Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Malerie Willens, “Scandalous Women in History” from Sewanee Review, Fall 2018

After being hired as a beauty technician with Rémy at Saks Fifth Avenue, Kim was given a lab coat the color of a pencil eraser, and told she’d be going by “Kendra.” She wore her long auburn hair pulled back, exposing a creamy, freckled complexion and lippy pout. Over the next several months, magnified beneath the department store’s halogens, she would see approximately three thousand faces at various stages of decay. On her first day of work, she learned the merciful cant of the makeup counter:
“Say ‘extracting’ for popping zits and ‘cleaning’ for getting rid of blackheads,” explained Jade, her boss. “Most important: don’t say ‘wrinkle.’ Say ‘fine line.’ And stay positive. If someone’s oily, suggest a product to eliminate shine. ‘Shine’ sounds dewy, not greasy. Watch Dane when he gets here. He’s our star.”

Complete story available online at Sewanee Review

For the second time in a week, I see a story that seems to be a vehicle for something a lot more interesting than the surface plot. In this case, the work adventures of three cosmetics salesclerks at Saks carries an exploration of one of my favorite philosophical/neuroscience topics: the distortion of our perception of reality, sometimes deliberately, sometimes by chance circumstances.

The three main characters are so different from each other, there’s almost a sign saying “Notice this”. There’s our third-person point of view character Kendra, real name Kim, a self-admitted slacker whose mom taught her the nuances of shoplifting. Dane, nee Doug, is in the third stage of being gay, meaning he’s moved past the closet and defiant promiscuity into sitcom cleverness. And Nadia, a brand-new citizen who tells people she’s from Moldova in order to avoid what comes up if she admits she’s from Romania (either gymnastics or Ceaușescu, neither of which she wants to discuss with new acquaintances).

Their job at the cosmetics counter is a combination of soft sell and therapy via lipsticks and face cleansers. I confess to a single round of Clinique skin care way back when, but other than that, I’ve always viewed those department store counters (do they still exist? I haven’t been in a department store in at least a decade) as predatory. Having read this story, I feel justified.

But the story has bigger fish to fry. In fact, it examines one of my favorite topics from the intersection of philosophy and neuroscience: just how good are we at perceiving reality, when so much – particularly choice of language – influences how we respond to what we perceive?

Take just that first paragraph. The boss changes Kim to Kendra; no reason is given, but I’d bet it’s more stylish, a name more women would see as being knowledgeable about current beauty trends. It turns out Dane changed his own name long before taking this job, simply because he didn’t like Douglas and doesn’t like diminutives. Nadia doesn’t change her name, but changes her country of origin. These are all ways of altering how people, particularly customers, respond to them, by changing inputs to perception.

Then there’s the “merciful cant of the makeup counter.” You want people, typically women, to like being there, and they aren’t going to like it long if you tell them they have pimples or wrinkles, so bring on gentler alternatives.

The central action of the story concerns a note left for Kendra by someone unknown:

I am the indentation on the pillow just after you’ve left bed. I’m the bits of hair in your brush, the sheen your thighs leave on the leather seat, the way your boots still suggest your stance even after you’ve taken them off. I’m your glasses once you’ve laid them down, I’m the way they make other people look (like you) when they try them on. I’m the cowlick you comb down, the cleavage you hoist up, the wart that keeps growing back on your thumb. I am uncontrollably you, unstoppably so, and I keep existing and existing: pushing, pulling, staining, straining. You can make your bed, wipe the chair, comb, cup, cradle and coddle and still I keep coming at the world with my you-ness. Lucky world.

Notice there are positive (cleavage), negative (cowlick, wart), and neutral things. It’s a catchy prose poem, maybe a “Song of You-Self”. Overall, it’s positive, since the world is lucky to have you-ness. But it’s not “How do I love thee” nor is it “What’s the frequency Kenneth”. Kendra doesn’t know what to make of it. Is it Dane playing a trick on her (she’s right, it’s the sort of thing he’d do) or does she have a secret admirer or a crazy stalker? She shows a willingness to entertain several possibilities, and devises a strategy to help her narrow down the choices. A game of note-swapping goes on, and each of the three reacts in different ways. Kendra ends up feeling pretty good about it, landing on the “secret admirer” option, using the reactions of the others as a guide. A few days later a second note appears, and she switches to the crazy-stalker option.

