"Terror Is Glamour" (Originally Posted 9/11/2008)

Glamour can sell religious devotion or military glory as surely as it can pitch lipstick or island vacations. All promise a way to transcend our everyday circumstances, to experience more and become better than ordinary life allows.  All invite us to imagine escape and transformation. 

From Achilles and Alexander to "national greatness," the glamour of battle is remarkably persistent. So is  the glamour of martyrdom, as any trip through a Western museum or perusal of a Lives of the Saints (or its Protestant equivalent) will demonstrate. Nor is martyrdom's appeal to Christians merely historical, as Eliza Griswold reported in this 2007 TNR piece.

Glamour appeals to our desires, whatever they may be, and Jihadi glamour offers something for everyone: from historical importance to union with God, not to mention riches and beautiful women. Consider this excerpt on the glories of martyrdom from the Egyptian cleric Hazem Sallah Abu Isma'il (transcribed and translated by MEMRI, my ellipses, video here):

The martyrs are the ones who have changed the course of history. They are the ones who have changed the course of human life. The course of human life proceeds this way, until a martyrdom-seeker collides with it, changing and diverting it. Whenever a martyrdom-seeker collides into it, he restores the course of humanity to the path planned by Allah....

The [martyr] does not lose anything. He does not die. All of a sudden he ascends to the angels and lives next to Allah. He pleads on behalf of 70 of his family members....The Crown of Honor is placed on his head. The gem in this crown is more precious than the whole world. He is married off to 70 black-eyed virgins. If one of these virgins were to descend to this world, her light would extinguish the light of the sun and the moon. That's how beautiful she is.

It's a compelling vision. Of course, traditional martyrs--Muslim or Christian--don't deliberately blow up innocents (though religious wars are hard on civilians).


Watching the excellent new movie Traitor, I was struck by another aspect of terrorist glamour: how much it resembles, at least in fictional portrayals, the glamour of heist movies. (Don Cheadle is an explosives expert in both Traitor and the Ocean's 11 movies.) In both, you have a secret and intricate plan in which every team member is important and the goal is to outwit authorities and commit a crime. It's not hard to imagine how appealing that might be to a bored and impressionable person.

As Rushdie suggests, of course, glamour always leaves something out, in this case the literally gory details of the act (and I wouldn't bet on eternal life or crowns and virgins). And in most of its incarnations, glamour proves perishable. Either aspirations change, entropy and boredom set in, or the audience learns too much, destroying the mystery and grace on which glamour's beautiful illusion depends. The question for this September 11 is, How do we puncture the glamour of Jihadi terrorism? The first step is recognizing that such glamour exists.

Royal Weddings: Where Traditions Matter

Wmabbey When your family church is Westminster Abbey, chances are you won’t be allowed to make up your own wedding vows. Your vows will likely come from the Church of England’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Its eloquence is so memorable that its phrases have become part of our language (“to have and to hold from this day forward”), as have phrases from the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare. All these works were written at a time when eloquence was highly valued, and they were conceived with highly-memorable auditory beauty as a goal.

And although (Sir) Elton John has been invited to the upcoming royal wedding, the music for the ceremony will not be pop songs, but sacred music written for the church over the centuries by some of the greatest composers who ever lived. These include Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Henry Purcell, George Frideric Handel, Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, and many more. 

The extraordinary nature of the building, the language, the music, the boy’s choir, the costumes, and all the rest will combine to proclaim to the world that this is no commonplace occasion, but the addition of someone to the status of royalty.

Americans often take a certain pride in having cast off a system that includes inherited positions of royalty and nobility, yet we also remain fascinated and slightly envious of it. Being “royal” is perhaps the world’s most exclusive group. Unless you are born a member, your only chance of getting in is to marry into it. 

A royal wedding needs to be a highly visible, tradition-filled public event because it is a rite that makes the pair not only a couple, but a royal couple. The ceremony establishes a legitimate place for that couple’s children in the lineage of the royal family. The question of  lineage is not a division of wealth or child custody that can be sorted out by divorce lawyers or pre-nuptial agreements. When inherited title is involved, you are either born with it or not, and the traditions for determining that are centuries old. 

