I get regular updates on Jennifer Lopez in my email because I’ve been writing about her as an actor and star/celebrity. What is very clear from the daily coverage is the level of scrutiny and speculation she, her partner, and family lives with which she navigates through carefully curated media appearances and regular updates on Instagram. In my forthcoming book I discuss Bordertown (Gregory Nava, 2006) starring Lopez as the investigative journalist, Lauren. It is a film that addresses the disappearance, assaults and murders of women in Juarez. Part of my discussion is focused on how the film tries to explore how women’s bodies have been considered disposable and consumable. Woven into this is Lopez’s star text and the ways her body is fashioned in the film. This is informed by an understanding of her star persona.
Much is made in the popular press and fashion magazines about Lopez’s curvaceous figure. There is considerable emphasis, in particular, on the roundness of her buttocks. Great work has been carried out by Molina Guzmán and Valdivia (2004) and Mendible (2007) on the history and meaning of such treatment of the Latina body. Specifically, Lopez’s physique has had an appeal for the largely white press who have praised her body for characteristics most usually associated with the black body. The focus on her buttocks was a predecessor to what is written about Kim Kardashian and the ways her white black body is read (Sastre 2014). Therefore, Lopez, like Kardashian, has considerable agency in the performances of her self, but is also imbricated in a long history of the othering of non-white bodies.
From the early days of her fame, Jennifer Lopez has asserted considerable power over her star persona. She plays up to the attention given to her curves. For example, the clothing she wears at many events knowingly not only emphasized these, but so too have her poses. Her clothing at these events is about asserting a glamorous persona as well as providing a brief shorthand of her cultural capital and identity.
Film star texts often map on to their public persona. Where constant attention is given to women’s bodies in gossip magazines, tabloid newspapers, and online spaces, Lopez and her publicity team use these means of communication in deliberate ways Her regular posts on Instagram attest to this. As well as her carefully curated social media accounts, to get a full understanding of the star text of Lopez, there are a multitude of images to consider including, the photographs that are taken at official events (album launches, film screenings) in which the star and their publicist are complicit and have a great deal of power, as well as the photograph taken while the celebrity (I’m using this term in its broadest definition here) is papped, that is photographed unawares whilst on holidays, at private events, or going about their daily lives in public spaces (streets, restaurants, beaches, etc). For example, the fashion magazine, Grazia, under the caption declaring: “It’s the Return of J-Lo! Jennifer Lopez Brings Her Best Asset Back to the Red Carpet”, the article asks: “So is La Lopez on a raunchy red carpet rampage to prove her ex-husband(s) that she’s still got what it takes? Is this her way of proving to the world that she’s just as bootilicious as ever” (Dijkstra 2013). There is an obvious allusion to her buttocks in using the words, ‘asset’ and ‘bootilicious’, and through the accompanying image of her now infamous over the shoulder pose. Whilst, she still poses looking over her shoulder to emphasise her rear (MTV awards 2019), there have been changes in the focus from her bottom to her carefully sculpted physique as she enters her fifth decade.
As a way into understanding the evolution of her star text, a look at a recent Vogue magazine compilation of 22 photographs spanning from her 1997 appearance as Selena up to the 2017 Macy’s fourth of July fireworks show reveals that only three emphasise her buttocks. Two are shot from the rear: a red-carpet outfit that is both figure hugging and designed to emphasise her waist and buttocks, and the other is a concert costume that includes a short silver top and miniskirt. The third is shot from the side. She is wearing a skin-tight dress with revealing transparent material and ornate embroidery. The rest of the outfits emphasise different parts of her body: high slits at the front to show off her thighs, low cut or peephole elements to draw attention to her breasts, or belly tops to draw the focus to her abdomen. The repeated press emphasis on her buttocks are, clearly, a question of race. Her physiognomy is often read as an integral feature of her Latinness, which is very much part of her star text as a singer, while in her acting career she has often mixed acting as Latina and Anglo characters.
Vogue is a high status fashion and beauty magazine that acts as an arbiter of taste. The specific selection they have made in this series of photographs is an indicator of value ascribed by the magazine to Lopez’s clothing and style. It is an instance of fashion as translation, as described by Patrizia Calefato, where “fashion is a system that goes beyond the mere dimension of an individual’s dressing habits: it is ‘costume’, in other words a social institution that regulates and reproduces the clothed body” (2010, 345). She proposes the term “cultural translation” to describe when “a subordinate culture [is] being forcedly transferred into a dominant culture and in the sense of a space of interaction” (2010, 345). Within this system, Vogue is a powerful actor in that their approval of her translation is significant to star status, and so too is Lopez in choosing clothing that simultaneously communicates her alterity and attains that approval. In Bordertown fashion is used to indicate shifts and changes in Lauren from Anglo to Latina as a form of gradual assimilation and translation for the Anglo viewer. The display and concealment of her body is integral to her character’s development.
Calefato, Patrizia (2010) “Fashion as Cultural Translation: Knowledge, Constrictions and Transgressions on/of the Female Body”, Social Semiotics 20.4: 343-355.
Dijkstra, Maaike (2013) “It’s the Return of J-Lo: Jennifer Lopez Brings her Best Assest Back to the Red Carpet”, Grazia, 25 January. http://www.graziadaily.co.uk/fashion/news/its-the-return-of-j-lo-jennifer-lopez-brings-her-best-asset-back-to-the-red-carpet
Mendible, Myra (2007) From Bananas to Buttocks: The Latina Body in Popular Film and Culture Austin: University of Texas Press.
Molina Guzmán, Isabel and Angharad Valdivia (2004) “Brain, Brow, and Booty: Latina Iconicity in U.S. Popular Culture”, The Communication Review, 7: 205-221.
Sastre, Alexandra (2014) “Hottentot in the Age of Reality TV: Sexuality, Race, and Kim Kardashian’s Visible Body”, Celebrity Studies, 5:1-2, 123-137, DOI:10.1080/19392397.2013.810838