June 27, 2002, Episode Eight:   Makeovers

Canadian-born sociologist, Erving Goffman, examined the ways in which we manage the impressions we make upon each other in his now-classic book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, first published in 1956. While Goffman did not directly address the ways in which the body is adorned in order to make an impression, he did touch upon the body as that part of the self, which is engaged in creating an impression, in managing the reactions of others to one's self: "There will be a back region with its tools for shaping the body, and a front region with its fixed props. … The self is a product of all of these arrangements, and in all of its parts bears the marks of this genesis." One such social establishment that acts a back region for many in their impression management is the hair salon. The old slogan, "only your hairdresser knows for sure" suggests the secret-keeping region that Goffman describes in his book. We spoke with David, owner and operator of David Scizzorhandz about hair, salons and helping people create the impressions they want to make on others. To cut is short, we got sociological about hair.

The movie The Associate takes makeovers to the extreme when Whoopi Goldberg turns herself into a white male in order to get ahead on Wall Street.  This comedy of the absurd is a meditation on how assigned roles of race and gender interact with acquired roles of education and work identities to either support or work against our goals in our interactions with others.  Negotiating these complex role conflicts involves impression management, sometimes to the extreme measures of pretending to be something we are not.  To pull off these impressions we need props and confidants.  There is a materialistic aspect of image making. [Full transcript below.]

Image management is a specific part of the impression management that we engage in our everyday lives.  This is true even when the image we want to create is a presentation of our "true selves."  We consider some of the different aspects of image management, including the question how does a punker manage the impression that he doesn't care what impression he makes.


Ever since Shakespeare had Polonius utter the words: Quote, To thine own self be true, close quote. Westerners have held the idea of being oneself, or being one's true self, as a moral imperative. Yet, most of us present a multitude of selves to other people depending upon the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Erving Goffman opens his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life with a quote from George Santayana:

Quote, Masks are arrested expressions and admirable echoes of feeling, at once faithful, discreet, and superlative. Living things in contact with the air must acquire a cuticle, and it is not urged against cuticles that they are not hearts; yet some philosophers seem to be angry with images for not being things, and with words for not being feelings, close quote.

Goffman makes the case that all of us insulate our inner selves by presenting a cuticle, an outer layer to the world.


In the movie The Associate, Whoopi Goldberg plays Laurel Ayers, an African American investment manager who has moved up rapidly in a Wall Street firm only to whack right into the glass ceiling. She becomes aware of the ceiling when her protégé Frank is promoted to vice president and became her boss. Being resourceful and otherwise good at what she does, she quits the firm and opens her own investment company. She finds the old boy network to be just as intractable under her new circumstances. She is about to lose her inheritance when she acquiesces to the social pressure and invents an alter ego: an older white male named Robert Cutty. By presenting her ideas as if they came from her partner Cutty, she manages for a while to keep the firm afloat while making Cutty mysterious and elusive. But again she acquiesces to pressure, this time in the form of an SEC inquiry, and becomes Cutty in the flesh and must maintain the façade by passing as a white male. On the surface, this is the theatre of the absurd, a farce that digs deeper and deeper into a hole that everyone knows she cannot help but fall through.

But the movie relies upon a long history of racism and sexism and an intricate understanding of the social construction of each. Skin colour is often presented as being in distinct categories, with clear delineations of who is quote, black, close quote and who is quote, white, close quote. However, skin comes in a wide variety of shades along a continuum of dark to light, and who gets designated as black or white is more dependent upon social constructions than actual skin colour.

Russell, Wilson and Hall point out in their book The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color among African Americans that many of the black leaders from the 19th and 20th centuries were light-skinned. Examining W.E.B. DuBois's quote, talented tenth, close quote, they found that most of the names on the list were of mixed heritage, many of them being able to pass for white.


Sociologist F. James Davis, in his book Who is Black?, examines the implications of the, quote, one drop of blood, close quote, construction of Negro heritage which remained a standard in many states on birth certificates well into the 20th century. Walter White, president of the NAACP from 1931 to 1955, was only one-sixty-fourth African heritage by bloodline, but he and his family claimed their African heritage above other cultural heritages and he fought for civil rights for blacks and was part of the black community even though it would have been easy for him and his family to pass as white. The only time Walter White did pass for white was when he investigated lynching practices by observing them firsthand.