[Addendum: Jake Weber makes an interesting observation about the truth value of the note vs its functional value, which sounds a bit like the pragmatism I read about in the William James book a few weeks ago]

In some ways, Kendra acts like a scientist. She sees a phenomenon, forms a hypothesis, tests it, establishes a theory, then alters that theory when new information is available. On the other hand, she’s swayed by the reactions of the other two: when they receive the note, they think it’s from a secret admirer and find it flattering and cheering, so she adopts the same attitude, until she sees something they don’t see.

When a customer suggests Kendra should write a book about her experiences at the makeup counter, she undergoes a similar pattern of going along with another’s enthusiasm. It’s not something she’s ever thought about, but the customer is so excited, even coming up with a title, Kendra gets a little jazzed by the idea, thinking the woman has some experience and connections to facilitate such a project. That fantasy doesn’t last long, and Kendra’s able to let it go when, instead of reaching for a publisher’s contact info, the woman glances at her own messages.

Kendra loses her scientist label, and replaces it with her easily-influenced-by-others label,

When she saw ads for booze in a subway or a magazine, she looked for messages hidden in the liquid. Her friend Pam’s Uncle Frank, a big-shot advertising man, and a bachelor, had taught her to do that. In middle school she and Pam would spend weekends swimming and eating turkey chili in his condo, and he’d dazzle them with the secrets of subliminal advertising, showing them ads for brandy and scotch in Playboy and Penthouse. There were lips and breasts and silhouettes of naked women, barely discernible in the swirling psychedelic liquid. Words like “sex,” “love,” and “yes” were planted there too, transforming the ads into games of Where’s Waldo that still captivated Kendra. Neither she nor Pam ever spotted the words or images on their own. They’d curl up next to Uncle Frank in their bathing suits, coltish and leggy on the leather sectional and breathing in the scent of his cool licorice breath. He’d guide them to the word or image with a flourish. Once Kendra had seen whatever there was to see, she couldn’t believe she’d ever missed it.

Yeah, I read that book back in the 70s, Subliminal Seduction by Wilson Brian Key; it was immensely popular, but so was Chariots of the Gods? and both were solidly debunked. The guy who did the original subliminal experiment in a movie theater and claimed he could alter sales of popcorn and soda later admitted it was a hoax, and most of the images are along the lines of the “Mars face” or the Big Dipper. Every once in a while, subliminal advertising crops up again, but marketers have much more effective ways to make you buy. And, incredibly enough, there’s a MOOC for that..

The story’s title comes from a new makeup line featuring colors named for Delilah, Jezebel, and, god help us, Eva Braun. Sure, calling a line Scandalous Women of History is going to draw a certain cohort, and Delilah and Jezebel were long enough ago to have lost the exact nature of their treachery while retaining the exotic bad-girl image. But come on, who’s going to buy anything named for Eva Braun? (yeah, I know) Dane claims he sold two that day.

The story ends with an older woman preparing for her third date with a more educated man. He’s written her a note referencing Aeschylus, and the woman doesn’t know how to pronounce the name. Kendra does, and I catch myself in my own preconceptions when I’m surprised. Then again, how do I as the reader know she had the correct pronunciation?

One of my favorite bits from the TV series Mad Men sums up much of this story:

Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.

Whether it’s fixing your wrinkles – no, your fine lines – or reacting to an anonymous note or preparing for a date, we all want to hear we’re ok, and we’ll listen to the voice telling us we’re ok even if it doesn’t make any sense. Kendra gets extra points for being a little more skeptical than most. She could have continued to see the anonymous note-sender as a secret admirer in spite of the second note; she could have continued to believe she was being recruited as a writer of a cosmetic counter tell-all (and, to be honest, I think that would be an interesting book). But she accepted new input even when it wasn’t favorable. That’s pretty solid. But I still want to know if she pronounced Aeschylus correctly.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.