Book Review: Box Girl by Lillibet Snellings
Lillibet Snellings once had a job as unique as her name: for three years in a West Hollywood hotel lobby, she was one of the scantily clad women who lounged in a transparent box for four to seven hours as eye candy. ‘Lounge’ is actually misleading, since all the positions caused discomfort (she provides a hilarious description of the many options, such as the Nutcracker, which was devised to mask the fact that she was menstruating). The project, which began in 1998, is billed as an art installation, and within the box, the Box Girl is surrounded by installations that change monthly, such as pesky paper airplanes that fly into her face, thanks to a fan.
Snellings recounts her experiences in Box Girl: My Part-time Job as an Art Installation (2014, Soft Skull Press). Some chapters are as short as a single sentence, and they appear out of chronological order, making it what she calls a hybrid of sorts. Her interview for the Standard Hotel, for instance, occurs half-way through the book. She makes quite a few diversions from the act of being in the box, and though it seems like stream of consciousness, she consistently brings the content back to being a girl on display.
People’s reactions run the gamut, but the most startling to the author is a man asking if she is for sale. Experiences like these lead to feminist commentary broaching serious subject matter—such as comparisons to Hooters, a Playboy Club, and Amsterdam’s Red Light District—but never at the expense of her lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek writing style. When she inquires about the background of the box, she learns that it is a man who is responsible for the Standard Hotel’s design concepts. She quips, “Of course he is a man. This manufactured reality could only be hatched from the head of a man. Men like to think that women lie around on their living room floors wearing itty-bitty white shorts and tiny white tank tops, always looking pretty, never making a mess” (p. 81). That is the extent of the rant. Her biography brings the theory of art historian/author John Berger to life without dwelling on theory, which makes the book great leisure reading. Although she touches on feminism throughout, she doesn’t take a firm stand. To her question, “Am I a piece of art or a piece of ass?” (p. 220), she concludes maybe neither, or maybe both. What matters to her is that she feels empowered.
In this coming of age tale, Snellings describes her transition from English graduate to the real world, cobbling together internships and freelancing in her field with a variety of LA-type jobs like part-time model and actor. Even though she moved across the country from Connecticut with friends and is essentially on her own, her attachment to her family is undeniable. Her parents, who are bewildered by her hotel gig, are polar opposites and even when she writes about them with frustration, her underlying love is clear.
In spite of brushes with fame that come with the territory, Snellings’ focus is on her many foibles. She writes with the flare of Helen Fielding, she of Bridget Jones fame, though with more introspection. From crying in the box on Valentine’s Day, to getting an asymmetrical mullet in a hair show, to having a photo of herself rejected from a magazine featuring a spread on ‘real people,’ she channels Jones’ goofiness and bad luck. Also reminiscent of Fielding’s protagonist is her love of wine and her obsession with her weight (case in point: she beams when an onlooker questions whether or not she is real, since mannequins do not have cellulite). Snellings’ self-deprecation would be more convincing if her bio photo didn’t reveal that by all accounts, she is beautiful. To her credit, Snellings reveals that it’s all relative, living as she does in the capital of models and celebrities.
Interspersed with the ‘OMG, I can’t believe this is my life’ track are astute observations about culture. For instance, Snellings draws parallels between the voyeurism and artifice of the Box Girls and 2.0 culture. And the few art references she includes are spot on, like connecting Manet’s Olympia to the fact that eye contact is verboten for Box Girls, or seeing Box Girls as performance artists in the spirit of Marina Abramovic. There are witticisms throughout, but blink and you could miss them, because she doesn’t draw them out, instead maximizing punchiness. I can’t shake the feeling that the sparing revelation of her intellect combined with her comical self-deprecation reflects the message women have been given historically: that they shouldn’t appear too smart. Nonetheless, Box Girl: My Part-time Job as an Art Installation is highly recommended.
Cover courtesy of Soft Skull Press.