Jezebel vs. Lena Dunham and Vogue, condensed

Note: This is a post about Lena Dunham and her body. And about magazines and body image. Jill just did a post about Lena Dunham and her body, and I have another post coming up soon about magazines and body image, and… sometimes that happens. You’ll survive.

Heard that there was something going on with Jezebel and Vogue magazine and Lena Dunham, and you were quasi-curious but not really curious, or you were semi-demi-curious but not inclined to give Jezebel the clicks? For your reading pleasure: the condensed version.

So Lena Dunham was on the cover of Vogue. Which is cool for her. She got to wear fancy dresses. And the pantheon of Vogue cover models has, in the past, been limited to thin women who are considered extremely fashionable (and usually have a movie about to come out), and Dunham falls outside of that category. Questions can be asked, of course, about the choice to feature a closeup of her face rather than the three-quarter shot common to other cover models, but she’s there, and she even looks like herself.

Unless you’re Jezebel, and you look at the photos on the cover and in the magazine and immediately declare that they’ve been retouched to hell and back. “They always photoshop people, and she’s fat and dumpy, so they must have ‘shopped the hell out of her!” they said (in essence). “That doesn’t look like her at all! She’s not that pretty!” So convinced were they, in fact, that they placed a ten-thousand-dollar bounty on the original, unretouched images so they could prove, once and for all, that her appearance in the magazine was nothing less than an affront to women everywhere. (Note: Link leads to Jezebel. Click at your own risk.)

Within two hours, someone had collected their bounty and provided unretouched photographs proving that Lena Dunham… looks more or less like Lena Dunham. A small measure of retouching had taken place. A few unflattering shadows were removed. In one photo, her waist was smoothed out. In another, her leg was lengthened marginally. All in all, the changes made to her figure were more minor than changes Vogue has made to women with bodies far more “perfect” than Dunham’s.

The thing is, Jezebel had just paid ten thousand dollars for those photos. They’d laid ten grand on a photoshopping scandal that never happened. So instead of sucking it up and backing down gracefully, they doubled down, generating gif after gif with lines pointing to Dunham’s eye bags, chin wrinkle, jawline, bust, hips, neck, Look what Vogue has done! Look at all of these things that are wrong with her that had to be changed to make her acceptable! And then when they found themselves running out of flaws before they ran out of indignation, they started turning on other ‘shopping sins: They composited a photo of her in the subway station! They moved her from a storefront to an intersection! They comped a bird on top of her head! A bird! On her head! What kind of world do we live in where a woman isn’t good enough for Vogue if she doesn’t have a bird on her head?!

First of all: Many of the original, unretouched photos were bad. Not because Dunham is particularly unattractive, but because they were poorly composed and shot. The bathtub shot looks like she was shoved into a dress that didn’t fit her and photographed using available light in an unrenovated 1940s bathroom, making her look baggy and tired, and that’s not how she normally looks. My opinion is that Annie Leibovitz is joining the laurel-resting overrated club with Quentin Tarantino and Mario Testino, and that Photoshopping Lena Dunham wasn’t fitting her into a mold but rescuing her from a photographer who phoned it in.

Second, and more important: Dunham’s actual body wasn’t altered that much in the photos, certainly not to the extent that she personally was displeased with it. After Jezebel’s repeated harping on her shoot, Dunham finally took time out of her tour of Paris to respond via Slate. She said:

I understand that for people there is a contradiction between what I do and being on the cover of Vogue; but frankly I really don’t know what the photoshopping situation is, I can’t look at myself objectively in that way. I know that I felt really like Vogue supported me and wanted to put a depiction of me on the cover. I never felt bullied into anything; I felt really happy because they dressed me and styled me in way that really reflects who I am. And I felt that was very lucky and that all the editors understood my persona, my creativity and who I am. I haven’t been keeping track of all the reactions, but I know some people have been very angry about the cover and that confuses me a little. I don’t understand why, photoshop or no, having a woman who is different than the typical Vogue cover girl, could be a bad thing.

A fashion magazine is like a beautiful fantasy. Vogue isn’t the place that we go to look at realistic women, Vogue is the place that we go to look at beautiful clothes and fancy places and escapism and so I feel like if the story reflects me and I happen to be wearing a beautiful Prada dress and surrounded by beautiful men and dogs, what’s the problem? If they want to see what I really look like go watch the show that I make every single week.

Now, some of that is a little bit idealistic; the fact is, whether or not Vogue is a fantasy or whether we go there to look at realistic women, their continued use of unrealistic depictions does have a negative effect on women’s self-image and on society’s perception of women’s body shapes. However, in this case, the images are of a realistic body. Vogue didn’t carve her into a Hollywood-acceptable size 4 or hide her under voluminous coats; they made her look like a well-rested woman who hadn’t been photographed under harsh bathroom lights.

