Essex girl in the viewer’s living space allows the consumer to temporarily transgress both geography and class, stripping the Essex girl of that which gives her subcultural uniqueness.

At first the show seems to be a fairy tale come true for the Essex girl. Appearing to go from insignificance to fame and fortune, she provides ideological support for the capitalist dream (hooks 1992, 26).  However, the cast have voiced similar annoyances regarding exploitation, to those voiced by Greg Tate in his denunciation of the appropriation of Black culture, ‘Nigs R Us, or How Blackfolk Became Fetish Objects’ (2003). The ‘TOWIE’ cast received no payment for the first series, and were hit with a ‘tax’ payable to the show’s producers, for subsequent endorsement deals (Gould 2012). Again, hooks points out the ideological ‘cost’ of this kind of commercial recognition:

whatever difference the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other but denies the significance of that Other’s history through a process of decontextualization (hooks 1992, 31).

Germaine Greer published a celebration of the Essex girl in The Observer, denouncing essentialism and acknowledging the socio-cultural geography which unites the group. She states

Essex girls, who turn middle-class notions of distinction on their heads, are anti-celebrities. No matter how much cash might be sloshing through her household, she is working-class and means to stay that way. She is not only not interested in social climbing, she doesn’t know there’s anywhere to climb to. Essex isn’t full of country clubs that she can’t join (Greer 2006).

The Only Way is Essex gives consumers a product edited to reflect their ideologies, and serves as a barrier, erected to protect the ‘hip’ from the new middle class. hooks says that “by eating the Other . . . one asserts power and privilege” (hooks 1992, 36) and this product certainly aims to demonstrate that ‘taste’ is not one of the guarantees of capitalism. Vicarious sexual consumption, and the incorporation of an ‘essential’ Essex girl into mainstream culture is an attempt to disable her transgressive power and independence. However, the fighting words of Essex girl Greer indicate that the place and its subculture will remain, for now, a site of struggle, resistance and transformation (Hall 1981, 228).


De Certeau, Michel. 1988. “General introduction” in Practice of Everyday Life translated by Steven Rendall. xi-xxiv. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gould, Lara. 2012. “TOWIE stars in tax revolt: TV bosses tell stars to hand over 15 per cent of earnings … and Shuttup!”. Daily Mail Online. Accessed March 17.—Shuttup.html

Greer, Germaine. 2006. “Essex girls” We’re the best”. The Observer. Accessed March 17.

Hall, Stuart. 1981. “Notes on deconstructing the popular” in People’s History and Socialist Theory edited by Raphael Samuel. 227-240. Boston: Routledge.

Hebdige, Dick. 1979. “Subculture: The unnatural break” in Subculture: The Meaning of Style. 90-99. New York: Methuen.

hooks, bell. 1992. “Eating the other: Desire and resistance.” In Black Looks: Race and Representation. 21-39. Boston: South End Press.

Irvine, Chris. 2010. “What is an Essex Girl?” The Telegraph. Accessed March 17.

Lime Pictures. 2010. The Only Way is Essex. Accessed March 17.

Tate, Greg. 2003. “Nigs r us, or how blackfolk become fetish objects” in Everything But The Burden: What White People are Taking from Black Culture. 1-14. New York: Broadway Books.


It’s time to notice the Elephant. Again.

Gus Van Sant, in his film Elephant, combines steadicam tracking shots with long takes to create ethically sympathetic characters. The technique also allows him to use multiple framing devices and points of view in the one shot. The following analysis focuses on the shot of the character Nathan, from 10”45’ to 13”32’, which can be viewed by clicking this link (Van Sant 2003). The film is a fictional recreation of the Columbine Massacre of 1999. David Edelstein of Slate Magazine argues that Van Sant employs formalist, minimalist technique to engender detachment (Edelstein 2003). I question whether Edelstein is confusing authorial morality with filmmaking ethics, an expectation that Van Sant’s personal moral standing on such events should be evident (Anderson 2012, 2). I will argue that Van Sant’s formal choices create a definite air of foreboding, senselessness and loss.

