What makes a woman an idol, an object of fascination and worship? The starting point for my project was Mary, the woman believed to be the mother of Jesus, whose image is probably the most ubiquitous in the western world. We see so many religious depictions of Mary, but what would we see if Mary were portrayed simply as a woman?
I concentrated on realistically rendered statues in southern Spain, photographing Mary alone, without any of the trappings of religion. I quickly realized that these lifelike sculptures, all created by men, reflected a highly biased conception of an “ideal” woman. Many of the faces of Mary looked remarkably similar to the gorgeous movie stars from the golden age of Hollywood. That the male fantasy of the archetypal woman is seemingly unchanged over the course of many centuries amazed me, and yet somehow was not surprising. From the Bible to Princess Diana, from movies, popular songs, tabloids, celebrity magazines, and K Pop, the timeless message to women—if you are pure, sexy, beautiful, vulnerable, pale-skinned, and perfect, the world will worship you.
I decided to create pairings, juxtaposing very realistic portraits of Mary with artifacts of popular culture that reflect intricate and often contradictory messages about women. Sometimes I use movie posters from the “Bad Girl” genre, depicting beautiful movie stars whose characters have somehow lost their innocence, fallen from grace, and are now “bad to the bone”. The copy lines are telling: “Just Say It, I’m No Good” or “Half Angel, Half Devil, She Made Him Half A Man”. I also explored the way women who are elevated to the status of idol--so much so that the whole world knows them only by their first names like Marilyn, or Diana, or Whitney—are ultimately destroyed by the brutal stresses and demands that status commands. I collected covers from original newspapers, like the poignant LA Times from 1962 announcing the death of Marilyn Monroe at age 36. Her photo, at the center of the paper, is as enticing as the portrait of Mary next to her, surrounded by jewels and gazing hypnotically at the viewer. You can’t take your eyes off either of them.
The tennis champion, Billy Jean King, recently wrote: “Women are taught to be perfect. We aren’t of course, so why are we held to that standard”? My project doesn’t answer that question, but perhaps it will provoke thoughts: About what it means to be a woman who is idealized and worshipped; Why women try against impossible odds to live up to someone else’s vision of perfection; And, most of all, why we elevate the women we most admire to unattainable heights, and then demean or destroy them when it cannot be sustained.