Ideally a royal marriage will prove enduring and loving. But this is not always the case, as Britain’s current royal family has demonstrated. Even the highly troubled and ultimately contentious marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, however, dutifully provided the royal family with two legitimate heirs before a fed-up Queen Elizabeth suggested they negotiate a divorce. 

 [Photo of Westminster Abbey by Wolfiewolf. Used under the Flickr Creative Commons License.]

Processions, Night, And Fire

Fire-acrobatsI have experienced two deeply impressive nighttime events that combined a procession, fire, and a sense of mystery. One was the Christmas Eve Procession of the Virgin at the Taos Pueblo. In preparation for the procession, conical towers of wood up to two stories high were built throughout the plaza, and after sunset these were set on fire. The heat they produced was incredibly intense, melting the snow and  frozen ground and sending fantastic spirals of smoke and steam swirling into the night air. The plaza was filled with fire, smoke, and hundreds of people. Then the church doors opened, and a statue of the Virgin Mary was carried out of the church and around the plaza, with guards firing their guns into the air (using blanks) to frighten off evil spirits. The combinations of cold and heat, night and fire, and Catholic and Native American traditions made a magical impression. (Visitors to this procession are forbidden to take photographs, but you can see an evocative photo of it here.)

The photo shown at left here is from another magical event: the Tucson All Souls Procession, which blends elements of Catholicism and carnival with the spirit and imagery of Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos. In 1990 a local artist organized a small procession to honor an artist friend who had died. Since then the procession has grown to an annual event that attracts 20,000 people.

Much of the charm of the small original event remains. Local artists participate and create interesting visual objects, which contrast greatly with the cliché-ridden kitsch that typifies so many American parades. Many of this procession’s “floats” have a dark edginess. Examples include an ominous pterodactyl whose wings span much of the street (a clever sculpture on a rolling steel frame), and vehicles that appear to have been pieced together after an apocalypse.

Carly-makeup Many of the people who come to watch the procession wear costumes and makeup, making the crowd an essential part of the experience. The photo at left shows my teenage granddaughter Carly in the makeup she wore to attend this year’s procession. You don’t have to wear costumes to attend, but being in the presence of thousands of people whose costumes and makeup evoke the dead is a remarkable experience, and it’s fun to join in.

Fire-potsThe procession changes each year, and some years the presence of fire pushes the experience into something otherworldly. The onlookers join the procession, which moves along a street that goes under a WPA railroad bridge. One year women dressed in Grecian costumes stood on the pedestals of that bridge, each of them holding aloft a flaming torch. Along the bridge dancers were swinging flaming pots on chains, making circles of fire. Looking at these strange apparitions above us as the street dipped down, with a little imagination it felt as if we were descending into the underworld.

The procession ends in an open space, where there is some sort of entertainment. Shown here from the 2009 procession are costumed acrobats on stilts, and a fire-pot twirler in the foreground.

I suspect that we have a visceral reaction to nighttime rituals that include fire and strange costumes: a reaction that links back to prehistoric rites that took place by firelight. If I, as an adult, can find my imagination inflamed by strange-looking creatures emerging from dark, smoke-filled shadows into the unsteady light of bonfires and burning torches, imagine what a lasting impression such a scene could make on a child. If stagings such as these were involved, no wonder so many of our ancestors believed that magical powers were real.

[Photos of the All Souls Procession by complicity. Used under the Flickr Creative Commons License.]

DG Q&A: Artist Ria Brodell On Heroes And Self Portraits

Rbrodell-palmsBoston-based artist Ria Brodell doesn’t think of her work as glamorous, but when I happened upon her “Self Portraits” exhibit at the Kopeikin Gallery in West Hollywood, her drawings struck me as perfectly expressing the way glamour works as an imaginative process. Her drawings capture how she projected her ideal self onto slightly mysterious, impossibly graceful figures—in this case, male icons ranging from classic movie stars like Gene Kelly and Cary Grant to Catholic saints and children’s toys. Like her very different “Distant Lands” drawings, which depict strange and whimsical animals, the portraits are at once charming, sweet, and slightly subversive. (This YouTube video shows Ria at work on her Distant Lands creatures.) Her exhibit will be open until March 6.

