Category Archives: Semiotics

Emotions, Culture, Sign value and the Asymmetry of Meaning

ring

The engagement ring can be seen as an exemplar of an object or symbol ‘doing work’ as a signifier. When worn on a certain finger; or when given to someone in a particular manner, it’s meaning is clear. However, what I want to explore is how this sign-value can be ‘damaged’  – or altered, through alternative forms of consumption. Let me pose a scenario: married man and woman divorce – she sells her engagement ring to a second-hand shop or another kind of retailer. The ring, once a symbol of the love in the marriage and ’til death do us part, now signifies the destroyed relationship for the woman. She just wants to ‘move on’ – the emotional losses she is suffering are somewhat soothed by re-selling the ring that symbolized her relationship. It gives her a bit of power in a situation where she feels helpless and alone. Now rid of the ring, she can perhaps put this money towards her new life – a deposit for a new home, a piece of jewelry to signify this new period or something else entirely. But what of the ring? Now sold to a second-hand retailer, it has lost it’s original sign-value and it sits in the glass cabinet, in limbo, waiting for someone else to decide what it can mean.

roses

It could be that a new couple purchases the ring to signify their engagement and impending marriage. However, superstition bestows ‘bad karma’ on these kinds of rings. The new couple are more likely to purchase a new ring from a jeweler; a ring without a tarnished torrid past. The new engagement ring is seen as a better signifer; without the dark cloud of where the ring may have been and what it may have meant to another couple. A friend of mine likes to buy diamond engagement-style rings at Cash Converters because she knows that they have been symbolically de-valued and she gets the diamonds re-set into new rings. She doesn’t say it like that and looks at me strangely when I do. She just likes getting diamonds cheap.

wedding dress

The wedding dress is another example of this. Any woman who has been married will tell you that purchasing a new dress is expensive. But buying one second-hand is much cheaper. I bought my wedding dress second-hand. In the shop, the new ones were $5000 – $10,000. My second-hand dress, looking identical to those other dresses, cost $2000. Family and friends still think I’m weird for wearing a dress ‘with a history’ or with ‘mileage’. One asked me, ‘What if the other couple got divorced? A second-hand wedding dress is really unlucky’. My pragmatism could not justify the price difference and I thought the superstition around weddings was illogical. I didn’t enjoy playing the role of ‘bride’. The relationship I had (and still have!) with my partner superseded all this frou-frou and cultural custom. I was a poor sport going through some of the motions; I changed out of my dress after entree at the reception. I was antagonistic towards the sign-value of the bridal dress – I felt objectified and unauthentic. It did not symbolize my relationship and the generic bride culture left little room for uniqueness. I had the traditional wedding in the beautiful old mansion on acres of garden that my mother wanted for herself but couldn’t have due to her father’s ill health. It was a wonderful day with my family and friends; yet my grouchiness at having to ‘be’ something probably dampened the mood at times! My gorgeous sister-in-law just got married – and she was not only a vision of beauty and grace, but a class act. I cried like a baby several times that day, moved by her glorious womanhood and happy relationship. Only now can I see how ‘the bride’ can be conceptualized by loved ones – when someone special is playing the role, the role becomes a prosthesis on top of your warm feelings towards the person. I didn’t see my gorgeous little sis as a generic bride that day; she was The Bride – glorious, elegant and regal. I was in awe of her and I can’t wait to see the wedding pictures in a few days (I was her bridesmaid and didn’t get the chance for happy snaps).

shoes

There could be divergences to my thoughts – such as a beloved family heirloom wedding dress or engagement ring, rich with happy narrative and stories. Vintage objects fascinate me as a material culture researcher and theorist. They are rich with potential stories, symbols and romance. I find it interesting to think on the object – and it’s sign-value, how it can be asymmetrically understood. By this, I mean to address how we can keep secrets from each other. What if your fiance didn’t tell you that he bought you a second-hand ring? Would it change it’s meaning if he told you later about it? And what happens when couples disagree on the use of heirlooms to signify their marriage? I think that this is why the lead-up to weddings can be so emotionally charged; there are multiple worldviews – and familial cultures – colliding. It can be messy – like some awkward weddings I have attended – or it can be so loving and beautiful that it moves one to tears – like the union of my in-laws and my sister-in-law’s new family.The wedding also became a celebration of a widening family. When symbols, shared meaning, love, culture and emotions collide, it can be an incredible human experience.

The Girl; Or The Feminine Social Mask

Marilyn1

Even previous to the proliferation of print media in the early 1900s, images of women were used to symbolize and narrate ideas, values and stories. As cinema expanded into a global pastime, public fascination with the stars grew. The studios assisted this fascination via the creation of gossip and fanzines, often engineered towards constructing glamour for their stars and promoting upcoming films. In the case of the female stars, their stories and images gave both men and women a site for fantasy. Sure, men could aspire to talk like Tyrone Powers and perhaps even use Brylcreem to slick their hair in a similar fashion, but the ‘look’ of the male star was not thrust into male consciousness as something to be aspired to or re-created via right consumption. On the other hand, women were encouraged to colour their hair like the stars and utilize cosmetics and clothing to create selves that resembled the silver screen beauties. Images of the popular stars became iconic – ideals that circulated socially, creating myth and fantasy. It is interesting to note that Marilyn Monroe grew up idolizing Jean Harlow, using the studio-mediated fantasy of Harlow to escape her loneliness and poverty. For Monroe, celebrity symbolized acceptance, something she seldom experienced in her childhood. Born to a mentally ill, and mostly absent, mother and an unknown father, Monroe moved between foster families. Although nothing overly horrible occurred in these homes, the sense of being unwanted bore down on Monroe, seeing her emotional development freeze. Thus, Monroe, is best seen as a melancholy little girl.

images

Monroe’s vulnerability is recognizable to most women. The desire to be wanted, loved and seen in the fullest sense. Monroe was introverted and bookish, a dirty secret many women harbor in a society where women are meant to be for others. Her charisma drew people to her and at times, stardom overwhelmed her. Fame was irony for Monroe – people adored her, yet those closest abused her and belittled her. She was seen as difficult by studio professionals, despite other actresses, such as Elizabeth Taylor, making far more audacious requests. Men saw her as the ultimate fantasy, as constructed in some of her films – made for their pleasure and attuned to their needs. Monroe says, in her autobiography: “The truth is, I’ve never fooled anyone. I’ve let men sometimes fool themselves. Men sometimes didn’t bother to find out who and what I was. Instead they would invent a character for me. I wouldn’t argue with them…when they found this out, they would blame me for disillusioning them”. This characterizes an inherent problem of femininity. Our faces, affects, postures, smiles, bodies, clothes and all the other accessories combine like hieroglyphics to construct a social character for others to read. But these texts do not have clear meanings, so when they inevitably collide, resentment, bitterness and disappointment boils to the surface.

images (1)

The feminine social mask is heavy with preconceived ideas. Subtexts of pornography, domesticity and stereotypes underpin each mask. Expectations are placed upon women to fulfill roles they never asked for or considered – and at times, we wonder how all our other attributes are marginalized into nothingness as the focus on our appearance gains precedence. Then we may question whether we invite the male hands that linger, fondle or touch. We will be discussing big thoughts, scientific theories or philosophical musings, caught in the furious hot stream of the moment; or we will be ankle-deep in white daisies, at the foot of an elm, enjoying the sun on our skin – and then, from nowhere, the sex thing is an unwelcome and horrid explosion, a hard slap across the cheek. It occurs to us…we are The Girl.