Audiences love artifice. Artifice is always more exciting than reality because artifice is crafted to be engaging, attractive and compelling.
Reality is either boring, confusing or challenging, but artifice takes our assumptions and expectations into account, building something that feels realer than real. We like a good show.
All the codes that revel authenticity are at play in artifice. As humans, we have a strong sense of people even if we know that they are putting on a bit of a show for us.
Artifice is really the only way we have to communicate. We construct our expression, using all the bits and pieces, the language, images, movements and ideas that we see as being effective in establishing our position. The performative always takes artifice, even if it is so well done or so earnest that we see it as “real.”
Owing your own artifice, though, takes chutzpah.
Most of us just follow group norms & expectations, playing along and living in the shadow of what the people around us are doing. By taking on their coloration and habits, our artifice doesn’t stand out because it is embraced as normative.
Artifice that moves beyond the bland and traditional. though, stands out. It can easily be assailed as false, as manipulative, as deluded. Rather than seeing the choices of those we are familiar with as artifice we feel better assuming that their conventions are natural & proper, while those which challenge our expectations are freaky & sick.
My challenge, should I end up deciding to go out into the world, is constructing a new artifice for myself.
In Gerri Hirshey’s Not Pretty Enough: The Unlikely Triumph of Helen Gurley Brown, the founder of today’s Cosmopolitan magazine is displayed in all her feminine power. HGB, as Ms. Hirshey calls her subject, always stood for a certain image of womanhood, a sexy, vivacious, stylish media savvy performance of potent wiles.
To imagine taking feminine power without mastering some modes of artifice is impossible. HGB was clear that artifice was not something you wore like a costume, trying to conceal you really are, rather it was a tool to magnify your presence in the world, revealing and amplifying the best of you.
Anytime you bring something forward something else recedes into the shadows, but that helps you in the world. People see your pride, your commitments, your enthusiasms, even as they don’t need to see your weaknesses, your fears and your pain.
Ms. Hirshey, as she says in her title, believes that HGB self image was torn down rather than built up by her mother, so she always believed that she was not pretty enough. This lead to HGB learning how to get affirmation of her own femininity, making choices that would engage and please men for all her life. HGB and Joan Rivers would swap war stories about plastic surgery and HGB finally got breast augmentation when she was over 70.
One transwoman announced that “I didn’t decide to be a woman. I stopped trying to be what I was not was not and she came out.” When you look at her photos, though, you can see that she has used a great deal of artifice to construct her new appearance. Suzan Cooke would write these people off as a “skin transvestite,” someone who self-feminized for erotic reasons, an autogynephiliac to use Blanchard’s term.
Does being highly concerned with artifice make someone not a woman? While being committed to feminine artifice doesn’t make you a woman, as any number of gay identified drag queens will be happy to tell you, it doesn’t stop you from being a woman either, as Dolly Parton shows.
I have eschewed artifice. I am “trans-natural,” never even taking hormones, which has allowed me to understand trans without chemicals, the way humans had to do it for most of history. My Aspergers parents were not effective at social status and artifice made a very limited impact on their very self-contained minds.
To enter the world, though, artifice is a key form of communication, one that simplifies and eases the passage of information. “Show them” often requires putting on a bit of a show, one that communicates in a way that telling them never will.
Those who want to be seen, heard and remembered often adopt a signature look, something instantly identifiable as the essence of who they are.
My daily look, though, is absurdly utilitarian and rude, a uniform made up of whatever remains in the storage crates I keep my stuff in. I have never had a regular appointment with a hair professional, never even kept up key components of health, instead relying on discipline & denial to keep going.
My space has never spoken of me either. It is raw, monastic and practical, without my own stamp.
Without getting to play at looks when I was young and cute, I fell back to button front, button down oxford cloth and corduroy, the better to hide a feminine heart, being without any desire to cockily preen.
Like so many other bits of my backwards life where I learned early to be the caretaker and then only later could try to figure out blossoming, the call seems to be for me to begin to embrace an artifice which aids in effectively communicating to the world.
It’s hard to move to artifice at a time when so many are moving away from it, hard to be bold without a rich history of exploration & revelation. I have had many tell me that I need to become more plain, renouncing the external, even though that was something I never owned for myself. (2006)
Artifice, though feels like it is required if I want people to find me fun & easy to engage, if I need them to enjoy the show to become open to the content. Without the eyes of a collaborator, though, an editor, director, or producer, that work of packaging is very hard for me.
My story isn’t “not pretty enough,” rather it is just “not pretty.” It was hard for HGB to stand & compete in the world with her battered self image, finding the need to use artifice to turn herself into a character, and it is hard for me, now and after so long, to find my own artifice, my own visual & habitual signature. I worry about looking like a silly tranny in a costume, not just mutton dressed as lamb but beef playing at veal.
Artifice does seem important, though, somehow.