DG: How did you select the figures you depicted yourself as in “Self-Portraits”? Why these particular men?

Ria Brodell: The figures I chose were all men I connected with in some way as a kid. If I could have grown up to be a man, I would have been a man like them. Sometimes it was their style, the way they dressed, their hair, the way they carried themselves. Sometimes it was their über masculinity. Of course, in regards to the movie stars, all of this came from their depictions in the movies and not necessarily their real selves.

Ria Brodell 3 self-portraits
Self-Portrait as a Mountain Man (2008), Self-Portrait in a Fedora (2009), Self-Portrait as a Coastal Man (2009)
© Ria Brodell, used with permission of the artist

As far as the more general portraits, such as “Self-Portrait as a Mountain Man” or “Self-Portrait in a Fedora,” I am connecting with a type or style of masculinity, the rugged outdoorsman or the dapper gentleman.

As a kid I desperately wanted a fedora, but growing up in Idaho, the closest thing I could ever find was an “outback” hat. Which is not very close at all. He-Man and St. Michael Find They Have a Lot in Common

DG: Icons like Cary Grant and Gene Kelly—and even Ken and your “Miami Vice Dude”—have an obvious Hollywood sort of glamour. But you also draw on traditional images of Catholic saints. In last year's exhibit, “The Handsome & the Holy,” one of the most charming drawings was called “He-Man and St. Michael Find They Have A Lot in Common.” What do they have in common? What unites movie stars, saints, and toys like G.I. Joe and He-Man?

RB: When I began this series I remembered a drawing I made for my First Reconciliation book in second grade (I went to Catholic school). I had drawn a picture of St. Michael that I was very proud of and I showed it to my Grandma. She told me he looked more like He-Man. I remember feeling ashamed for some reason, perhaps knowing I should have shown St. Michael more reverence. I used to draw He-Man all the time, practicing over and over until his muscles looked right. Looking back now, He-Man and St. Michael had a similar appeal to me, strong warriors, fighting for good. As far as what unites movie stars, saints, and toys like G.I. Joe and He-Man, for me they all represented an ideal, whether it was physical aesthetics or moral values. In combining them all for “The Handsome & The Holy” I was hoping to unite my “queer side” with my religious background because they are equally present in my life. DG: Your drawings have been described as “achingly sincere,” “both earnest and humorous,” and “intently self-aware schmaltz.” Their humor is gentle and sweet, not ironic—juxtaposing He-Man and St. Michael is funny, but you are, at the same time, owning up to your desires to be like them. Is it hard for a contemporary artist to portray desire and identification without using irony to maintain your cool? Does glamour risk condemnation as kitsch? Self-Portrait as Miami Vice Dude  RB: I don’t think I’m intentionally trying to be funny in all the drawings. I’m trying to be completely honest, but I think the juxtaposition of some of these subjects is just naturally odd and therefore funny. Sexuality, gender identity, and religion can be very serious, often complicated subjects. I want to create work that deals with these subjects in a simple and not heavy-handed way. Of course there is always a risk of the work having unintended consequences, such as being deemed “kitsch.” With this work there is a bit of background information needed. On the surface they can appear to be just glamorous self-portraits or “dress-up” but my hope is that people look further than that and begin to think about gender identity and sexuality outside of our society’s strict definitions.

DG: One of your drawings is called “A Picnic With Audrey Hepburn.” It shows Audrey from the back, but there is no one with her. A critic described it as “a picture of mythic femininity, here elusive.” But the title suggests the perspective not of Audrey but of her unseen date, inviting viewers to project themselves into the scene. What inspired this drawing? What does Audrey Hepburn mean to you?

RB: As a teenager I became slightly obsessed with Audrey Hepburn after seeing her in “My Fair Lady.” She was not only beautiful and glamorous but also a humanitarian. For me, this drawing represents the complexity of figuring out ones sexuality, especially queer sexuality, the desire and simultaneous shame I felt. How could I possibly desire a woman and not just any woman, but Audrey Hepburn? Feeling unworthy of her, I chicken-out on our date.

