Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Gia as a Fairy Tale: A Less Erotic Re-Telling of Rumplestiltskin

    Fairy tales usually have a happy ending. Some fairy tale purists, as well as literate people who are curious, would argue that fairies should be a more important component to fairy tales, but happy endings seem to be just as important. And so, it becomes difficult to try and look at the film Gia through the perspective of a fairy tale. After all, the life of Gia Carangi was one filled with family problems, drug abuse, and death from complications from AIDS. These components do not lend itself easily to the genre. In fact they are the ingredients for a rather grim fairy tale*. Yet the filmmakers for Gia frame the movie as a modern day fairy tale: a tale about a young girl and her meteoric rise to the top of the fashion industry, only to free fall, but regain herself, and die with dignity. Gia is lionized as a type of ideal bastion of beauty; a success story that was only too short because of personal demons and disease.    Using these standards, Gia works as a fairy tale. She was a young girl that came from a background of family troubles looking for happiness. And so she moved out to the big city to become successful. She failed early on, but with the help of her fairy godmother, Wilhelmina Cooper, she was able to become successful. The success then leads to a reunion with her parents, and then she prematurely passed. And so, one can examine the film through the scope of a fairly tale and then point out the various conflicting messages about gender, sexuality, success and beauty.

    This idea of using a fairy tale type frame for the story of Gia's life is based on her diary. The young Gia Carangi (according to the movie makers) kept a secret diary that told her life as a fairy tale, an escapist catharsis for a young girl caught in the mist of domestic problems. This aspect of Gia's life is rather common within the genre of fairy tales. Many fairy tales start with a young child, usually a girl, being alienated from the family. This can be a wicked stepfamily, being sold to a witch, or a myriad of other family troubles. In the case of Gia, her mother seemed to be gallivanting around town, and her jealous father was reaching a point of violence. Now under the traditional guidelines of fairy tales, a female child that is detrimentally affected by the decisions of the family finds salvation and happiness by being so beautiful that you would be rescued by a prince or by Prince himself (see: Appollonia in Purple Rain), and male children find salvation through work, cunning, and monetary success. This message to children seems pretty simple: one day, your family will leave you or simply go away, and if you are a female the way to sustain yourself is by being pretty and sinking your fangs into a rich, handsome man. And if you are a male, you must attain a certain level wealth to support yourself and make you a viable option of a woman.     

    Gia does stray from the usually storybook construct in the sense that even though she is a female, her salvation, or what could be considered a happy ending, is more so tied to her success as a model than her pursuit of a Prince Charming. She does not sit and wait for a prince to whisk her away, but was aggressive (re: masculine) in her quest to succeed. In fact, she didn't desire a prince at all, but instead took the normative male role as the pursuer of another female. Gia is portrayed as a girl in a fairy tale that tries to achieve happiness through the standard means of a male in a fairy tale. At face value this seems like a positive message, where a girl can do what a boy can do and be successful. But when one looks at the context of this movie, while Gia was famous and successful, she lived a difficult life marred by drugs, unrequited love, violence, and complications with AIDS. While sending a message to young girls that they are not limited to the option of waiting for a man to save them, Gia as a fairy tale also provides the caution that if a young girl is willing to deviate from the normative path of gender expectation, that there are many dangers out there that they will not be able to handle and will impede they're success.

