Up until now, you will find no men in sight in Marianna Rothen's body of work. In her new series Mail Order, there are now three characters at play: Marianna the model, Marianna the photographer, and a man in the form of a mannequin.
Moving away from her femme fatale, Marianna now deconstructs another archetype in Classic American cinema: the sex symbol. Marianna here is dressed and made up in such a way it took after Classic Hollywood actresses namely Barbara Starwyck, Jane Russell, Anna Nicole, and Marilyn Monroe. Like Monroe, Rothen told us, her image has been repeatedly objectified. Rothen was set on turning the tables:
“For years I always had this photograph pinned to my wall of Marilyn surrounded by a group of men. It was from the set of her last film the Misfits and she appeared to be crying, no one seemed to be comforting her. I noticed how some of the men were cropped out of the photo and they looked like her props or accessories. The more I looked at photos of Marilyn, I kept seeing the men as stand-ins. I asked myself if one of the most objectified types of women was capable of flipping the narrative.”
There are many ways her photographs can be interpreted. The images are set in romanticized environments that are often portrayed by couples in the movies. At first glance, the woman seems to be submitting to herself to her man. But the existence of the male figure here as a mannequin severely changes meanings and interpretations. For one, the implication that the man in the picture may actually just be a figment of the woman's imagination, leading to issues as to how patriarchy has also invaded women's consciousness – that happiness may be found with her man and her relationship. There's also the loss of the male gaze in Mail Order, and yet the stereotype pervades and exists. Perhaps, women have also been conditioned to believe in such fantasy. Rothen said:
“Their love is a fabricated love. And I am not certain they share anything given that he is a near fragment of her imagination. And maybe that's another point or meaning in the series. It makes you wonder how much love is projection and how much is real. People are so used to these roles and playing them out to perfection.”
The blonde beauty has always been present in Marianna's work, but this time, she's taking another role and with another co-star. Why a mannequin?, we asked Rothen. There's actually something worth looking into as to how Rothen chose the woman's co-model. Rothen told us she originally planned to use real men with looks that fall into the masculine stereotype, the ones that American movies portray.
However, the idea of having different men coming to her own house for such an intimate project was a rather uncomfortable one, so Rothen went for mannequins. Rothen told us that her spectators have mostly overlooked that the male model is, in fact, a doll – implying that we've already seen this kind of set-up before, making us miss out the details in consequence. Writer Charlotte Jansen wrote in her mini-essay Products of Patriarchy in Rothen's book that these characters in the pictures are fake, including Rothen's:
“Though Rothen’s character is alive, she is also overtly fake; her gender is as much a performance as theirs. The crucial difference is they are not human – Rothen, as the photographer, and Rothen, as the model, wields no actual power over these male dolls, no actual men are exploited for her play. She suggests what it is like to be a woman who is looked at by men and who is powerless; whose identity is puppeteered by the patriarchy. The dolls start to become ridiculous, risible. They have no depth, no story – like so many of the female leads in Hollywood films. As a former fashion model herself, Rothen’s own experience in front of the camera also shapes the way she inhabits and examines this position.”
It is as if Rothen has put her former self as a fashion model in the spotlight, but at the same time, she is now the person behind the camera, witnessing how the rest of this performance between man and woman goes.