A Picnic with Audrey Hepburn
A Picnic with Audrey Hepburn, 2009, gouache on paper
© Ria Brodell and used with permission

DG: For The Superheroes Project to promote Boston-based artists, you chose The Flash (one of my favorites) as your alter ego. Why did you pick him? RB: I picked The Flash, both because of his awesome costume and because he’s so simplified. It’s just him. He doesn’t need any weapons or a tool belt or gadgets. There’s something nice about that. No extra baggage. Brodell_FreddievsMagnum  DG: When Freddie and Magnum arm-wrestle, who wins? RB: I’m not sure if either of them “wins.” I think of this drawing as sort of a back and forth. Both Freddie and Magnum as male icons flirting with the signifiers of heterosexuality and homosexuality at the same time. But, if I had to pick someone to root for it would be Freddie. [All images © Ria Brodell and used with permission.]

Glamour And The Multiplicity Of Desire

StRandall’s post on modesty as “anti-glamour” provoked an interesting discussion in the comments. “It’s funny that you should regard modest clothing traditions (headscarves, veils, etc.) as inherently anti-glamour. Didn’t a piece about the glamour of nuns appear in this space not too long ago?” challenged commenter bearing. She noted the glamour she finds in Franciscan habits, as well as her young daughter’s attraction to the clothes worn by some Somali playmates.

In his post and subsequent comments, Randall seems to equate glamour with sex appeal, beauty, or opulence, while Bearing has something more emotional and multi-faceted in mind. Their back-and-forth raises fundamental issues about glamour and desire. And, much as I admire his thinking, I have to disagree with Randall. Modest dress is not intrinsically anti-glamour. It all depends on the audience.

One of the central themes of my book-in-progress is that glamour is not a style but a quality that stokes desire—of many different kinds—and inspires imaginative projection. Glamour concentrates what the Japanese call akogare: desire, longing, aspiration, and idealization, with a suggestion of the unattainable. Its promise of transformation and escape taps longings for whatever the audience finds absent in real life. The common desires to be beautiful, wealthy, or desired are particularly amenable to glamour. But there are many forms of desire, and thus of glamour, besides luxury and sex. The desires glamour expresses—for love, wealth, power, beauty, sex, adulation, friendship, fame, freedom, dignity, adventure, discovery, self-expression, or enlightenment—vary from person to person and culture to culture. Many of those desires are quite compatible with modest dress.

Pioneer dress portrait

It seems obvious to me, for instance, that the nostalgic dress of Renaissance Faires and other historical re-enactors is all about glamour, however modest the attire may be. (And, as Randall notes, it is not always modest.) Here’s my version circa 1968 (don’t you love the crooked bangs?), wearing the antithesis of the miniskirts that were my normal school attire. My mother made this “pioneer girl” dress for me as a Halloween costume, and it was my favorite. I wasn’t exactly nostalgic for the 19th century, but the difference between that dress and ordinary life did make me feel special. As a child in the 1960s, where short skirts were the norm, I found long skirts glamorous. Reserved for the past and for adult special occasions, they appealed to my desire to escape the everyday.

Bearing’s comment about Franciscan habits reinforces my book's most controversial argument about glamour: It can take religious form. One can yearn for unity with God, for righteousness, for a special spiritual state just as one can yearn for wealth or fame. And, just as glamour can be used to sell movies or fashion or beach holidays, it can be used to sell religion. Much, though by no means all, traditional art traffics in glamour. It uses mystery and grace to encourage viewers to project Sharah_medium themselves into the scene, where they might witness in person the exemplars of their faith and feel their own spiritual yearnings satisfied. The simplicity of a Franciscan habit can thus be glamorous to someone who sees in the garment the fulfillment of spiritual desires, overlooking the drawbacks and the quotidian practicalities of Franciscan life.

Finally, and most trivially, within a culture where modest dress is the norm, a given outfit may be more or less glamorous, depending on how the viewer imagines feeling in it. A woman browsing the Sharah Collection of clothes for Muslim women is clearly meant to imagine herself transformed by its offerings every bit as much as a woman browsing any other fashion catalog.

The obliteration of identity created by a full burqa may be incompatible with glamour, but other forms of modest dress are not. As Randall himself notes, veiling may increase glamour by fostering mystery and grace. Just check out the cover photo on Len Prince's About Glamour.

