April 19, 2005

Coulter and Colder

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I really had a debate with myself over giving attention to a figure like Ann Coulter.  In this case, however, the visual analyst lost out to the shrink.

Liberal pundits like to talk about the clay feet of the right-wing gods.   The major recent examples include Bill Bennett with his gambling problem and Rush Limbaugh with his drug habit.  The frustration in recounting this kind of hypocritical behavior, however, is that the public persona of these figures seem to repel the charges.

I went out and bought this issue of TIME, and read the article by John Cloud.  Or, should I say, the account of the seduction of John Cloud. 

Do you see those piercing eyes seeking you out on this cover? 

With alternately cutting and cloying expressions of violent or sexual allusions, the cunning Ms. Coulter appears to function (at least, for conservative men) as a modern day siren.  (According to the article, Vanity Fair writer James Walcott likens the essentially lightweight Coulter to Paris Hilton.)  What was the story in the Odyssey, however?  If you came too close and heard the singing, you would be warbled to death, with a strong chance of ending up in a pile of dead man’s bones, the flesh still rotting off them.  If you had to pass by, you could only do so safely by stuffing your ears with wax.  Otherwise, if you chose to listen, you had to have men bind you to the ship’s mast with the instructions that, if you begged to be untied, they should only bind you tighter.

If you’re interested, you can seek this article out yourself, and
see how Ms. Coulter put the warble on this poor reporter.  The sad
account starts with the interviewer supposedly getting Ms. Coulter
drunk.  From that point on, there are lines about "moistly liberal
formulations"; and how talk show opinions must "come violently fast and
cause as much friction as possible"; and how it’s impossible to watch
Ms. Coulter and not be "sluiced into rage or elation."

As I
said before, it’s hard to take on a hypocritical public figure when
actual bad behavior is almost automatically subsumed by an iconic
public identity.  In considering a written profile together with a
visual portrait, however, you have a better opportunity to consider the
snapshot of the person against his or her persona.

reading this image, however, it’s instructive to pick through the data
that was observed by Mr. Cloud when he wasn’t riding around on his
cloud.  Frankly, the picture of Ms. Coulter seems diagnostic.  What you
get is someone endlessly preoccupied with sexual and physical violence,
going from riff to sadistic riff tossing off one-liners dedicated to
retribution and revenge.   You have someone with a history of charming
and seducing men, but who seems to disavow significant emotional
attachments with men and often displays flashes of hatred in response
to male or female sexuality.  You have someone almost pathologically
opposed to revealing any personal information, especially if it conveys
humanity, femininity or compassion of any kind.  You have a person who
insists her only professional motivation is personal amusement or the
amusement of her friends.  Finally, you have someone hopelessly
addicted to nicotine who’s greatest fear is being found irrelevant.

What does the image suggest? 

it depicts someone who is not going to sit for getting her picture
taken.  By leaning forward, hunching her shoulders and giving you a
stare, she’s declaring herself off limits.  As she does with her verbal
behavior, she uses offensive maneuvers to keep you from getting near
her or getting any real look at her.  (By the way, isn’t there some
adage about not trusting a person if you can’t see their hands?  Or
maybe, she’s just not one to show her hand.) 

Physically too,
sexuality is a big part of the picture.  The classic short black skirt
and the hair dyed red at the ends — and, of course, the in-your-face
mile long legs (with shoes that suggest an evening out — but also a
little girl innocence, with the bow) is quite seductive.  On the other
hand, the tightly crossed legs, the elbows pulling awkwardly close to
the torso, the tense forearms, the pursed mouth and, of course, the
stare, all read as cold, colorless, closed, and sexually conflicted.

There is another way to look at this, however, if you take a developmental perspective. 

an adult, Ms. Coulter’s pose couldn’t be more guarded, more defensive
(in which the best defense is a good offense).  The other way to
understand this image, though, is if "Ms. Right" is simply a little
girl.  The bow on the shoes suggests that.  The stockings that seem
like tights also say so.  The overall posture reflects it as well.  As
opposed to an adult who sits back and lets the camera take them in,
young Ann looks like the little girl who comes into the photography
studio and doesn’t know how to sit, or needs to know what she should
do.  To this end, the gaze can also be an intense search for
direction.  The awkward scale reflects it also.  All legs and head,
arched forward with her feet hanging down into white space, she might
as well be perched in a high chair. 

As either an impetuous
girl or a crass provocateur, it’s strange to see Ms. Coulter in a chair
with the Barcelona’s class, designed by Mies van der Rohe for the King
and Queen of Spain.  Although the rich girl from Manhattan by way of
Connecticut has the popularity and income to occupy a seat as reputable
as this one, she doesn’t seem comfortable at all.

(image: Platon for Time Inc. April 25, 2005)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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