Remember, though, that Jezebel is still out ten thousand dollars and is in no position to back down gracefully. So they come through with another post, this one explaining why Dunham is wrong to be okay with it.

Yes, having a woman who is different than the typical Vogue cover girl is indeed a good thing. What is not a good thing is when the magazine decides to take that woman and tweak her appearance such that she’s “acceptable” for the cover. It undermines the decision to feature that individual in the first place. Also: “A depiction of me” — depiction. That word choice is telling, and it’s also a problem.

Yes, Vogue is fantasy. But no matter how fantastic the clothes or the setting or the lighting, the people in these images are real — and yet Vogue has to take the reality of a human being’s body and make it part of the fantasy too. It’s escapism, absolutely, but the message is clear: while you dream of wearing that gorgeous dress, you should also dream of physical perfection as defined by Vogue.

So there you have it. Vogue expects you to dream of wearing a non-schlumpy strapless dress and having a body like Lena Dunham’s. Jezebel expects you to be ashamed of liking the way you look in a magazine and having a bird comped onto your head. And while you’re at it, please place a money order for $10,000 in an envelope and mail it to Jessica Coen, c/o Jezebel.

The end. One hopes.

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24 Responses

  1. macavitykitsune
    macavitykitsune January 17, 2014 at 7:19 pm |

    I think Dunham’s a racist assbag, but FFS, Jezebel, you are cordially invited to go eat an entire cactus.

    1. ldouglas
      ldouglas January 17, 2014 at 7:44 pm |

      /cosign on both parts

  2. Asia
    Asia January 17, 2014 at 7:37 pm |

    I do find the gawker sites tendency for but bounties on information amusing and perhaps a good way for getting information you wouldn’t normally get but this was just stupid. They had no reason for thinking there would actually be a scandal

  3. victoria
    victoria January 17, 2014 at 7:57 pm |

    I admit I clicked because I wanted to see if the photo of her posing on the bed actually did ‘shop off her arm, or if she was just photographed at a strange angle. And it looks like that’s the only photo that Jezebel doesn’t have an original of.

  4. Andie
    Andie January 17, 2014 at 8:12 pm |

    Hmm. My worst complaint about the photoshopping is just that its not very good.

  5. Denise Winters
    Denise Winters January 17, 2014 at 8:20 pm |

    I too was amazed at how much of the photoshopping seemed to be a necessity because of terrible lighting and the kind of wardrobe issues I would expect Vogue to have someone on hand to fix (like the dress drooping and bunching).

    I strongly disagree with Dunham on magazines being all about fantasy and their tendency to create an idealized form as being marginal to the purpose of showcasing pretty clothes and expensive things. I think it absolutely reinforces the idea of what the human form should look like (and in a way that especially impacts women). In the case of magazines and other forms of media, fantasy is being portrayed as aspirational, with very real consequences for women who don’t come close to measuring up.

    However, I think Jezebel was full of it and that their deconstruction of the pictures actually reinforced the harm done by magazines like Vogue. They pointed out things like having bags under the eyes, clothes that bunch at the waist (because we don’t all have personal people who flit around making sure our clothes fit perfectly), having an un-pointed chin, etc. as imperfections on Dunham that when shopped supposedly made her look totally different. Basically, it seems to convey the notion of “this woman is not hot and putting her in fancy clothes is not going to make her look this conventionally attractive by Hollywood standards, must be photoshopped to hell and back!!!!”

    A commentor over at Jezebel summed it up best in my opinion when they compared getting the non re-touched images to Riveria opening Capone’s vault. There was all this build-up for what turned out to be a let-down. Jezebel found itself having put out a ridiculous bounty on these photos, absolutely sure that there were major differences, and when they found none, manufactured them.

  6. Canisse
    Canisse January 17, 2014 at 8:42 pm |

    I read some of the article with the comparisons, and the gist of it was:
    “Well, there weren’t that many differences, but there could have been! So our point still stands. There.”
    I mean, seriously, read the conclusion! They’re saying, after doing a whole article on the photoshopping, that there wasn’t actually much to fuss about. Talk about undermining yourself.

  7. Computer Soldier Porygon
    Computer Soldier Porygon January 17, 2014 at 8:49 pm |

    Wow. Much feminism. So progress. Wow.

  8. I'm going to marry a carrot.
    I'm going to marry a carrot. January 17, 2014 at 9:10 pm |

    I do agree that when someone styles me up (or I style myself) and sticks me in fancy clothes to take some pictures, I don’t want it to end up looking like normal-me. I want it to look like a stylized, fancy, art version of me. Like a painting. If I were on the cover of Vogue I would hope they would take out something like eye circles or stray, weird hairs.