[Stained glass window from the convent of San Francisco in La Paz, Bolivia, by Flickr user jimcintosh, who has a set of Franciscan images here. Used under Creative Commons license. Woman in scarf from Sharah online catalog.]

Anti-Glamour: Modest And Unprovocative

In Japan, where schoolgirls spend long hours in their uniforms, there have been whole fashion styles based on school clothing. The single most provocative outfit that I have seen on an American university campus was worn by a young Japanese coed, her long hair tied innocently to each side of her head in ponytails. Her white shirt bared her midriff, and was tied in front so as to reveal a vivid red bra. Her pleated plaid skirt was very short and slung so low on her hips so that a matching red thong was revealed above her skirt in front and back. Knee-high white socks and platform high heels completed the look, one  guaranteed to capture the attention of every male she encountered. (This interesting post warns other Japanese girls that wearing Japanese “schoolgirl” styles such garu and kogal, which are considered provocative but acceptable in Japan, can cause you to be mistaken for a prostitute in other countries, such as the United States.)

2783469223_899aefc861 The couple pictured at left prove that even basic school uniforms can be made glamorous: notice the accessories, her skirt length, his pants cut, the stylish haircuts, loosened ties, and rolled up sleeves. Perhaps most humans have some innate desire to adorn themselves. If so, the patriarchal founders of austere religions may have correctly assumed that they could only suppress the desire of attractive women to display themselves proudly and advantageously if they could somehow convince them that doing so offended some kind of higher spiritual order.

That concept is certainly going to be a tough sell in modern urban centers like Tokyo. Not surprisingly, many of the suppliers listed in the Modest Clothing Directory are family businesses in rural communities. And here the title of the 1919 World-War-I song comes to mind: “How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree?).” Unless you partially shelter young women from contact with urban centers and modern media (or else deny them a choice of clothing), few young women are likely to choose prairie dresses or burqas over some form of more up-to-date apparel, even if they live in a small town. Yet, paradoxically, if you do need a prairie dress (even if just so your daughter can play Little House on the Prairie), the oh-so-modern internet allows you to find places like Our Grandma’s Closet, where a retired grandmother offers custom-made prairie dresses and donates her profits to charity.

["The Eyes Can See" by Tinou Bao, photostream here, under the Flickr Creative Common License. Young Japanese couple © glassbubblegum and used by permission. Her Flickr photostream is here.]

Ecclesiastical Fashion: Where The Well-Dressed Pontiff Shops

2986011649_a1346b3b54 Recently, I went to a press screening of Angels & Demons, and spent most of the evening trying to identify various locations in Rome. Not the obvious ones, like St. Peter's and the Pantheon, but the rather more obscure places.  I was thrilled to catch a quick glimpse of one of my favorite shops, De Ritis, on the via de Cestari. If you want nice grey cardigan, as worn by nuns, this is the place.

Of course, the really posh ecclesiastics like to shop across the street at Gammarelli, the Papal tailors since 1798. If you're not expecting election soon, you can always buy the red knee length socks--the same as worn by the Cardinals. The other Cardinals, not the World Series ones.

There are other clerical outfitters in Rome, each with their own clientele. Sorgente is rather more modern than some others, with a minimalist look, and they donate to charity.

Barbiconi, despite a rather frustrating website, also supplies several orders of knighthood, including the

Orders of Knighthood like the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, the Equestrian Order of St. Sepulchre of Jerusalem, the Order of St. George the Great, the Order of St. Sylvester the Pope and the Scared Military Costantinian Order.

I'm guessing that last one is a typo for the Sacred Military Constantinians, but who knows?

Cardinals and bishops who like to shop close to work frequent Euroclero, but's rather downmarket. Tridentium offers the most complete online shopping--where else can you get something as wonderful as a regulation red hat?

Images As Role Models

Lippifaces In 431 the church declared the Holy Virgin the Mother of God, thus sanctioning the cult of Mary. Her popularity became staggering. In France alone more than a hundred churches and eighty cathedrals were raised in the name of Notre Dame, Our Lady, including the cathedrals of Paris, Chartres, Reims, and Amiens.

