Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Tracking the "It" Girl

Clara Bow (left), original "It" Girl
and Lindsay Lohan (below), "It" Girl, 2005

















In case you haven't heard, former "mean girl" Lindsay Lohan was voted (by what we are sure if a very scientifically accurate voting system ) Hollywood's "It" girl at the VH1 Big in '05 awards. The term "it girl" suggests that a girl is "it" and has "it." But what, pray tell, is "it"?

According to Wikipedia:

An It girl is a young woman famed for her good looks, but in recent years has come to describe a new up-and-coming young starlet who has recently broken into mainstream cinema. The term was coined after Clara Bow made the film It in 1927, which was a vehicle for her sex-appeal. Consequently, Bow was dubbed the "It girl", "It" being a euphemism for sex-appeal.

The pronoun "it" is most often used to refer to a previously mentioned, non-human object. Yet in this case "it" is meant to connotate a sexually desirable woman.
Interestingly, the word "girl" describes a female who has yet to come into her sexual maturity. In this sense, the term "It girl" works to suggest immaturity, pliability, and submission. The term "it" also suggests the possession of qualities that are otherwise mysterious or ineffable (akin to what American Idol judges refer to as "star quality"). Women have frequently been associated with the mysterious -- especially when it comes to their sexuality -- and this seems to be echoed in the term's lack of specificity. Moreover, the label "It girl," in it's elision of distinctive characteristics, also suggests an object of temporary attraction. Sooner or later the term "it" migrates to someone else. "It"'s lexical function is to suggest interchangeability.

But "it" has an obscene underbelly too, and is often used to stand in for something that otherwise "cannot be named." Kids talk about doing "it," and the doubly disturbing term "hitting it," with its creepy implication of both violence and objectification, seems to be gaining popularity. And the word "it" is also used to describe the terror without a name in Stephen King's novel It. Perhaps most disturbing are the of reports of victims of abuse being referred to as "it" by their abusers (i.e. the serial killer in Silence of the Lambs refers to his victims as "it;" and then there's that book A Child called "It"). "It" is also used to suggest gender ambiguity.

Interestingly, the first "it"girls were often presented as being entirely unique; they were perceived to be both an embodiment of everything that was appealing and desirable at a particular time, and also a portent of what was to come. Today's "it" girls seem more akin to a chain of paper dolls, suggesting a shift from the unique towards the generic.

Meet America's newest obsession: Hollywood It Girls. Smoking hot and barely legal, they live in multi-million dollar pads, zip around town in the coolest cars and date Hollywood boy-toys all the other girls would kill for- all while carrying around their pooches in thousand-dollar Louis Vuitton purses. And while these young starlets cross every velvet rope in town, nobody dares to cross them.
It's unsettling that one of the terms used to describe contemporary "It" girls is "barely legal." This is, after all, also the name of a porn magazine. Beyond the obvious narrative of class aspiration, their narrative appears also to be one of power -- they can cross any velvet rope and take any lover they desire. And yet the narrative of the contemporary "It" girl hardly seems to be one of empowerment. Consider this year nominees for the Big in 'O5 awards: L.Lo, Nicole, Paris, and Kritin Cavallari. At first glance, the only "it" these girls seem to share is a penchant for Smirnoff ice and an inability to gauge the proper sunglass size.

Contemporary "it" girls appear to dress and act the same; they seem to represent a sort of "dollification" of Hollywood. This seems eerily literal when one considers how many celebs also go under the knife in order to be more marketable. The identical fake tan, fake boobs, and fake hair of many "it" girls is both troubling and puzzling (see this amusingly cynical take on what it means to be an "it" girl). And more and more dolls are meant to be Hollywood it girls (see My Scene and Bratz). And those dolls are nasty.

There have been groups of sort of alternative "it" girls: Nico, Edie Sedgwick, Marianne Faithful, and Debbie Harry. Interestingly, women like Nico and Eddie Sedgwick were part of Andy Warhol's circle -- a scene that originally emerged as a sort of parody or facsimile of Hollywood. These types of "It" girls may also be related to the women in the films of Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch. And to ingenues and femme fatales and vamps.

Besides being rich, "It" girls are also conspicuously white. Although Eartha Kitt and Halle Berry and Beyonce could be considered "it" girls, there still aren't enough roles for black women and minorities in Hollywood and minority women are still (sadly) less likely to appear on the cover of magazines.

And, perhaps the biggest question, why "It" girls and not "It" boys? More on that in a future post.

But for now, what do you think of the term "it" girl? Discuss.
















