Courtney Love's transformation from punk rebel to glamorous blonde has angered old fans.
Image credit: scandalist.com, photographers unknown
Love’s image has always shaped her ethos. In the early ’90s, she shot to fame
as the most visible musician in the Riot Grrrl scene, a punk-rock subculture
focused on women’s issues and associated with third-wave feminism (Belzer 2). Through
both her music and her personal life, she flouted engrained beliefs about how
women were expected to look, speak, and behave, and sold millions of albums in
the process (Reilly 17). Then, her confrontational appearance supported her
ethos as a feminist icon for young women across the nation. Now, Love is
notorious for her drug use, neglectful parenting, and financial misadventures (Reilly
12), an ethos that her current cosmetically-altered body and designer outfits
complement equally well. Because her Stepford-like makeover into a Hollywood
beauty occurred parallel to that of her ethos’s transformation, it is tempting
to characterize her old image as feminist and her current one as anti-feminist.
But the photographs, letters, diary entries, and scribbles compiled in her 2006
memoir Dirty Blonde reveal a more
complicated reality. While Love’s appearance at the beginning of her fame told
women to ignore society’s ideas of female beauty, she privately lacked the
confidence her image projected and yearned for traditional attractiveness. And
judging by the honesty and self-confidence apparent in her image today, Love deserves
the respect from feminists that came too easily before.
Like the politics of her fellow Riot
Grrrls, Love’s early brand of feminism focused more on achieving cultural
equality for women than legal equality. Of particular interest to Love and
others in the movement was the female body. “Members of the third wave and Riot
Grrrl developed ways in which to resist control and objectification of their
bodies,” writes Hillary Belzer (70). For example, many in the movement, including Love,
scrawled misogynistic slurs like “slut” and “bitch” in marker on their bodies
before performances in an attempt to reclaim these derogatory terms, much like
the gay community had accomplished with the term “queer” a few years earlier (Eileraas
123). Unsurprisingly, Love’s body was one crucial way she expressed her
Love’s appearance in the early ’90s both protested for a woman’s right to beautify
herself and assailed society’s constricting definition of female beauty. She popularized
the “kinderwhore” style of dress and make-up. The template: “filmy Victorian nightgowns
with fright-wig doll hair and heavy makeup,” as Cintra Wilson described it in a
New York Times article (15). Her
image defended a feminist’s right to adorn herself by re-appropriating clothes
and other markers formerly associated with harmless femininity – lace dresses,
blonde hair, and ruby-red lipstick – and using them aggressively. Victorian
nightwear, identified with an era known for strict morals and old-fashioned
gender roles, became highly sexualized worn in the day, especially when
strategically torn or slipping off one shoulder, as Love’s dresses often were (Love
119). She bleached her hair an unnatural blonde and did not attempt to cover
the dark roots. And she often purposefully smeared her lipstick, not only on
her face but also over her body and dress.
Image credit: Mark Seligman (1994) for Rolling Stone
Image credit: Tom Sheehan (1994) for Melody Maker
One woman with similar intentions
wrote the following: “I am a feminist and I am going to click my platform heels
and smack my glossed lips and grind my manicured nails all over the face of
patriarchal institutions” (Belzer 98). Love’s provocative use of
accoutrements also challenged conventional ideas of female beauty. Showing her
dark roots, smearing her lipstick - these acts of defiance turned the normally
beautiful into the confrontational and showed the artificiality in society’s judgments
about femininity. In the
end, Love’s image appealed to feminists not because it was natural (it mocked
the well-established ideal of “natural beauty”) but because it seemed sincere.
Love shows off her kinderwhore style in Hole's 1994 "Doll Parts" music video.
Image credit: directed by Samuel Bayer for Geffen, via Yahoo! Music
Love’s appearance was far from sincere and disguised constant worries about her
looks. Even as her dress exuded self-confidence, her writings from that time
show her insecurities. Her
face was not conventionally attractive. She was also five foot ten and built
broadly; one journalist described her as “meaty” (Barton 9). In a
journal entry, she writes: “All hot men are tall. All hot women are short … I
AM TALL,” accompanied by a list of men including Neil Young and William Butler
Yeats (Love 103). The final bullet point on one to-do list is “Lose lots of weight”
(65). “Am I ugly, I wonder to my lovers? Do they care at that point? Am I
really ugly?” she muses in another diary entry (74). Love is especially
critical of her image in the film Straight to Hell. “Testament to my
charisma, not my face. I’m getting my nose fixed ASAP … I’ll get my nose
fixed & gain [Producer Eric Fellner’s] respect … I know this film
sucks & I’m not pretty (yet)” (70).
body image issues may have come from her time in the ’80s working as a stripper
or from her rejections in Hollywood, where she tried to make it as an actress
before turning to music (Barton 2). Whatever the case, Love’s doubts about her
appearance reveal that she was still bound to mainstream definitions of beauty.
