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  • Capital Women
  • Richard Rushton (bio)
Rosemary Hennessy, Profit and Pleasure: Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism (Routledge).
Simone Weil Davis, Living up to the Ads: Gender Fictions of the 1920s (Duke University Press).

What does it mean to “construct one’s identity”? This may appear, at first, a strange or even misguided question. Surely, if nothing else, writings in the humanities and social sciences over the past decade or more have consistently and enthusiastically charted the making and unmaking of the roles of both individual and group identities in contemporary culture as well as in the social formations of the past. Such discourses have found a much-needed voice in the discipline of cultural studies where delineating the shape, structure and status of gender, sexual, national, postcolonial, racial and other identities has become a standard procedure for the discipline. However, to step back from this procedure in order to ask, What does this delineation of identities mean? Where is this heading? or, What is at stake? may raise a different set of issues altogether. If one constructs one’s identity — or if one’s identity is constructed in one way or another — then how are we to judge, account for, or even comprehend the ramifications of this construction. For example, is a self-constructed or self-fashioned identity in some way more liberating than an identity that is otherwise enforced (by ideologies, by institutions, by political formations)?

These are the kinds of questions Simone Weil Davis and Rosemary Hennessey approach, though they follow very different procedures in their respective examinations: Davis’s Living up to the Ads examines the nature of advertising in 1920s America — by focusing both on the advertising practices of the day and also on the ways that advertising found its way into the literature of the period — while Hennessey’s Profit and Pleasure examines recent theories of sexuality and gender representation in the light of contemporary, post-industrial concerns. The works are united by their critique of the capitalist structures of American society — a theme which links the differing historical periods approached in the books.

Davis begins by declaring that advertising works not by making us purchase particular products, but rather by making us purchase per se: advertising constructs us as consumers. This is important insofar as it relates to women (for it is women, as Davis makes clear, who are targeted as “primary consumers”), and Davis’s book is structured around the notion of the woman as vehicle. The vehicle is the person (woman) in an ad who displays or endorses the product being advertised. One cannot, for example, ever see or smell the performance of a perfume via an advertisement, but one may be attracted to a beautifully constructed female face which, by association, assures the consumer that this is indeed a perfume of the highest order.

What occurs therefore is that the importance of the vehicle — that beautiful face — overrides the importance of the product itself. One must therefore query precisely what it is that is being sold. It would appear that what is being sold is less a product than a way of being, a way of looking, a way of acting, a way of conducting oneself as a woman. And it is precisely these ways of constructing and performing the self in the light of advertising that form the ultimate focus of Davis’s book.

Indeed, Davis highlights the double-edged sword that advertising wields: on the one hand, an ad convinces us that we have flaws, that we are living our lives in the wrong manner, that we’re not living up to our potential, and so on, while on the other hand, an ad also demonstrates the way that we can put a positive spin on these flawed aspects of our existence — that is, by purchasing the product that is being advertised. Therefore, advertising is a game of hiding and revealing: One must hide one’s flaws, but one must also display one’s newly purchased charms. Of course, this advertising game of hiding-revealing cannot be restricted to women, but there is little question that the burden of absorbing this consumed self was aimed at women in the first...

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