Debbie Harry, "it" girl

Related links:

Hollywood's shrinking "it" girls (splendora blog)
The It Girl (fiction)
"it" girls looking for love
The original "It" girl (Bint Magazine)

and when you google "it girl," half the results are about IT, which is often depicted as a big sausage party:

Why is IT all male?
Recruiting the new IT girls (BBC)
More IT Girls (BBC)

7 comments:

ren said...

I don't know about it girls, but I can say that IT girls are on the rise! There are of course way more men than women in the information architecture classes at library school (officially th School of Information), but more an more women are going the IT route there. Yay! If I can learn xml, anyone can (and it's neato because it's kind of a semantic language, not a programming one).

My perception of the much less exciting it girls is that a branch of plasticine (sp?) ones have evolved off the original line of genuinely interesting women. The plasticine ones are all we see. Ew. And I like Lindsay Lohan as a redhead better. They are almost like a marketing device for debauchery, but they make it all seem stressful instead of fun.

mzn said...

Lots of interesting points here.

As for the "barely legal" thing: the new Ashlee show on MTV is (was?) called "Live and Legal." Porn is practically mainstream now so this usage should come as no surprise. When Lindsay Lohan turned 18, the Jimmy Kimmel types went ga-ga.

zp said...

"Moreover, the label "It girl," in it's elision of distinctive characteristics, also suggests an object of temporary attraction. Sooner or later the term "it" migrates to someone else. "It"'s lexical function is to suggest interchangeability."

This is one of the most exciting points about "it" - but if this temporary interchangeability were the entire issue, there'd be no problem, right? Because there is nothing essentially wrong with these qualities . . . all that is good and right in the world does not depend on the construction of permanent and enduring individual identity. So what is the problem? I would agree that it's the content.

"Interestingly, the first "it"girls were often presented as being entirely unique; they were perceived to be both an embodiment of everything that was appealing and desirable at a particular time, and also a portent of what was to come."

I think it's interesting to consider that this is still true, the content of the "it" ness, what makes an it-girl it, is still a projection from without (from consumer society as a whole, from Hwood industry, etc) onto a particular placeholder, the it-girl.

"their narrative appears also to be one of power -- they can cross any velvet rope and take any lover they desire."

And I think that this, along with the very strange "barely legal" thing that's going on is what is being projected, and what is so ugly right now. I wouldn't call what the it-girls have power. I'd say maybe privilege, or a particular fantasy about freedom (from work, mainly, which I think explains why their age, race and gender is young, white and fragile-lady-like). I think US consumer culture is going through a phase where we are fantasizing about a life with less labor and that life is embodied by these it-girls.

I think the specter (sp) that haunts these it-girls is the knowledge that all around the world, young not-white girls are laboring in sweatshops to support the consumer culture these women (and the folks who fantasize about them) are living in. To obsess about these hyper-visual it-girls is to repress thoughts of laboring women . . .

This particular fantasy was not what constructed it- girls in other times and places and I certainly hope this fantasy will fade soon.

But think about, say, the film The Graduate. How long has it been since someone fantasized about a leisured, middle-aged, smoking, drinking, manipulative housewife? It could happen again, and it might or something else might happen . . . .

Elyce Rae Helford said...

Excellent analysis of the implications of "It" in the concept of the "It Girl." I like that you add links to help readers further analyze.

My additional note is the way you can read "it" as objectifying - i.e. object of the male gaze.

Great site.

femme feral said...

I'm glad more IT girls are shakin' things up.

the whole barely legal thing, while mainstream, remains unsettling. I know some slobbery men kept a website that was no more than a clock ticking down to the olsen twins' 18th birthday.

"I think the specter (sp) that haunts these it-girls is the knowledge that all around the world, young not-white girls are laboring in sweatshops to support the consumer culture these women (and the folks who fantasize about them) are living in. To obsess about these hyper-visual it-girls is to repress thoughts of laboring women . . ."

Exactly, and to pretend as though this sort of objectification (erh's point about "it") of women is okay.

And the fantasy around these 2005 girls is really tired; it's gotta fade sometime soon.

Tina bacon said...

To me, Lindsay isn't an "it" girl at all--just thinking she's been bestowed that title by pop culture is enough to make me lose my lunch.

When I think of an "it" girl, I think smart, very well pulled together, fashionable, classy and talented--Carrie Underwood comes to mind, but I'm in the minority with that one!

elizalou said...

Ah! I'm watching the VH1 special now and, only ten minutes into it it's driving me nuts.

Why do they have a Cosmo girl editor commenting? I've never picked up a copy of the mag, but I guess I was deluded enough to think it might not be as bad as it's older sister?

Seriously, this is just disgusting.