There’s a certain aesthetic that I associate with decent to middling romantic comedies of the early millennium, usually starring Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, or Reese Witherspoon. This aesthetic surrounds a lovelorn heroine who is a clean-cut but slightly funky blonde, a little bit frenetic but also warm. She’s pretty for the guys and aspirational for the ladies, and utterly devoid of any real personality, grit, or distinctive cultural background. She’s a blank slate, made to reflect the projections of viewers, just as the big windows and gleaming surfaces of her home reflect her pretty face.
She’s also predicated on a great degree of social and sexual privilege. After all, although beauty ideals are changing for millennials and vary from place to place, the primary standard hasn’t been toppled. Blonde, thin, and small-featured white women still represent a mainstream aesthetic, a norm from which everyone else deviates.
With the launch of her style site Draper James this week, Witherspoon has joined fellow screen stars Blake Lively (Preserve) and Gwyneth Paltrow (GOOP) in the new trend of launching their own “lifestyle” portals, each of which is an avenue for selling select curated items with a boost from the imprimatur of the given celebrity. They’re all essentially like Etsy, but the fancy, celebrity-directed version, with a side benefit of giving said celeb a relevance boost — a career Botox injection if you will.
Each site has a slightly different vibe. While Paltrow offers the boost of advice that is treasured for its extreme out-of-touch quality (vaginal steaming) and Lively’s words of wisdom are simply bizarre (“As for how we operate, we haven’t looked at Preserve as a new website, but rather as a new street”), Witherspoon is marketing herself as a Southern gal through and through.
Yet she does this by presenting a series of Southern characteristics that are as generic as they are broadly aspirational: “Women in the South love to dress up. They love color and prints and generally love to look put together. Depending on the occasion, several days of thought can go into one outfit!” Other things Southern gals and Reese herself like, according to Draper James, are wearing their family heirloom jewelry and sporting “great purses” as well as blouses and skirts. So original and unique!
Maybe it’s the Yankee in me or this particular fraught moment in time, but I can’t see a piece of copy that fetishizes anything having to do with Southern people enjoying leisure activities and revering their ancestors without thinking about insidious institutionalized racism. Still, a number of pricier items on Witherspoon’s site have already sold out — which shows that the purchasing public is definitely buying the line that’s being sold, and isn’t particularly concerned about the slight whiff of white supremacy the site gives off. (Are we surprised about this?)
Buy this and be like me, the promise goes. Yet Draper James’ magnolia stud earrings and “great purses” aren’t actually going to turn you into a well-groomed Southern belle with the sexy sass and empowerment of Witherspoon’s best characters, just as following Lively’s or Paltrow’s star will fail to morph you into a willowy guru type with a side order of tone-deafness. They’re just going to make you poorer, with a new item in your closet, and a momentary feeling of satisfaction that will probably fade when Kate Hudson launches Penny Lane, her vaguely ’70s-inspired portal to “the wind within” in a year’s time.
These websites, to different extents, are all promising that consumption of certain items will lead to the achievement of a clean-lined blandness as embodied by the female celebrity. But what it really reveals is the fallacy of our whole contemporary consumer model. In this particular moment in late-capitalist time, all kinds of facets of our identities are supposed to be achieved by forking over cash or credit and receiving items or services in response. Take this email that landed in my inbox today, which is not from a celebrity but from a very pedestrian shoe chain:
Words that pepper celebrity style sites and mainstream style sites alike, like “therapy,” “treat yourself,” “grace,” “style,” and “elegance” are used so often they’ve lost their meaning — but what they falsely promise us is comfort in our own skin, a quality that can’t be achieved through superficial means no matter how hard we try.