The tracking of the character, Nathan, frames his journey through the school in mostly medium close up, from behind; the viewer sees what Nathan sees, and sees Nathan himself. The mundanity of the surroundings, conversations and people included in the frame give him an ‘every-teen’ quality, while the proximity of the viewer to the subject gives Nathan a distinct identity. The effect is that the impending loss of life is both societal (a loss of innocence) and specific (the loss of the loved individual). The tracking is slow and smooth, mirroring the lazy meandering of a carefree, teen life, and “forc(ing) the viewer to dwell” on its impending loss (Bordwell and Thompson 2008, 203).

The long take (almost two minutes) has the effect of pronouncing variations to framing. Viewers witness contrasting scopophilia (Nicholls 2000, 35), achieved by transition to a medium shot of a group of girls from Nathan’s point of view; through the frame of Freudian psychoanalytic theory, we may read this choice as signifying reproductive loss (Nicholls 2000, 36). Bordwell and Thompson note the contrast between the use of long takes and the “disorienting” elliptical cuts in the film, where Van Sant presents the killers’ home lives (Bordwell and Thompson, 2008, 203). Edelstein expressed frustration that the characters were crafted to be “totally unmemorable”, however my experience of Van Sant’s formal choices made apparent the universal qualities of teenaged experience, and made the killer’s contrasting abandonment and extinguishment of this life appear all the more senseless.


Anderson, Nicole. 2012. ‘Week 8: Film and Ethics’. CLT120 Vision, Visuality and Everyday Life. Macquarie University Lecture. Accessed January 13.

Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. 2008. Film Art. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Edelstein, David. 2003. ‘The Kids in the Hall’. Slate. Accessed January 13.

Nichols, Bill. 2000. ‘Film theory and the revolt against master narratives’ in Reinventing Film Studies, edited by Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams, 35-52. London: Arnold.

Van Sant, Gus. 2003. Elephant. Accessed January 13.

Auratic Withering. Yes, that’s a thing.

Walter Benjamin lamented the advent of mass reproduction, saying that it ‘withered’ the aura of an original artwork (Schirato and Webb 2004, 123). However, context and use value are what fundamentally separate the forms; reproduction can actually “revalue” an original work by contradistinction to a mass produced object (Pugliese 2013, 6). A ‘Mona Lisa’ coffee mug is not ‘The’ Mona Lisa – it is a coffee mug with an image of the Mona Lisa on it (Fig. 1-2). The reproduction is mass homage: people want to drink hot beverages from her, and as such, mass reproduction increases the aura of the original work exponentially.

Fig. 1. Not the Mona Lisa.                                          Fig. 2. Not a pipe.

If anything, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa suffers from ‘auratic withering’ (Benjamin in Schirato and Webb 2004, 123) because the very ‘craft’ viewers come to The Louvre to see has become something of the order of spectacle (Gentleman 2004), which Benjamin would no doubt find ironic, the term ‘spectacle’ being more traditionally associated with popular culture (Schirato and Webb 2004, 115). It is hard to imagine the aura of authenticity reaching the viewer from behind bulletproof glass, in a crowd of hundreds being shuffled through by security. Schirato and Webb talk about the cult value of art (Schirato and Webb 2004, 118); the Mona Lisa combines this abstract quality with the more popularly accessible quality of ‘pricelessness’, rendering art fetishism, in her case, somewhat of an extreme sport.


Fig. 3. The ‘spectacle’ of the Mona Lisa

The work of Mark Rothko, to me, exemplifies the distinction between the sacredness of the original and the reproduction: I don’t believe a Rothko is reproducible without losing most of its communicative value. Critics like Harold Rosenberg believed that Minimalist works were a communication direct from the artist’s’ subconscious, the purity of the meaning defying language (Wolf 2013). Rothko’s work has paradoxically taken on what Schirato and Webb term “quasi-religious significance” (2004, 119). As testament, Houston philanthropists John and Dominique de Menil founded The Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, an all-faith meditative space established to “inspire people to action through art and contemplation.”

