Sep 5, 2014

Tammy Faye Bakker performed vulnerability

Tammy Faye Bakker became, for many, the face of cheap religious sentiment. With too much makeup and easy tears, she represented what was gauche about contemporary American Christianity. She represented what was gaudy about religion turned into modern-day mass media entertainment.

Televangelism was in poor taste. And Bakker's makeup became an easy symbol for televangelism.

"To her detractors, Tammy was puerile, her message an uneducated trivialization of Christianity," writes Charles E. Shepherd in Forgiven: The Rise and Fall of Jim Bakker and the PTL Ministry. According to Shepherd,
Tammy's thickening mask of makeup violated the essence of traditional holiness standards . . . The application took fifteen minutes each morning: a heavy coat of beige liquid base, dark V's of contour powder to create cheekbones on her rounded 'chipmunk cheeks,' a thick navy line around her eyes. That was just the start for the eyes. Tammy brushed light shadow on her eyelids, up to the crease. At the crease she drew a half-moon of light shadow extending to her eyebrows. The eyebrows were arched and lengthened. Instead of wearing lots of mascara, she used fake eyelashes, à la Lucille Ball. 'Some people tease me I wear too much makeup,' she told reporter Jody Jaffee. 'But a person has to find a look unique to them.'
In the late '80s and through the '90s, Bakker's unique look was a rich source of ridicule for the disgraced televangelist, and televangelists generally, and conservative Christianity too.

Jay Bakker remembers this.

The son of Jim and the late Tammy Faye, Jay Bakker is now a minister in his own right, though one more likely to quote the philosopher John Caputo than ask for money on TV. He recently gave an interview on comedian Marc Maron's podcast, WTF.

In the interview, Maron asked about the period when Tammy Faye Bakker became "a character of herself."

"It was weird, though, you know," Jay Bakker said:
Like, people would have those 'I ran into Tammy Faye at the mall' t-shirts, which was like the splattered makeup stuff. And she would sign 'em. And she embraced it, man. You know, I always told her, I'm like, 'Mom I think you're so beautiful without makeup.' But, she had -- her self esteem was really low, so she did that but, at the same time, she said, 'I don't care what these people say. Everybody's telling me to take my makeup off. Everybody's telling me to tone down. And I'm not going to do it.' Like most women, when they did Christian stuff, they would take their jewelry stuff off before they went on. My mom kept her jewelry on. You know, she just -- almost in some way, she was somewhat naive, but the beautiful part of that was she actually cared about people.
Maron, whose in-depth interviews have extensively documented the human struggle behind modern show business, notes in the interview that that paradoxical vulnerability made Tammy Faye Bakker a compelling TV presence.

Her makeup was a mask, literally. But that mask exposed her and made her vulnerable.

She offered herself to ridicule, in a way. That's what it means to be vulnerable as publicly and famously as Bakker was. She gave herself to the viewers, exposing her need for them without any assurance of how they would receive her.

People could see themselves in her vulnerability. They could see themselves in her too-raw, too-needy performance, which was a performance of herself and also, uncomfortably, the viewer's own spiritual and not-so-spiritual longings. They could be embarrassed. They could make jokes, some of which would be cruel. They could deny any similarities between their own gauche core and the makeup-smeared tears of televangelist, or get pulled into the catharsis of the overflowing emotionalism, or they could just watch not knowing what to think.

And, perhaps, those responses to Bakker's face could also and would also often be mixed up.

This is how the late film critic Roger Ebert watched Tammy Faye Bakker. Reviewing a documentary in 2000, Ebert wrote:
When Jim and Tammy were on the air in the 1980s, I confess to watching them, not because I was saved, but because I was fascinated. They were like two little puppets themselves--Howdy Doody and Betty Boop made flesh. Tammy Faye cried on nearly every show and sang with the force of a Brenda Lee, and when she'd do her famous version of 'We're Blest,' yes, dear reader, I would sing along with her.
This confusing performance of vulnerability was part of why Bakker became an icon of the camp aesthetic. In her obituary in 2007, the New York Times noted she was embraced as an inspiration by gay men and became "the subject of gender-bending look-alike contests."

Her son choked up when speaking of her death in the podcast interview released this week. Jay Bakker talked about how his parents were, to him, always humans before anything else.

"I don't see them as religious people, you know," he said. "I see them as my parents. You know what I mean? And human beings."

The televangelist's famously horrible makeup covered that humanness up on TV. But it also, paradoxically, exposed it too.