Lawrence Otis Graham's daring book Our Kind of People reveals the long history of division amongst African Americans based upon lightness of skin and its corollary, wealth. Light-skinned African Americans have found it easier to amass wealth in racist America, where darkness of skin guarantees proportional stigmatization. After examining extensively the black upper class, he turns in the last chapter to the question of passing into white society. In that chapter, he lists seventeen tips for passing based upon an Atlanta attorney's description of a number of relatives who had passed. Passing is a complete change of identity, which includes divorcing oneself from family, history, and community.

Quote, Think of some manner in which to 'kill yourself off' in the minds of black people you know and your family. If your parents or siblings are willing participants in assisting you, they can say that you now live outside the country, that you have entered a cult or religious order, or even that you have died. Realize that blacks - and not whites - are the ones who can threaten your security as a black person living a lie. Avoid any meaningful interaction with black people, close quote.


Gender is equally socially constructed, relying often on dress, hair and makeup as cues to who is female and who is male. Cross-dressing and other cross-gendered practices crack open the dichotomous assumptions of male/female identities. The presence in the movie of a drag queen underscores the social construction of gender. The movie doesn't back off from the intersection of these socially designated identities. At one point, the main character and her white executive assistant trade notes on who has benefited from affirmative action efforts, with the African American woman announcing to the white woman, quote, Affirmative action wasn't supposed to help you, close quote.

Goffman speaks of "discrepant roles." These are role conflicts that arise from a presentation of self that is not wholly authentic. Part of managing our identities, our multiple selves, involves keeping secrets. These secrets can be kept among a tight, trusted social circle, but no one else. Some of these secrets can be revealed without breaking the illusion of the presented self, but others will undermine the presentation and ruin the presented identity. Goffman suggests that these secrets are kept in a physical space as well as a social space, a kind of backstage where some players are allowed to see how the illusion is made but where the audience is forbidden.


Laurel has to keep the secret of Robert Cutty, at first to herself and then among two chosen friends who help her keep the impression going: her executive assistant, Sally, and a drag queen, Charlie, who lives in her apartment building and helps her with expert practical intervention addressing the nuances of passing. The character Sally fits Goffman's discussion of backstage/frontstage presentations perfectly. [Cutty Story sound clip]

Goffman suggests that within businesses there are keepers of the portal to the backstage, and Sally does this job well even before she is fully aware of the magnitude of Laurel's backstage area. Charlie is invited by degrees to the backstage area. Laurel first turns to him to help her present Laurel to Wall Street bigwigs at a cocktail party. [Anchorwoman sound clip]

Later, when Cutty must be created in the flesh, the drag queen becomes a natural confidant, because he has already participated in some image management and because of his firsthand expertise in passing. Passing requires not only the backstage area but technological knowledge and expertise to create the physicality of the identity. At first, this was only a matter of creating an electronic identity over the web and an office identity through the décor of the space called Cutty's office. Laurel sets up banking accounts, e-mails and identification cards in Cutty's name. She purchases masculine items such as leather chairs, mahogany wood, a box of cigars, and a Rhino head to decorate the office. But as Cutty must be made flesh, she turns to make-up, clothing, gloves and so forth to create the illusion. In other words, she needed materials. The social construction was accompanied by a number of physical symbols that relied upon cultural understandings such as "men hunt" and "men smoke cigars". She was managing symbols and resources to manage the impression of Cutty. [Cutty Creation sound clip]


There were, perhaps, alternatives to creating Robert Cutty. Laurel is an African-American. She is a Catholic. She is a woman. All of these social roles are group memberships with potential resources upon which Laurel could have drawn. The movie does not address this aspect of her social world at all. It comes closest when Laurel first looks for a bank loan to start her firm. [Bank sound clip]

With one word, "touché," Laurel dismisses the possibility of delegitimizing the Wall Street financial world paradigm. A woman's bank, which prioritizes banking practices over women's solidarity, is nothing more than a bank with women playing the patriarchal roles. The movie could have done much more with this aspect of the glass ceiling, but it didn't. There is a suggestion through the ways in which the men do business - at strip joints, at exclusive male clubs, on golf courses, and at fancy restaurants--that the women are left out of the loop by being excluded from backstage places where communication takes place. The strategies to cope with this disadvantage do not rely upon solidarity, however. Instead, one woman announces that "men like doing business with men, but they want to sleep with us and that's our power." Early in the movie, Laurel and a business woman from another firm find themselves uncomfortably watching strippers with their male associates. Instead of finding common ground in their distaste for doing business in such an atmosphere, they discuss breast enhancements as a method of getting ahead on Wall Street. The other woman advises Laurel, "Next time you are at a really important business meeting try showing some cleavage. See what a difference a chest makes."

