Heads You Lose

The other night at dusk in my Cobble Hill neighborhood, the window display of the clothing store Barneys on Atlantic Avenue glowed with an eerie light, and the women mannequins had a special ghostly touch. Of course, they sported lovely, elegant clothes, but atop their spectrally white bodies instead of heads were weird, elongated points. Not just missing heads, but points vaguely reminiscent of overturned flowerpots stretched to conical shapes, or, if you were thinking anything human, an elongated pinhead (an offensive term, I realize – microcephalopod is the scientific word), but more like pointheads. It was creepy, a sci-fi image from some B-movie climax where an army of pointheads moves forward inexorably toward a paralyzed protagonist, chanting something awful you’ll never be able to forget.

All this took place in a split second, of course, since there’s no form of commercial advertising, however weird, that isn’t instantly assimilable under the bland category “marketing.” “Okay, sci-fi theme,” I half-consciously half-thought. “Normal, typical – wait, what?” In the same window display, I caught sight of a male mannequin’s fully modeled head. And peering into the windows I kept seeing more male mannequins with heads and more female mannequins with points. Not a single female model had a head; not one male model had a point. I went inside the store and looked around – it held true for every mannequin in the store.

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By this time, I was creeped out beyond any pop cultural echoes. The women were presented as bodies with distorted heads in which no human organ, or thought, could be imagined to reside – the clothes draped on their delicate bodies were clearly the whole point. The men, on the other hand, were modeled as full human beings who happened to be wearing clothes.

Because of events earlier this year, the idea that women are too often projected as less than fully human was immediately reactivated in my mind. The tragic shooting in Isla Vista this past May was a reminder that for some men, women are seen mainly as either tempting or infuriating targets. The #YesAllWomen meme on Twitter became a repository of women’s experience of this dynamic – feeling threatened, actually having been attacked, feeling vulnerable just because of anatomy. #YesAllWomen might suggest that anatomy is destiny, the Freudian theory that feminists strenuously challenged in the 1970s. This continues to be fraught territory, with women feeling targeted, rape statistics proving the feeling is justified, and well-meaning men feeling they’re either a) unfairly lumped with the violent few who mean women harm and b) criticized almost whenever they open their mouths because of long-simmering tensions and resentment.

In association with the volatile discussions that flared in response to the Isla Vista shooting, which dovetailed into discussions of ways women are targets of abuse for being visible, articulate voices online, the ghostly distortions of the women mannequins at Barneys had a dismal resonance. I wouldn’t have blinked if the men had been similarly modeled. Then it would have been a themed distortion, not a gendered one. But no young boy, or young girl, or sentient being, should be exposed to versions of women that diminish their full humanness like these Barneys models.

For a boy, the idea that women may not exist in full dimensionality can lead to the kind of anger experienced by Elliot Rodger, the Isla Vista shooter. He thought women were personally snubbing him, probably because he’d never learned to see them as human beings with their own humanity, their own vulnerabilities. With images like the ones in Barney’s windows, would he have been any further encouraged to approach one, or would he have found it easier to load up his guns and head out with his deadly mission?

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