Strange day yesterday, as two icons of the tail end of the baby-boomer generation died: Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson. In some ways, one could say, two sides of the same iconic coin…. Farrah Fawcett, pinup popular, unwittingly made my life a trial as there was simply no way to even begin to compare to what seemed like a dizzying abundance of feminine buxom blondeness that kept my teenage brother and his friends on edge and weak at the knees. As he was endowed with limitless high school popularity – girls called him up, for goodness sake – it was with some satisfaction that I recognized that you-can’t-catch-me glint tempering Farrah’s otherwise come-hither look. But based on my experience, I would say she had as strong and lasting an effect on women as on men as she epitomized the desired and the desirable In 1976 she set the bar high, impossibly so for those of us with a leaning towards “pale and interesting” rather than “blonde and beachy”: but no, this, this is what boys want.
And what were we girls left with? Michael Jackson. Though it wasn’t until 1982 and Thriller that he reappeared on suburban horizons (you were in a cultural coma if “I’ll be There” passed you by in 1972). But hmmm, this was a much trickier set of ideas. Girls could hardly exact revenge on the Farrah Fawcett boy brigade with Michael Jackson: he was about as sexy as Donny Osmond and just about as definable. He wasn’t threatening to men with barely restrained masculinity, nor was he heartthrob material for most girls I knew. Was he an icon to the gay community? Except for emulating his moonwalk, he didn’t seem to be role model material for young boys in the way Farrah Fawcett was for young women, grudgingly or otherwise. But then again, despite a notably darker, suggestive look nothing to do with FF’s overbubbling vitality, he didn’t seem to attract gay male iconisation either. And as far as I know, he didn’t have the Liza Minelli effect on lesbians either.
Record-breaking sales worldwide attest to Michael Jackson’s career as a pop artist while posters adorning 12,000,000 bedroom walls – or ceilings, in my brother’s case – also are proof that a key nerve had been, uh, touched by Farrah Fawcett. But interestingly, while Farrah Fawcett spent her remaining career trying to lie to rest (sorry!) the pinup popularity, and usefully refocusing attention on the physical abuse of women – that repugnant battering of beauty – Michael Jackson seemed in prickly fashion to repudiate any group that might have claimed him as their own: blacks by visually rejecting his own identity; gays by touting a stage-managed farce with Marie Presley way after it was safe to come out; straights and gays and parents and children by coming under the suspicion of child molestation; and just about anybody with an annual financial budget less than Sheik Abdullah, son of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain where Jackson lived for the last years, for threatening to be just another bad loan for Bank of America. Neverland on the never-never.
So what was it? Did boys at home feel the need to reaffirm themselves and their desires more at that key moment, anticipating that the gender-blending, role-reversing struggle for women’s rights would have many men left-footed? If so, then Farrah Fawcett must have been the healthiest balm in Gilead going for many a love-sick boy struggling to find his way across wholly new territory in the late 70s, early 80s. I no longer begrudge them – and, well, I finally embraced my blonde Floridian roots, too. And did Michael Jackson’s anodyne metromix-before-its-time, what a friend described as “a parody of sexuality as to be nearly obscene- like those child beauty contestants parading around in makeup and miniature cocktail dresses, singing words and miming behaviour that they don't really understand”, somehow provide a suddenly danceable, almost easily listenable antidote to the gun-blazing, tough-striding John Wayne image that had been until then the US’s more common currency abroad? Did he offer a welcome flipside to the Reagan-Bush dirge that began playing right around the same time? If so, then perhaps Michael Jackson did his bit, too.
Or perhaps more importantly, to those of us who are living through women's lib and gay rights and AIDS epidemics and 9/11 and post-9/11 these events are only relevant as the death of a woman, a former beauty icon, of cancer at 62… in a nation still lacking a health system, but with enough money to wage an ongoing and outrageously costly “war on terror”, an enemy with no face at all. And the death of a man, consumed by his own image.
P.S. I wanted to add images, of course, of both MJ and FF, but the copyright law around it is sooooo complicated, that I, with my lowly PhD can't figure it out. More about copyright, lovely copyright, later.