The movie also does very little in the way of showing any possibility of solidarity between Laurel and any other African-Americans. They are nonexistent in the movie except for the service personnel at the Peabody club. She does nothing to seek them out. She wants to work in the white world and she is fully aware that she will need to hang out with white people in order to do that.


The fact that Laurel is African-American, however, does dominate her character and the storyline. She lives in an apartment building she inherited from her father. The people living in her building are not Wall Street types but struggling working people who may or may not pay the rent on time. One pivotal moment in the movie is when she overhears a conversation regarding an inquiry about the takeover of a major corporation because the diner she frequents is the place they pick to meet where no one on Wall Street would overhear the conversation. She is able to look like a genius (or rather have Cutty look like a genius) because of her knowledge, which she acquired by "accident." More could have been made of this accident, but it simply remains a plot mechanism. However, it does reveal the inequities between the start that she had in life as a working-class African American and those of her white counterparts at the Peabody club. The scene is believable because she is working-class and African-American.

Thus, we are led to believe that the illusion of Robert Cutty is the only avenue available to Laurel to accomplish her goals. Of course, it would have been an entirely different movie if Laurel had actually challenged the paradigms of Wall Street, implicitly or explicitly, and pushed her work in a different direction than just being the best at the existing game. Inevitably, of course, this illusion breaks down because Laurel wants recognition of her "self" by others. Essentially, she is too good at the impression management, and she feels cheated when others do not recognize the woman behind the man. Her proficiency in the backstage leads inevitably to her being upstaged, in the particular case by her own creation.

To relieve this tension, Sally and Laurel decide to kill off Robert Cutty, but his identity has taken on a life of its own. In addition, their attempts draw the suspicion of her old protégé and nemesis, Frank, who guesses that Robert Cutty is nothing but the product of Laurel's ambition and imagination. He upstages her by resurrecting Cutty, in the process sparing her having to face murder charges but diverting Cutty to his own aims.


All of this culminates when the exclusively male, exclusively white Peabody Club names Robert Cutty its man of the year. It becomes the revelatory moment in the movie, consequent to Laurel realizing that coming out, that revealing herself and Cutty to be one and the same, is the only way to rid herself of Cutty and of Frank's influence and be recognized for her true self, although not without costs. Thus her revelation that Cutty is indeed Laurel and Laurel is indeed Cutty is more than a confession, it is a political statement, one which she makes eloquently in the form of Cutty's acceptance speech, in front of the membership of the club and a television audience. She underscores the politics of the exclusively male domain by having Cutty kiss Frank fully on the mouth in front of the membership. This shocking act not only is the first crack in the Cutty façade, it is a blatant statement on the façade the audience is fabricating as well.

The Associate is about what an authentic self is and what it is not. Laurel gets to present her ideas and pitch her schemes to investors as a white man but not as a black woman. She has the acquired roles that her education and financial knowledge afford her through her position in the firm and her subsequent acquisition and management of her own company. But her assigned roles of African-American and Woman get in the way. Ironically, the creation of an alter-ego, in the end allows her to get the recognition she craves. By creating the secret and pulling the wool over the eyes of the members of Peabody club, she cracks their secrets as well. They are a homosexual, racist, sexist old-boy network pretending to be a meritocracy, congratulating each other on their accomplishments. Only by cracking open all the illusions was she able to walk out of the situation with her head held high. [Peabody Speech sound clip]


This, of course, is a Hollywood ending and hardly credible as Laurel has perpetrated a fraud on investors and the legal considerations would not have evaporated as painlessly as the ending implied. In addition, the victory is somewhat shallow. It must end, as it does, with the Peabody members applauding her ruse because she must have their approval in order for Laurel to go on to live happily ever after. She earns their respect, but if one were to think too hard about this respect, one might wonder why she would care to earn the respect of these men. But we are not supposed to think about that. Instead we are supposed to find the ending emotionally satisfying because we are rooting for the authentic person called "Laurel." We want to believe that the roles we choose for ourselves deserve recognition. We hope that like the Emperor's new clothes, racism and sexism will crumble when we rendered them naked. In the meantime, we continue to handle our roles as best we can, presenting our best selves to each other and feeling the discrepancy between who we feel we really are and who we feel we need to be.

copyright by Pattie Thomas and Carl Wilkerson 2002


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