    These kinds of contrasting messages in the fairy tale or in Gia are typical of the conflicting messages women receive through popular culture. As Higginbotham calls it, it is "a series of catch-22's" and a "blur of contradictory messages about how to navigate life as an adolescent girl" (96). The message given in this example of "don't confine yourself to normative standards, but don't stray too far or bad things will happen to you" is strikingly similar to Higginbotham's examination of magazines that tell young girls to be pretty, but to not be so pretty that they'll receive unwanted sexual advances from older men. By sending messages that encourage women to do one thing and broadcasting a contradiction, society places a guideline on women. The illusion of freedom is given, but the contradicting message provides a limit to the freedom. Thus society keeps women in line within the guidelines in which society wants them to conform to by appeasing women with encouragement, but quickly drawing the nets with warnings and restrictions. Crane quotes the work Robert Goldman when Goldman states that the media is an indication of "internally contradictory hegemonic processes-on ongoing dialectic between dominant and oppositional discourses" (316). The film, as well as fairy tales, provides examples of the dominant and oppositional discourses that are being portrayed in popular culture. The film praises female independence from the norms, but also dissuades women to follow that path due to the dangers that may lie ahead. Beauty is taught to Gia by her mother as something that is to be loved, yet during a photo shoot, fellow models are encouraged to show disdain to Gia for her beauty. The models who came before Gia are told to fit into a certain criteria of what beautiful is, but are cast aside as if they were repulsive as soon as someone redefines what the standard of beauty is. The film showed that Gia was loved and became famous for her attitude and aggression as model, yet when she was strung out and was nearly dead, she was photographed with great success. Gia is ripe with contradicting messages, but why?
As a part of a larger construct of society, the interplay between dominant and oppositional discourses serves to obfuscate sources of power in regards to sexuality. As Foucault pointed out, if the messages were simple and were all the same, it would become easy to point out the source of power, and make appropriate changes to usurp power (101). But by providing hegemonic messages, power is untraceable, and thus change is nearly impossible.

    The last thing to examine about Gia in regards to the fairy tale genre is the initial issue of "happy endings." If one were to force a happy ending from this film as if it were storybook fiction, it would probably be from the fact that Gia was reunited with her parents at the end of the film, and found peace before she died. While this is a nice message, when one analyzes the film, the ending doesn't seem too happy. Gia's mother seemed to love her daughter on a strictly superficial level. The first appearance of Gia's mother is her along with Gia in front of a mirror talking about each other's beauty. She then doesn't speak to Gia for an extended period of time, until Gia becomes a supermodel. Gia's mom is sure to save glamorous photographs of Gia in which she takes an enormous amount of pride in. Her obsession with the superficial can last be seen upon Gia's death in which she made sure that Gia looked flawless for her funeral, sparing no expense for it. This "happy ending" sends the message that even though Gia tried through non-normative gendered means try and reach happiness, ultimately her beauty is what leads to her happy ending. Although she tried to achieve success by being aggressive, working, and accumulating money, her happy ending is still tied to being passive. Gia's acceptance to her family, which is what she wrote as her happy ending in her journal, was reached in the same way female fairy tale characters reach their fortunate conclusions: by being attractive and hoping for the best. It relates back to normative expectations from fairy tales. The fairy tale of Gia sends the message that while it is ok to break normative gendered expectations, but ultimately the normative ways are the one's that work out the best. This could also be seen in her romantic relationships. Sexuality discussed with the same type of messages. By breaking the hetero-normative mold, Gia is shown to be happy, but also suffers through rejection, heartache, and pain. Yet when in a heterosexual relationship with the character T.J., Gia seems happy, and is even able to successfully get rid of her drug addiction. This reinforces the message that breaking normative rules, while allowed, will only lead to failure and it is best to revert back to the normative ways.

    Gia, while a horrible movie, was lush with examples of contradictory messages within the media, the fashion industry, and society in general. By framing it as a fairy tale, the contradictions and the messages only become more glaring. Women are bombarded with a constant stream of counterintuitive messages from film, other sources of media, and even fairy tales. And these contradictions shape women's understanding of sexuality, gender, and beauty.







* I hate myself for that pun. I really do.


Works Cited

Crane, Diana. "Gender and Hegemony in Fashion Magazines." Gender, Race, And Class In Media. Second Edition. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2003.

Higginbotham, Anastasia. "Teen Mags: How To Get A Guy, Drop 20 Pounds, And Lose Your Self-Esteem" Women, Images, and Realities: A Multicultural Anthology. New York. McGraw Hill. 2003.

Foucault, Michel "Method" New York. Random House. 1978