Fig 4. The Rothko Chapel.    Fig. 5. The chapel is non-denominational

I at once value the original and the copy. For example, I have in my home a poster of a Fischli and Weiss installation from their retrospective at Tate Modern in 2007. In a characteristically postmodern way, I experience the memory of the pleasure of high art through my mass produced poster: it inspires ‘lowbrow’ sentimentality in me! The copy is evidence of the aura of the original. Viewer engagement with reproductions is even more vivid if one has actually seen an original. For those with little knowledge of ‘high art’, an apron printed with Michelangelo’s David might just be a guilty giggle.

Without reproduction, many great works would be unseen by the world and that would be a pity; art would have inevitably become more elitist (Schirato and Webb 2004, 128). ‘Value’ is highly subjective and can only be assessed by examining what is present in an original and what is enabled by a copy, then contemplating the personal satisfaction derived from each, or indeed both. Denouncing reproductions as kitsch is a class judgement in disguise, and is culturally limiting – after all, if we didn’t embrace kitsch, we wouldn’t have John Waters.


Gentleman, Amelia. 2004. ‘Smile, please’. The Guardian. Accessed January 6.

Schirato, Tony, and Jen Webb. 2004. Reading the Visual. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin.

Pugliese, Joseph. 2012. ‘Week 5: Technologies of Visual Reproduction’. CLT120 Vision, Visuality and Everyday Life. Macquarie University Lecture. Accessed December 14.

Rothko Chapel. 2013. ‘About the chapel’. Accessed January 6.

Wolf, Justin. ‘Modern Art Concept: Media Purity’. The Art Story. Accessed January 6.

Selling normality – racialized healthcare in visual culture

all together smokes layered blog

A cursory reading of the Give Up Smokes for Good awareness campaign by South Australian Drug and Alcohol Services shows strong, successful, overtly Aboriginal sporting and acting celebrities, confronting Indigenous youth about the futility of smoking. This paper, however, is an attempt to invoke a less docile reading. Elements such as framing, context and casting, facial characteristics, design, and the presentation and subtext of type layers, will be analyzed in relation to the terms ‘normalization’ and ‘the gaze’. The creators of this campaign have applied a visual strategy traditionally associated with marketing and consumption, to an awareness campaign designed to change behaviour. The following analysis supports the theory that the participants’ gaze, while an attempt at ‘cut-through’ via “subject-to-subject recognition” (Kaplan in Hawthorn 2004, 139), is complicated by the forces of global, normative culture.


Foucault’s use of them term ‘the gaze’ describes the power relationship between the viewer and the subject (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 442). For women as subjects in film, the male gaze would infer objectification of a female subject (Hawthorn 2004, 138); surveillance cameras denote a controlling gaze (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 108); ethnic typological photography exerts a colonial gaze (Pugliese 2012, 6). Schirato and Webb explain that “while the notion of the scientific gaze refers to a set of operations that help produce the visual world, the concept of normalization extends this operation to take into account how the effects of that gaze are manifested socially, culturally and politically” (Schirato and Webb 2004, 140). An initial reading of the Give Up Smokes for Good campaign suggests an authorial intent to establish a mutual gaze, however further investigation reveals oppositional elements (hooks in Hawthorn 2004, 139).


Rejecting the passivity of the colonial gaze (Pugliese 2012, 8), the subject confronts the viewer from within the image, interpellating their young, Indigenous intended-audience. However, the campaign creators have asked subjects to ‘oppositionally gaze-on-demand’. In contemporary artist Tracey Moffatt’s Nice Coloured Girls, the gaze is directed onto lewd, white Australian males hoping to indulge in some Indigenous exoticism (Moffatt 1987). But while Moffatt creates a self-authored representational corrective of female Indigeneity, the creators of this campaign do not hail from a culture equipped to enable Indigenous self-management of the gaze. The portraits are compositionally reminiscent of iconic images of oppression, like the film rendition of George Orwell’s Big Brother and Shepard Fairey’s OBEY street posters featuring Andre the Giant. The omnipotence of their eye contact surveils the viewer. The effect, however, is that the normalising authorial intent undermines the potency of the gaze, mostly empowering institutions with vested interests in normalization.