    I look at normal-me all the time. I don’t need to see that s8it in Vogue. Anyone wants to see me sitting with my shoulders hunched and wrinkles at my waistline can just peek in my window. Even in photos where I wasn’t retouched, there was still a lot of moving around to get good light, as well as tons of, “Chin up. Shoulders down. Tilt your head. Chin UP. UP. Now hold that pose until your neck pops off …” I don’t hold my neck up like that in real life either. Just FYI.

    Oh, and you can stick all the birds on my head that you want. I’m game.

  9. PrettyAmiable
    PrettyAmiable January 18, 2014 at 1:05 pm |
    1. PrettyAmiable
      PrettyAmiable January 18, 2014 at 1:16 pm |

      Frankly, also, what happened to Dunham’s photos are not worse than any of the shit I’ve done to myself using filters on instagram. Making already thin women look like they have Barbie proportions? I get it. But no, I don’t like bags under my eyes either. You know who else doesn’t like bags? Bros. Bros don’t like bags under their eyes either.

      1. EG
        EG January 18, 2014 at 4:41 pm |

        OT: am I the only person in the world who likes the dark circles under her eyes? Because I do. Once or twice my sister has given me a makeover and taken them away with make-up and I really didn’t like the way I looked without them. My eyes looked so much smaller.

        1. PrettyAmiable
          PrettyAmiable January 18, 2014 at 4:55 pm |

          Haha, I do hate my circles. I look permanently sleepy if I don’t wear make up under my eyes.

        2. Computer Soldier Porygon
          Computer Soldier Porygon January 18, 2014 at 8:07 pm |

          I’ve always wished that I HAD dark circles. In high school, I used to try to create them artificially by shadowing underneath my eyes. Yeahhhh, not my finest hour/best look and also my mother was horrified, but it’s something I’ve always liked. Dunno if I’d be stoked for bags but I always like the circles.

        3. agreywood
          agreywood January 22, 2014 at 1:23 pm |

          I don’t really like mine but I feel like I look weird without them.

  10. Kathleen
    Kathleen January 18, 2014 at 10:46 pm |

    They have a problem with “depiction” and find that word “telling”? A photograph is a depiction, whether altered or not. Her face is not actually on the cover. A depiction of it is. This is a fact.

  11. Mike Lindgren
    Mike Lindgren January 19, 2014 at 7:50 pm |

    Well done on this thoughtful summary of the kerfuffle.

  12. Athenia
    Athenia January 20, 2014 at 11:18 am |

    I bet Jezebel made their money regardless of the lack of scandal. I find the unretouched photos fascinating cuz it reminds you that the photo is a fantasy–which is what everyone claims that we know, but I think we really don’t know.

    What made me sick to my stomach was that now we have a monetary value on Lena Dunham. So if you want the media to stop talking about her, here’s your answer.

    In other words, where are my unretouched Kerry Washington photos? HMMM.

  13. Kyosuke
    Kyosuke January 20, 2014 at 11:23 pm |

    I would like to point out I was (and remain) vocally critical of this move, and that it briefly caused me some trouble. As a contributing writer to Jezebel via the subpages, it put me in an awkward position, and I am still in that awkward position. But I have pulled no punches.

    It was a Bad Idea (TM), and you’ll notice my saying so is still right at the top of the comments section.

  14. The Round-Up: Jan. 21, 2014 | Gender Focus

    […] Caperton at Feministe has a good summary of why it wasn’t such a cool thing for Jezebel to go after Lena Dunham’s un-photoshopped Vogue pictures. […]

  15. Sio
    Sio January 22, 2014 at 7:50 am |

    I was kind of on the fence about this, but I guess it really was just Jezebel being tacky. I do think she was photoshopped too much, but I’m admittedly too hypersensitive to that issue for reasons. On the other hand, what was Vogue to do with those amateurish originals? My gosh.

    I do, however, get a big old kick out of the “HIPS SMOOTHED!!!!!!” label on one of the gifs when it was just cutting out a crease in the dress. No, Jezebel, I’m pretty sure no matter what you look like, people don’t have literal love handles that poke out like that.

  16. Lovely Links: 1/24/14
    Lovely Links: 1/24/14 January 24, 2014 at 7:18 am |

    […] helpfully recaps the circus that is Lena Dunham’s Vogue cover and photoshoot, Jezebel’s $10K unretouched photo bounty, and D… to the whole […]

  17. Control | Kristina Barnett Coaching
    Control | Kristina Barnett Coaching January 27, 2014 at 8:03 pm |

    […] let others cover the core issues. They’ve already done it better than I probably would. What I do want to talk about is the idea of trying to control things […]

  18. January Retrosplurge | Open the floodgates | Keumars Afifi-Sabet

    […] Controversy on planet feminism arose  as Lena Dunham, star of hit comedy Girls, was criticised by one Victorian-esque misogynist for being ‘too naked’ on the tele, and by the pseudo-militant Vice-lite feminist blog Jezebel for doing a magazine photoshoot. The absurdity of the entire situation has been summed up by Feministe here. […]

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