To counter the massive illiteracy of the Dark Ages, in the 6th century Pope Gregory the Great overruled the commandment forbidding the making of idols, declaring that "Painting can do for the illiterate what writing does for those who can read." To fill churches, cathedrals, and private chapels, hundreds of sculptures, frescoes, and paintings were commissioned of the Madonna and child. Many of these images are remarkably beautiful, typically showing us a serene young mother holding her clear-eyed young son. Images of Mary and her son became so widespread that when people had spiritual visions in this period, they most often saw the Virgin Mary.

Images of the Virgin Mother presented the church's two desired states for fertile women: either chaste virgins or married women bearing children. Celibacy was much championed in the Middle Ages. The church encouraged young women to remain permanently chaste by becoming a nun. The cult of courtly love that arose in France praised young women who remained unattainable, who steadfastly resisted the pleas of their wooers.

Unmarried women who failed to remain virginal until married were regarded as loose, immoral, and even sexually aggressive. Men supposedly feared that such seductresses would tempt them like the Biblical Salome, but many were fascinated by the ancient femme fatale archetype.

2122980171_31e4c30dc5 Hard and fast categories like virgin, mother, or immoral seductress are of little use to most contemporary women, and in modern culture images abound of women in multiple and varied roles. We see images of women as doctors, lawyers, writers, mothers, athletes, business owners, models, police officers, fire fighters, and fighter pilots.

One striking advertising image shows Danica Patrick's face split into the roles of race car driver and glamorous woman. In one case a helmet completely masks her identity--she seems a mysterious black knight. In the other case hairstyle and makeup create another kind of mask--she seems an unstoppable seductress. Neither image is false, but neither represents ordinary reality. Both are stylized, artful portrayals of a woman who has been successful as both a race car driver and model. Contemporary women can choose to play multiple and varied roles, and most no longer rely on patriarchal authorities in choosing which roles to pursue. For an individual woman, balancing the multiple roles that interest her can sometimes become one of the challenges of modern life.

[Detail of Filippo Lippi's Madonna and Child, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, photo by Virginia Postrel. Photo of Danica Patrick billboard courtesy of Luis Rodriguez Gonzalez (Spain), whose Flickr sets are here.]

The Glamour Of Nuns

C-1 Meryl Streep's decidedly unglamorous turn as Sister Aloysius in Doubt has me thinking about the largely lost glamour of nuns.

I'm not talking about the satirical stylings of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (who look not like nuns, even satirical ones, but clowns) or one Father Antonio Rungi's sincere and short-lived idea for a "Miss Sister Italy" pageant.

No, I mean real glamour: the enchantment that stirs an audience to project themselves into an ideal life, that heightens our longing for escape and transformation by presenting an object that embodies our desires.

In this 2002 Atlantic article, Mary Gordon recalled "The helpless love of a certain kind of girl for a certain kind of nun. We loved them the way we loved movie stars and the way we loved God." (This discussion of nun dolls recalls a similar fascination.) Gordon uses the word glamour to describe her childhood view of nuns. They represented a more desirable life—mysterious and seemingly perfected. A few excerpts: 

I know that my father wanted me to be a nun. He was a Jewish convert; perhaps this accounted for his romanticism. He died when I was seven, but I remember his saying, with real pride, "My daughter will be either a nun or a lady of the night." He was a man of extremes. I didn't know what a lady of the night was. It sounded glamorous, but no more glamorous than the image of a nun. He and I had a party piece about nuns. He would say, "Honey, what do you want to be when you grow up?" And I would say, without skipping a beat, "A contemplative."

I knew exactly what I meant. I knew, even at four and five, what contemplation was: Silence and prayer. Union with God. I had knelt beside my parents in the dim light of early-morning masses. I knew as many prayers and hymns as nursery rhymes. More. I dreamed of First Communion, believing those who said it would be the happiest day of my life. And I had had a glimpse of a real contemplative, a glimpse that would press itself into the hot wax of my imagination—an indelible image marking a life devoted to the creation of images....

