Our theme for the month of November is “the periodic table.”
While chemically fascinating (A is for Arsenic by Kathryn Harkup), arsenic gets a bad rap for being the “King of Poisons.” Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie aside, arsenic’s history is dubious, particularly as a cosmetic ingredient. Not unlike other poisonous substances, arsenic got added rather liberally to a lot of mundane goods in the 19th and 20th centuries, resulting in equally laughable yet horrific products like these “complexion wafers”:
I find this advertisement amusing in an ironic and grim kind of way; a distinctive representation of the old adage “pain is the price of beauty.” From Good Queen Bess’s pock-marked face, slathered in vinegar and lead, to housewives at the turn of the century, women have always been fighting to appear beautiful, even if it means slowly killing themselves with arsenic. Conveniently (ironically), poison has always been considered a “woman’s weapon” because the “weaker sex” is, well, supposed to be too weak for anything else. As anyone who’s read Conan Doyle or Christie can tell you, women are always suspected of poisoning and very rarely of anything else.
I say all this because I want to talk about Blake Lively and these long-lived tropes about women and poison. I’m not familiar with celebrity news or culture—never have been, never will be—but I recently watched Lively star in A Simple Favor and I love love lovveedddddddd it. I loved the movie for shallow reasons, like how deliciously dark and twisty it is, but I mostly loved it because of Blake Lively’s wardrobe. I’ve never been a fashion person—chacos and t-shirts, please—but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to realise that Lively’s wardrobe, her exterior representation, is anything but shallow or insignificant.
Throughout A Simple Favor, Lively wears gorgeous designer suits as she portrays a beautiful, mysterious woman with some dark small boob energy. We see scads of gorgeous gowns and dresses in her massive walk-in closet, but we never see her wear any of them. We see the financial struggles that Lively’s character is facing with her husband, but we never see her change anything about her way of living. We see Lively’s love for her son, but we only ever see Anna Kendrick playing the mom role. We see Lively trying to encourage Kendrick to not give in to the feminine stereotypes and to be an independent and powerful woman, but we never see Kendrick break out from being a prim school mom who vlogs about baking. In fact, a lot of the movie ultimately boils down to the two women who share their womanhood but remain diametrically opposed in their understandings of how they should appear and perform.
In an attempt not to spoil the film while also being keenly attuned to rhetorical devices of all kinds, one of the most significant moments is at the end of the film when Lively wears a dress. It is the only time we ever see Lively’s character look conventionally feminine as she perfectly performs the role of a perfect housewife, no small boob energy in sight. Cue rhetorical device alarm bells.
In a movie that’s largely concerned with the costumes women wear for their performances in society, Lively’s sudden change to a dress indicates a new act in her play. Lively’s character understands the social constructs and expectations intrinsically tied into her existence as a woman, and she does everything in her power to manipulate that social arsenic for her personal gain while she still can. Lively performs her chosen roles perfectly, from aggressive business-woman to abused victim to finally a conventionally girlish housewife. In Lively’s own words:
“To me, her clothing is everything, because you immediately know how over-the-top she is, how extra she is. She seems like someone who really wants attention and is commanding attention, which is very important because she’s somebody who is actually hiding… She’s hiding from all these different iterations of herself, and it’s actually a great protection. She has such a distinct, iconic look… it’s easier for her to disappear when she looks like something else.”
I did some googling and tumblring to see what people had to say about Lively’s wardrobe, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that in real life Lively made a point to honour and further the message she represents in the film. She wore a suit to every single promo and press event for A Simple Favor and, of course, was asked about it at the film’s premiere because, you know, women and “power suits.”
“Do you feel more empowered in that [suit]?”
“I don’t feel more powerful in a suit. I find that very strange because I don’t think men feel more powerful when they change their articles of clothing. So it’s, like, silly that we’re always, like, ‘Oh, look at the woman in a power suit.’ You don’t see any man walking down Wall Street and say, ‘Look at that man in that power suit. He’s so empowered right now.’ You just don’t. I enjoy it ‘cause it’s more comfortable, it’s practical, and it’s a nice challenge.”
If arsenic is a woman’s weapon—whether to kill others or to beautify oneself—Lively’s character embraces the poison. The 180 that Lively’s character executes—from going directly against the flow of feminine tradition to going exactly with the flow of femnine tradition—challenges its viewers (or, at least, it has challenged me) to take a second look at the futility of appearances and the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” aspect of how we present ourselves. Nietzsche was right about us building glass cathedrals on moving water, but if everyone only knows the one cathedral, then, well, we’re kind of really stuck in that one building for forever.
I like to tell people that my “I know I made it” moment will be when I can afford high quality tailored suits. I love wearing blazers and trench coats and things that traditionally get categorised as emanating small boob energy, but I also recognise that everything is, in a sense, necessarily defined by what it’s not. We have poison because we have not-poison (or so we say—shoutout to Jacques Derrida, wink-wink). We only have “strong and independent women” because we have “weak and dependent women.” We have “power suits” because men have already claimed the plain term “suits.”
We don’t eat arsenic complexion wafers anymore, and we don’t generally say that “a woman’s face is her fortune,” and we’ve even managed to create some counter-rhetoric with hashtags like #AerieReal and #InstagramVsReality. But we still have relevant dark dramedies like A Simple Favor and people like me writing about these same themes of (metaphorical) poison and the importance of women’s physical appearance.
“Moving forward” (what does that even mean?) will always be difficult, but I believe it will be both difficult and woefully incomplete if people don’t try to examine the impossibility of existence that so many women find themselves in—now, today, still—and the glass cathedral we’re all living in. Let’s keep grappling with this weird circus that is female performance. For instance, I’ve begun to wonder why I always had such an aversion to dresses and heels because I didn’t want to seem too “girly” and was afraid with the connotations that “girly” entailed. If you find yourself with little to do this time of year, do yourself a favour and watch A Simple Favor (or, at least, add it to your watchlist). Laugh, be shocked, feel the suspense, and salivate over Blake Lively’s incredible wardrobe—but also contemplate how the humour and the drama are so precisely crafted and why they hit the bullseye.