In The Box: Normal Appearances

Chris Stults

Thu, May 02, 2019

“A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually . . . One might simplify this by saying: Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”—John Berger, Ways of Seeing (1972)

Every new TV season brings us the eternal return of the reality series The Bachelor or one of its spinoffs, from The Bachelorette to Bachelor in Paradise. Regardless of which season or variation of the show, you can count on it to provide a satisfyingly sickening stream of toothsome smiles, figure-hugging outfits, champagne, grottos, and roses. But, above all, the show aims to create an alternate universe of uncanny-valley-level glamor and drama, turning the human participants into caricatures. (For a sharp take on the way reality show participants are portrayed, check out the “Basement Affair” episode of the Decoder Ring podcast.)

However, glimpses of the Bachelor contestants’ awkward humanity shine through the cracks of the caked-on gloss. Penny Lane’s video Normal Appearances pulls out these moments from the show’s seamless narrative flow and creates a revealing montage. Bra-strap adjusting, swimsuit-bottom tugging, and hair fidgeting are all caught on tape, which Lane emphasizes by removing the show’s original soundtrack. In its place is a soundtrack (created by Lane and the Wexner Center’s Paul Hill in our Film/Video Studio during a 2017 residency) of Foley sound effects highlighting this facet of the onscreen action.

This effect relocates the Bachelor universe to a realm of nonstop self-consciousness. The women’s uncomfortable outfits alternate between pageant-like ornateness and ridiculous styling according to show’s requirements, which don’t often overlap with the needs of being a person navigating those spaces (high heels on the beach?!). These moments cut through whatever narrative the show is trying to tell and finds some authenticity, presenting the self-awareness not just of being a subject under the camera’s constant gaze, but also of just being a woman in the world. 

Lane has called Normal Appearances an “ambiguous fan video” to indicate that it takes a more critical stance than most fan videos. But the word ambiguous also works perfectly to describe the state of mind of the women featured in these clips. Solely through the orchestration of gestures, Normal Appearances captures the ambiguous existence of these (and perhaps all) women as their desire to be looked at falls apart and a self-conscious desire to disappear comes to the fore. Somehow, through careful viewing, astute editing, and delirious sound effects, the artificially enhanced vision of hetero-femininity in The Bachelor can subversively convey the discomforts of being a woman in the world.

—Chris Stults
Associate Curator, Film/Video 

Penny Lane (b. Lynn, MA, 1975) is an award-winning nonfiction filmmaker who was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film” and a Chicken & Egg Breakthrough Award winner. Her most recent feature-length documentary, Hail Satan? (2019), debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and is screening at the Wexner Center on May 10–11, with Lane in attendance. She has received grants from the Sundance Institute, Creative Capital, Cinereach, and the Puffin Foundation. She was named “Most Badass!” at the Iowa City Documentary Film Festival in 2009. She received her MFA in integrated electronic arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and her BA in American culture and media studies at Vassar College. She has taught film, video, and new media art at Colgate University, Bard College, Hampshire College, and Williams College. And, yes, Penny Lane is her real name.

Image: Normal Appearances, courtesy of the artist.