Well, not really....a critical (and hopefully witty and humorous) view of gender,
race, and pop culture.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Once Upon a Time, In a Kingdom Far, Far Away…

The film Gia is based on the real life story of Gia Carangi, who is considered to be America’s first supermodel. After fighting a heroin addiction, Gia learns she has contracted AIDS, and dies at the age of 26, bringing her fashion career to an end. The story is told with a fairy tale-like form to it, with Gia’s voiceover occasionally reading lines from a fairy tale. While the film Gia shares similarities to a fairy tale, there are many more dissimilarities between a fairy tale and the film. And because of Gia’s beautiful image, we are able to ignore (or at least the film makers want us to ignore) all of her flaws, especially the heroin addiction. The even go as far as sending out messages to women and girls that many of Gia’s faults are acceptable or able to be ignored, as long as you have the good looks to cover those flaws up.

One major similarity between Gia and a fairy tale is how Gia starts off as a loud-mouthed punk from Philadelphia, working as a cashier in the family restaurant, yet manages to get to the top of the modeling world. She is able to overcome her initial low level status to eventually become known as the most beautiful woman in the world. And how does she get to the top? She doesn’t have a fancy new invention or a successful business style. She gets to the top by using her looks. Her beauty, her image. If not for her beauty, it is likely that Gia wouldn’t be known as more than “the cashier in that restaurant down the block”. Instead, everybody flocks to her for her beauty, because society has made beautiful, thin women the ideal body image. Every photographer and advertiser wanted her image on their product, not because of how far she has came or the adversity she overcame to get to where she is, but because of her image. Abra Fortune Chernik mentions that while looking at her anorexic self, she realized her image was “held up by culture as the physical ideal because she was starving, self-obsessed and powerless, a woman called beautiful because she threatened no one except herself” (Chernik 132). Society up holds the thin, “beautiful” as ideal because they are viewed as too small to be threatening or powerful.

However, it doesn’t matter that all it took for Gia to gain her fame was her beauty because, like a fairy tale, beauty is what brings happiness. And apparently for Gia, this idea of happiness as a result of beauty started at a young age. In one of the beginning scenes, Gia as a young girl is playing with her mom, when they laugh about being pretty: “Do I be the prettiest, prettiest girl? You do. You do be the prettiest. You do.” As a result of this happiness, Gia reaches a sort of happily ever after, even after her addiction to heroin as a coping mechanism. She is able to ignore her addiction, and if given the chance, would do it all over again. Despite Gia’s death as a results of AIDS, the story still has a happy ending because of Gia’s beauty. As stated by Gia as we see her walking away from her death bed as her perfect, beautiful, pre-AIDS self, “…If I stop today, it was still worth it. Even the terrible mistakes that I have made...It was worth it for having been allowed to walk where I've walked…”(Gia).

While her life follows the fairy tale pattern, her story doesn’t always seem to fit the mold. For example, unlike in the common childhood fairy tale where the princess lives “happily ever after” with her Prince Charming, the story of Gia ends with her dying from AIDS that she acquired from her drug use. Aside from Snow White’s poison apple, I can’t think of many other instances of drug use in fairy tales, let alone drug usage which causes death from a terrible disease such as AIDS. Also contrasting the typical fairy tale, Gia is not shown as the nice princess who everybody gets along with and wants to be around because of her personality. Instead, Gia is a knife carrying, drug using junkie who is wanted because of her beautiful image. Despite the fact that Gia’s life may seem extremely different at times from a fairy tale, nevertheless her life plays out like one. It doesn’t matter if you live happily ever after because you married Prince Charming or because once upon a time you were beautiful, you still get to live happily ever after.

In the story of Gia Carangi, being successful and finding your “happily ever after” is not the type of happily ever after you would find in a fairy tale. It’s not about finding your “prince (or princess) charming”. Success and happily ever after are not about finding happiness or your meaning in life. In Gia, success and happily ever after are achieved only once two conditions are met: beauty and wealth. Without a beautiful image, which, of course, leads to wealth, how can one call themselves successful or say they’ve found their happily ever after? According to the filmmakers of Gia, it’s impossible without beauty and wealth.

So what messages is this “fairy tale” sending to women and girls? Well, for one, it’s sending the message that beauty is all it takes to be happy and successful. As discussed previously, Gia rose from a cashier in a family restaurant to the top of the modeling business not by her smarts or hard work, but merely by her beauty. As said by Jean Kilbourne in reference to girls, “…what is most important about them is their perfume, their clothing, their bodies, their beauty” (Kilbourne 260). As long as you have a good looking image, you will be successful in life and achieve happiness, as did Gia.

Another message Gia is sending is that a woman is meant to keep quiet and let her looks do the talking. Evidently whatever a woman says is totally irrelevant to the situation, and a woman is better off just letting their beauty and good looks talk for her. As Gia is told during an interview, “Talking at all is not really required in this profession, or even encouraged. Anything you might have to say, you say through the camera-the image. And hopefully the product. What comes out of your mouth is totally irrelevant.” (Gia). It’s not about what a woman has to say that sells a product, but her image. So instead of being outspoken, Gia played their game by doing a nude photo shoot with her makeup assistant Linda. Because Gia let her image, not her mouth, do the talking, she was propelled to the top of the modeling business as one of the few models at the time willing to expose themselves on camera.

Unfortunately this is a common trend in today’s society. Women are taught from early childhood that girls are supposed to be quiet and let their image do the talking, and this often carries over into adult hood. As said by Jean Kilbourne, “…one of the consequences of this socialization is that girls grow into women afraid to speak up for themselves or to use their voices to protect themselves from a variety of dangers” (Kilbourne 264).

And because it’s hard to go through life knowing that your word means nothing to others because you’re a woman, along with all the other difficulties that come with relying on your beauty to get you through life, Gia shouts out to girls and women everywhere that it is acceptable to rely on drugs to take the edge off and ease the pain of beauty and all that life throws at you. After Gia’s own “prince charming”, Linda, left her, Gia turned to drugs to keep her going. And this drug use was shown as acceptable simply because Gia was beautiful. And this worked for her, until her “fairy tale” came crashing to a halt. After going through the painful process of detox, Gia continued to feel sick. She later brought herself into the hospital for further evaluation, where it was discovered she had contracted AIDS from her IV drug use. She soon after died as a result of AIDS, bringing her “perfect fairy tale” life to an end.

To look at Gia as a fairy tale reveals the many similarities and dissimilarities the move possesses to a fairy tale. Although Gia attains what she considers a happily ever after by getting to the top of the modeling world, she does it through her drug use, and more importantly, her beauty. Without her beauty, Gia would never have had her “fairy tale” experience, and she would still be that loud mouthed rebel cashier working in the family restaurant.

Works Cited

Chernik, Abra Fortune. “The Body Politic.” Female Beauty: 130-134.

Gia. 1998. DVD. HBO Home Video.

Kilbourne, Jean. “’The More You Subtract, the More You Add’: Cutting Girls Down to Size.” Can’t Buy Me Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel. N.p.: Simon & Schuster, 1999. Rpt. in Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text-Reader. Ed. Gail Dines and Jean M Humez. 2nd ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2003. 258-267.