Ennui is Enough: The Art of Feigned Disaffection
by Stefan Smith — University of Southern California
April 13, 2011 – 00:00
In the Renaissance world, much like on the streets of New York or LA, fashion was always in a state of flux. For the eighteenth-century French aristocracy, nothing was more vogue than the cultivated personality affect known as ennui.
It’s outward manifestation was quite obviously dependent on individual tastes (for instance, the Marquis de Sage blamed ennui for his “deviant” sexual practices), it most notably took the form of feigned disinterest. While farthingales, powders, and perfumes could be worn by the masses, ennui was worn as a visible, gestural nod to elite satiety. In the opening scenes of 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons, the film adaptation of de Laclos’ 1782 Les Liaisons Dangereuses, you can see Glenn Close personify this mentalite. While her servants powder her neck or attach her farthingale, she actively ignores them. Ennui, more than anything literally fashioned on the body, provided protection against plebian attention; attention which migh turn against them.
The same disaffected stance exists today. Paparazzi shots of Gossip Girl star Taylor Momsen, Twilight’s Kristin Stewart, or aged British model Kate Moss illustrate the character of 21st Century ennui. Their carefully cultivated disinterest in the world around them exists, much as it did for the French aristocracy, as a barrier separating their private selves from the prying eyes of today’s tabloid culture. Their successful façade bores an audience too used to the rapid celebrity implosions of Britney Spears, Amy WInehouse, or Michael Jackson to wait around for their mask to slip. The result is their slow rescission from the front pages of US Weekly and PerezHilton, while audiences feast on other, more interesting, fares.
Today’s ennui has no greater success story than Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. With their oversized Chanel sunglasses, ever present Starbucks coffee, and slouched demeanor, the twins photograph less like billionaires and more like homeless bag ladies – which is precisely the point. While Lindsay Lohan shoplifts for attention and Charlie Sheen keeps #winning, the Olsens’ strategy of feigned disinterest and Venti lattes simply isn’t news worthy. And while I appreciate the reasons behind the posture, I can’t help but wonder what happens next.
Your fans have may have made them rich, but what happens if/when they achieve anonymity after two decades of ennui. What lies behind their disinterest, and is it enough to justify their behavior? Moreover, what justifies the girls and boys who emulate their stance?