Before this week’s release of dazzling model horror The Neon Demon, we consider how cinematic light and sparkle characterise girls
If you grew up in the late 90s and early 00s then chances are, in one way or another, you did so surrounded by sparkle. Perhaps it was playground scraps over shiny Pokémon cards, a competition for the best glittery gel pen, or you showing off your scratchiest shimmery eyeshadow from Claire’s. Either way, kids – especially girls – like me had glitter (metaphorically) thrown at them repeatedly and continuously, and particularly so on the silver screen.
Cast your mind back to 2002, and we were still riding on the wave of ‘Girl Power’ left by the Spice Girls, JLo was about to launch ‘Glow’ and spark a million celebrity perfume endorsements, and a full-body stocking made entirely of glitter allowed Britney Spears to writhe around in a white box for her “Toxic” video, smoothing the coming-of-age transition since from her sickly sweet “Hit Me Baby One More Time” era. These were the glory days of postfeminism.
‘Postfeminism’ might be explained by a feeling arising in the late 90s that the second-wave feminists had achieved their goals, and women were empowered by choice: women could choose marriage and babies over a career, choose to bare all on a lads’ mag, choose to do whatever they wanted, and feminists might now rest easy. A ‘postfeminist sensibility', to quote a phrase from film scholar Ros Gill, emphasises individualism, empowerment, consumerism and choice, and characterised a great deal of popular culture, attaching itself to films, TV shows, music videos and fashion.
In film, one of postfeminism's biggest stars was, and is, glitter – and girls are who it sticks to most. Here, we dissect its representation of glamour, beauty and playful girlhood to consider how its twinkling quality is adopted repeatedly by filmmakers to communicate girlhood in its many guises.
The symbol of glitter speaks to a witch’s beguile, embodied by a shimmering glow – think Steven King's horror heroine Carrie (1976) at the prom before she begins her bloody rampage, The Wizard of Oz’s (1939) pink glittery Glinda the Good Witch, or Irish double-denim fans B*Witched and their starry ‘*’. In these cases, sparkle stands for feminine allure and mystique, often signalling supernatural powers. However, often this glamour remains superficial, as academic Rachel Moseley notes, "while the sparkle is powerfully spectacular and grabs the viewer's attention, it is also highly ephemeral, drawing the eye to the surface." So, it’s the glittery paraphernalia belonging to the Lisbon sisters in Sofia Coppola's dark tale of teen-girl death in The Virgin Suicides (1999) that is collected and pieced together by the neighbourhood boys; they try to make sense of the intriguing girls using only sparkling stuff.
Similarly, popular tradition associates light with good. On film, this tends to translate to celebrating some girls, while leaving others in the dark. As film studies professor Mary Celeste Kearney puts it: “either embodying or surrounded by light, young female characters are stylistically highlighted today in ways that make them visually superior to virtually all else in the frame.” Take, for example, Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge (2001), the story of a penniless writer in love with the ill-fated courtesan, Satine. She's basically named after a shiny fabric and her nickname is ‘the sparkling diamond’. As if this wasn't enough, on screen she drips with gems while her fellow dancers look on from the shadows.
Most recently The Neon Demon (2016), set to hit the big screen next week, makes obvious use of glitter for its satirical horror take on the fashion world. Sequined dresses, gold body paint and CGI sparkle help emphasise the importance of aesthetics and the sometimes vacuous nature of glamour. Importantly, too, it’s the light-haired, fair-skinned character played by Elle Fanning who is described as ‘the sun’ to everyone else’s ‘winter’. Here you can see the glaring issues with luminous girlhood: those of race, class, size and ability. Often, the lit up girl is white, slim, young and able-bodied. You could – and many have – fill countless columns with commentary on the celebration of pretty white girls, compared to the sidelining and denigration of those who don’t fit this mould. Precious (2009) and its eponymous protagonist's attempts to escape a bleak upbringing, highlights this issue with arresting clarity, as Precious uses sparkly fantasies to retreat into her imagination, away from her abusive reality plagued by racial inequality and class struggle.
“Young female characters are stylistically highlighted today in ways that make them visually superior to virtually all else in the frame” –Mary Celeste Kearney
And so, for many of these girls, the lustre is often fleeting or surface deep. In the end, Satine can't escape her misery in the bohemian underclass, despite being its diamond in the Parisian rough. Glitter is easily rubbed off to reveal what lies permanently beneath. Just as it is for Precious, so too is it true for the impoverished prostitute Satine. Girls often lose, resist, or are unable to obtain a ‘glittery’ appearance, and this says more about a society which celebrates the sparkle than it does about the girls who are lit up (or not) by it.
On the flip side, when girls are too glittery, too ‘girly’; again they’re criticised. Similar to how paegant child Honey Boo Boo gained the hearts of millions in TV show Toddlers and Tiaras, Little Miss Sunshine's (2006) indie take on child pageantry, as academic Sarah Projansky notes, showcased how our affection for Olive "depends on denigration of other forms of girlhood, in this case pageant girls". While we might big this up for questioning the hyper-feminine sexualisation feared by parents of young girls, and the consumerism integral to postfeminism, if it starts to err into labelling ‘good’ from ‘bad’, neither side wins.
More positively, filmmakers have increasingly started using the shiny postfeminist phenomenon to pull apart the pressures placed on girls, and indeed women. Take Disney's newest princess movie Frozen (2013) and its protagonist, Elsa. While Cinderella’s luminous dress and slippers magically materialised so she could go and pin down Prince Charming, Elsa puts two fingers up to the patriarchy and discovers that her sisterly bond is where true love lies. Although her sparkly transformation conveniently marks her moment of empowerment, she ultimately shuns marriage and men in general. This in itself fits nicely with postfeminism’s embracing of female choice, “since no other characters witness Elsa’s shimmering transformation, the film suggests it is for her pleasure alone,” writes Kearney.
In a similar way, Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (2009), uses shining lights to unsettle the light/dark binary; its protagonist Mia has ambitions to perform as a dancer which rub up against her life in a run-down area. Although she gets compared to pink and sparkly Keira – the blonde, pretty and middle-class daughter of the step-father who rapes Mia – Mia manages to reject the male gaze, and she does so through her love of performing solely for herself. Sparkly light touches her, and she is able to defy, and therefore control, its effects.
In the end, glitter can be taken to show the ephemeral, indescribable girlhoods that its characters might embody. Sticking to some, falling from others and absent from many, it can be used to celebrate the postfeminist ideas of choice and self-empowerment, just as it can equally be seen as a dazzling example of postfeminism's shallow beauty and glaring inequalities, which exist far beyond the glare of the cinematic lens.