Schirato and Webb explain normalisation as “the ways in which discourses, ideas and practices associated mostly with the government and other sites of power . . . establish norms against which people are measured (and measure themselves) to determine whether they are ‘normal’. (2004, 196). This concept is linked closely with what Foucault called biopower. Foucault believed that administering health care, the labour market, and the military, were all more controllable if people managed their own health and behaviour (in Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 109-110). People outside ‘norms’ pose control issues, are potentially unproductive and costly; Self-surveillance is an extremely economical way for societies and the powers which control them to manage bodies. Not only is the notion of a racialized healthcare campaign in and of itself normalising, the visual analysis of this campaign reflects the roots of normalization in science, and provides clues about the ways in which biopower is catalysed by contemporary aspirational culture.


The full face close-up portraits of “hand-picked” (Campaign Brief 2012) subjects suggest an authorial intent to establish a kind of confrontational intimacy with the intended audience: young Indigenous smokers. The photographs, with their high level of detail and lack of context, have “evidentiary status”, providing ‘scientific’ proof of the good health of the subjects (Pugliese 2012, 3). The cropping of contextual elements and the stylised design also create the effect of stripping the subjects of individual identity and diversity. Skin tones are suspiciously homogenous (as a result of post-production or careful casting, the viewer cannot be sure), and the set appears to be lit to darken already-serious eyes. Pores and hair are visible, suggesting ‘authenticity’, however these details give the images an equally ethnographic quality, reminiscent of American frontier photographer Edward S. Curtis’ cataloguing of ‘Indian-ness’ (Vizenor 2000). The ethnographic documentary recording of the subject has a dehumanising effect, further eroding the intended power of the gaze.

Celebrity plays an overt and covert role in normalization (Schirato and Webb 2004, 147): celebrities play a crucial role in capitalist hegemony when they are paid to endorse products, but in this example, they have been co-opted to encourage self-surveillance. As such, these subjects are complicit in marketing ‘normality’ to their cultural group. The advertisements use ‘aspirational’ subjects, with campaign credits placed at the bottom of a ‘hero’ image; The layout is suggestive of film poster design, creating an intertextual link between the campaign’s message and stardom. The messages inherently associate being smoke-free with super-normal success, with the text of the messages inseparable (graphically and symbolically) from the subjects: The subjects live through the message. It is interesting to note the lighter coloured skin of the message’s transparent text layer – a Derrida devotee might read the skin as being symbolically ‘purified’ by the text, light (as binarily opposed to dark) being morally the privileged tone.

Kriger posits that Indigenous health inequalities are actually “biological expressions of race relations” (in Patychuk 2011, 8). Diane Patychuk’s report on (American) Indigenous health equality places much emphasis on recognising diversity in the creation and implementation of racialized health promotion programs (Patychuk 2011). She cites racism, poverty and food security as just some of the factors at the core of health inequality for Indigenous people (Patychuk 2011, 6). As such, celebrity-surveillance and the simplistic conflation of fame, success and good health seem like dangerously wasted time and resources. Analysis of these images, with their omnipotent gaze following the intended subject, hail an Indigenous panopticon, employing Aboriginal eyes in the hope of recruiting yet more “docile bodies” (Sturken and Cartwright 2009, 110).


Campaign Brief. 2012. ‘Drug & Alcohol Services SA targets indigenous youth in anti-smoking campaign via Jamshop’. Campaign Brief. Accessed December 14.

Hawthorn, Jeremy. 2004. A Glossary of Contemporary Literary Theory. London: Arnold.

Moffatt, Tracey. 1987. Nice Coloured Girls. Accessed December 14.

Patychuk, Diane. 2011. ‘Health Equity and Racialized Groups: A Literature Review.’ Health Nexus. Accessed December 14.

Pugliese, Joseph. 2012. ‘Week 3 Scientific Visuality and the other’. CLT120 Vision, Visuality and Everyday Life. Macquarie University Lecture. Accessed December 14.

Schirato, Tony, and Jen Webb. 2004. Reading the Visual. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin.

Sturken, Marita  and Lisa Cartwright. 2009. Practices of Looking. New York: Oxford University Press.

Vizenor, Gerald. 2000. ‘Edward Curtis: Pictorialist and Ethnographic Adventurist’. Accessed December 14.