After reading her memoirs, her provocative image seems more like a self-defense
mechanism than a full-hearted rebellion against societal norms. Beneath all the
lace and messy lipstick was a woman who desired traditional prettiness.
the years since, Love has lost feminists’ respect by acting on those desires.
By the late ’90s, as the photos in the last third of Dirty Blonde make clear, she appeared to pass Hollywood’s criteria
for women but fail feminist standards. Her style changed from kinderwhore to conventional
glamour. In 1997, she attended the Oscars wearing a plunging cream Versace gown
with a diamond necklace, her hair a natural-looking blonde bob and her makeup
subdued (“Courtney Attends the Oscars” 1); the next year, she performed at the
Glastonbury music festival in a pink bikini, tutu, and angel wings –
mainstream, not punk, sexy (Love 222).
Love performing at Glastonbury in 1998.
Image credit: Toby Melville
H/T Guardian Unlimited
Dirty Blonde also contains a letter from Marc Jacobs, a high-fashion icon who symbolizes Love’s makeover. Her dramatic new look weakened her public ethos as a feminist by discarding the defiance that energized so many women. Many accused her of “going Hollywood” as a grab for a broader audience and more attention (Barton 6).
Love posing with fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, epitomizing her climb into the celebrity circuit.
Image credit: Screenshot from courtneylove.com
Love in 2006, arriving at Clive Davis's Grammy party.
Image credit: Laura Farr for AdMedia
H/T Rolling Stone
more publicized than Love’s change in style was her prominent plastic surgery,
which began around the same time (“Love, Courtney – Make Me Heal” 1). To date,
she has gone to the surgeon’s for lip injections, breast implants, and at least
three nose jobs (“Love, Courtney – Make Me Heal” 2). The person who once said
“I don’t need plastic in my body to validate me as a woman” has transformed
herself into the woman she dreamed of being in the early ‘90s: thin,
perfectly-proportioned, and desirable (“Courtney Love Quotes” 11). To
feminists, it seemed that Love had used the scalpel to turn into another
Hollywood beauty, that she had corrected the “flaws” that she before bravely insisted
Love in 1993, before the surgeries.
Image credit: Screenshot from entertainmentwise.com's slideshow by Cher Tippetts
Love in 2009, with a markedly different face.
Image credit: Screenshot from entertainmentwise.com's slideshow by Cher Tippetts
judging by the traits feminists once misguidedly applauded in her, Love is a
stronger feminist now than she was in the early ’90s. Then, women hailed her
appearance chiefly for the way it laid bare and celebrated women’s desire for
beauty; today, Love is more open about her appearance than she was then. For
example, she has frankly addressed her plastic surgeries in public statements.
“I hated that nose-jobby nose, it was like a
little beak. I've had my nose fixed. It looks like the one God gave me so I'm
happy not to have crazy lips and a crazy teensy unnatural little nose,” she
wrote on her website in 2007 (Tippett 2). And last year: “I could do
with another boob lift, but no way,” (Tippett 3). It’s easy to forget that
cosmetic surgery is not inherently anti-feminist; the debate over whether
plastic surgery degrades or empowers women is a controversial one (Leibovich
18). One feminist writer praises Cher for her surgeries, describing her as “someone who decided what she
wanted to be and went out and created herself” (Leibovich 18). The same
argument applies to Love. She realized what she wanted in her appearance,
achieved it, and refused to apologize for the way she did so.
Love in the 2004 "Mono" music video, as willful and angry as ever.
Image credit: directed by Chris Milk for Geffen, via AOL music
conventional wisdom goes something like this: in the past twenty years,
Courtney Love’s image has changed from influential, empowering, and compelling
to plastic, forgettable, and embarrassing; she has turned from a feminist hero
to a feminist’s nightmare. Looking closer, a more accurate picture emerges.
Love was never the feminist she was seen as in the early ’90s. Her
confrontational, devil-may-care appearance disguised a woman unsatisfied with
her body and already contemplating surgery to make herself beautiful. Today,
she deserves far more credit as a feminist for celebrating her body and
disregarding society’s sexist judgment cast on women forthright about their bodies.
She has transformed from a feminist hailed for beliefs she didn’t hold to a celebrity
unfairly vilified for her changed image.
closely at Courtney Love shows the importance of carefully examining public
figures. Her case reveals the pitfalls of conventional wisdom. People like a
neat storyline, so they created one for her. Love is one of our nation’s most
talked-about celebrities – Rolling Stone
called her “the most controversial woman in the history of rock” (Harris 3) –
yet most people possess only a superficial knowledge of her ethos. Anyone who
wants to intelligently discuss a public figure, be it Courtney Love, Tiger
Woods, or Hillary Clinton, needs to look beyond the cardboard caricatures
floating around on TV and think for herself.
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