A Perfume of One's Own

This spring, Joan Didion became the new face of the French luxury brand Céline, and the fashion blogosphere dissolved into a lilac-scented pleasure cloud. Céline dressed Didion in black; maxi-skirt wearing girls from Tumblr domains far and wide re-blogged the writer’s LA packing list. Before the literary world could cry “commercialization,” the fashion world cried, “She worked at Vogue!”

Even outside of the oversized-clutch toting demographic, commentators praised the ads, lauding the fashion industry for its newfound respect for brains and beauty. The purveyors of all things hot-or-not had finally given smart women their scented seal of approval—what a victory for feminism. Never mind her National Book Award. Didion finally made it when they stamped her face on the back of a $1200 leather jacket.

With a spritz of eau-de-Didion, Phoebe Philo did to Didion what popular culture has done to women writers for years: She made her pretty. I first read Emily Dickinson in a blue picture book; on the cover the branches of a white-blossomed tree folded into the shape of a heart, a white dove nesting in its tip. “Pink, small and punctual” appeared on page two; “Wild Nights” was nowhere to be found. Children’s publishers sell fake gold lockets with Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. You’ll find Austen quoted in as many works of Tumblr-ism as criticism. Harvard calls its only undergraduate course centered entirely on the novelist “From Jane Austen to Chick-lit.”

Female writers still carry baggage, and not just the history-of-marginalization kind. They carry 2 skirts, 2 jerseys or leotards, 1 pullover sweater, stockings, face cream, and the rest. For marketing purposes, it helps to be pretty—or at least, to wear fashionable sunglasses, to write works whose titles might be written in cursive over curly-haired silhouettes on pink hardcovers. It helps to accessorize.

Austin Dickinson once recommended that his sister write more simply. “I’ll be as simple as you please, the simplest sort of simple,” she promised him in a letter. “I’ll be a little ninny—a little pussy catty, a little Red Riding Hood. I’ll wear a Bee in my Bonnet, and a Rose bud in my hair.” 46 years later, Lawrence Knowles featured a drawing of Dickinson alongside a selection of her poetry in The Golden Treasure of American Songs and Lyrics. The white-dressed poet lounges under a tree, a rose bud in her hair.

That image of Dickinson would persist—even as scholars restored her original manuscripts, wrote about her bisexuality, and attempted to compensate for the gender bias with which her works had been read for years. In 1976, just a few years before R.W. Franklin reprinted Dickinson’s original fasci- cles, PBS produced a television version of the play The Belle of Amherst. In the first scene, Julie Harris, white-dress clad, carried a cake on screen—made from Dickinson’s own recipe.

The next day, The New York Times printed an article titled “The Poet’s Black Cake,” alongside a portrait in which an aproned Dickinson, rendered as a tight-smiled housewife, holds out her Bundt. The piece concludes with a quote from Harris, who, asked what she’d say to Dickinson if she had the chance, replies: “I’d ask her to show me how she made her rye and Indian bread.” If the seventies had Tumblr, the quote would have been typed up in Edwardian script and re-blogged next to a picture of Miss Emily in the kitchen.

Lest you think it’s just the silly seventies, visit any bookstore to purchase titles like A Brighter Garden and Emily, each featuring some variation of the pastel watercolor flowerbed, the pretty white-dressed girl smiling over her roses. Never mind that Dickinson’s poems about death and sex breach typical garden party etiquette. We need only smooth out Emily’s punctuation, cut her erotic odes, and paint a few pink hearts in the margin. (The Poetry for Young People edition counts nineteen.)

We infantilize rather than analyze. After all, it’s easier to assess Austen’s contribution to rom-coms than to consciousness, less threatening to transcribe Didion’s packing list than her psychoanalytic profile, more polite to talk about Dickinson’s spring days than her wild nights. We make writers “women writers,” and then we make them girls.

Male poets can be marketed toward children, too. Poetry for Young People also sells a hardcover Robert Frost Collection. It opens with a three-page account of his life and includes commentary on each of his poems. The biographical information in the Dickinson edition contains only brief mentions of the poet’s childhood, telling us, “Emily was much like other girls.” Then, of course, come the hearts.

And you’ll find no Robert Frost paper dolls. No Fitzgerald novels sold with lockets. No black-bearded silhouettes of Hemingway against any colored background. Male writers don’t need the add-ons. Their work, popular culture tells us, needs no accessories to sell.

Sometimes, the accessories don’t need the women writers. Etsy.com sells a collection of Pride and Prejudice purses: hardcovers with pages removed, lined with pink cloth, featuring beaded handles. Nine by six inches, the reviews promise, roomy enough for your lipstick and perfume. (Does one who totes an Austen purse spritz herself with Didion, or do novels and nonfiction clash?). Not quite wide enough for a book.

The Ce?line campaign might be one small step forward for the fashion industry, but it’s a giant slap in Didion’s sunglassed-face. Didion, who spoke sardonically in a 1977 Paris Review interview about the “fragility of Joan Didion myth,” has always been hyperaware of the attention given to her physical appearance in popular culture. Then, she claimed that she dealt with stereotypes about women writers by “just tending my own garden.” Today, the 80-year-old icon who consented to Ce?line’s campaign seems to have retired to the rosebeds. When the New York Times asked the face behind the glasses why she thought the campaign made such a sensation, she only said, “I don’t have any clue.”

Like the owner of hollowed-out Austen novels, the Ce?line consumer (though she might consider her brand more tasteful) has no need for the writer’s prose. Under the guise of a “literary aesthetic,” she claims the female writer without her work, without her complications, without her strangeness. Didion, leather-jacket edition: the simplest sort of simple.

A feminist victory? I’ll believe it when Calvin Klein features Norman Mailer in a denim campaign. I’ll believe it when I see those $1200 jeans, Mailer’s face grinning on the left ass cheek.