A Jewish friend with whom I was watching [The Nun's Story] found it all appalling. I wondered why I did not; why I found it enchanting—the silences, the gliding walk, above all the belief in perfection, which I have spent many thousands of analytic dollars trying to give up. I imagined that if, like Audrey Hepburn, I could confess my faults to Edith Evans (the wise mother superior, the superior mother, blessed with the gift of discernment, her hard-won wisdom shining in her sorrowful eyes), if Edith Evans would bestow on me the secret smile of favor that she bestows on Sister Luke, if Edith Evans would make a cross on my forehead every morning, I might have the stamina to try for perfection. The stamina not to give it up as impossible. The stamina to believe that perfection is not a delusion, a trap. As Jesus said, "You, therefore, must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." Of course, we were meant to believe that we never could be perfect but that the attempt was infinitely worthwhile.

Gordon now sees her childhood view of nuns as an illusion, as, of course, all glamour is.

Barbienundoll Doubt does not partake of this glamorous view of nuns. It shows us their life from the inside, not the outside.  (That the Sisters of Charity wear prim 19th-century style bonnets rather than flowing veils also reduces the glamour.) The movie (and play) is about a power struggle between a scary, old-fashioned sister who suspects a priest of molesting a student and the priest, who is friendly, modern, and, because we decide the nun is right, seriously creepy. Sister Aloysius can see evil because she is a savvy woman who has lost any youthful illusions. This bit of dialogue, which proceeds their confrontation over Father Flynn's relationship with the boy, illustrates an essential element in the lost glamour of nuns: distance.

Father Flynn: I think the message from the Second Ecumenical Council was that the Church needs to take on a more familiar face. Reflect the local community. We should sing a song from the radio every now and then. Take the kids out for ice cream.
Sister Aloysius: Ice cream.
Father Flynn: Maybe take the boys on a camping trip. We should be friendlier. The children and their families should see us as members of their families rather than emissaries from Rome. I think the pageant should be charming, like a community theatre doing a show.
Sister Aloysius: But we are not members of their families. We're different.
Father Flynn: Because of our vows?
Sister Aloysius: Precisely.

Among the half dozen or so people who write seriously about glamour, my view that religious glamour is one of the phenomenon's important manifestations (reflected not only in ideas of vocation but also in much--though by no means all--religious art) is considered eccentric. But at least Mary Gordon is on my side. What do you think?

(Photo of nuns at altar from a 1944 Life feature on Carmelite nuns taking their vows, via Google's Life archive. Barbie nun doll photo by Flickr member Flirty Kitty taken at Nun Doll Museum, via Creative Commons license.)

Horror Or Humor?

Beyond the ordinary factors that give the Democrats an advantage this year, Barack Obama's glamour poses a huge problem for the McCain campaign. To destroy glamour, you have to change perceptions. You can try sober realism. But that lacks emotional punch. To strike at glamour's emotional core, horror and ridicule work better. Instead of telling the audience to ignore its desires and be rational, they replace desire with dread or derision. What was once inspirational becomes terrible or absurd.

McCain's "The One" attack ad (now in a new Denver convention version, above) is clearly an attempt to strip some of the glamour off Obama. That much is indisputable. Pundits are now arguing about whether the ad's imagery is intended as satire (the ridicule strategy) or as a veiled attempt to paint Obama as the Antichrist (the horror strategy). If you're a cool cosmopolitan character, it's hard to object to satire, even when directed at your favorite political figure. Irony is too much a part of your cultural milieu. Hence the appeal of the horror narrative: The ad isn't mocking Obama for messianic excess. It's literally portraying him as not just any old false messiah but the Antichrist.

What's interesting about this dispute is that it can't be resolved simply by looking at the ad. The interpretation is entirely in the audience's mind. The words and imagery that make Obama look ridiculously messianic are the same words and imagery that make him look like he's usurping the real Messiah's role. There's no way an ad meant to spoof him could avoid the charge of playing to fundamentalist fears. Do you find those words and images silly or scary? It depends on your cultural assumptions.

Though I'm not exactly a fan, I find it hard to believe that John McCain, a man whose humor is a major part of his persona and who clearly thinks Obama is a wet-behind-the-ears pretender, intended anything other than satire. The ad seems like obvious mockery. But it's impossible to disprove that someone in the campaign wanted a "dog whistle" to scare fundamentalists. Like glamour, humor is in the audience's mind. And the people who look at the ad and cry, "Antichrist" see only horror in the Republican base, imagining the worst. Hat tip: Megan McArdle