Representing something of an intersection between my recent post on ethics in photography and other previous posts on gender inequality and portrayals of women in the media, Jezebel takes on the recent Vanity Fair photograph spoofing a 2006 cover image of Keira Knightly and Scarlett Johannsen draped naked around the (clothed) designer, Tom Ford. The send-up is featured in an article entitled “Comedy’s New Legends” and, like the original, was photographed by iconic photographer Annie Leibowitz. It portrays comedy pals Seth Rogen, Jason Segel and Jonah Hill sprawled in flesh toned body suits, draped around a clothed Paul Rudd. The first time I saw the cover, I just thought, “Well, that’s not particularly funny,” but something about it rubbed me a little bit the wrong way as I thought about it, though I couldn’t quite put my finger on what. Well, Jezebel has compiled excerpts from a bunch of different reactions to the image, from blogs like Pandagon, Salon and others which have helped me to articulate what it is that bothered me–the fact that the entire premise of the joke, the entire reason the image is ridiculous is that nudity in the context of sexual objectification is being reified as the domain of women, something that for a group of men to participate in is patently ridiculous, laughable. I realize that for some this may seem to read to much into the image, and I don’t think it was probably premeditated to mean anything of the sort, but there are imbedded assumptions which form the basis of the joke. As Melissa McEwan at feminist blog Shakesville, quoted on Jezebel, puts it:
“Even when women do what they’re meant to do by the fucked-up standards of The Patriarchy-get naked and submit themselves for public objectification-they’re going to get mocked for doing it. Because, even though we’re ostensibly laughing at the Judd Apatow Boyz for their uproarious send-up of a sexy female-oriented VF cover, implicit in that laughter is a condemnation and marginalization of the female-oriented cover: See how silly it is when a man does it?Ho ho ho.”
It is silly to see these men trying to assume the roles of sex objects, the photo implies, because they are men, and therefore despite imperfect bodies, they have been able to become famous and popular through their bodies of work (pun intended), rather than their physical appearances. Meanwhile, talented female comedians like Tina Fey (who has lost a significant amount of weight as her fame has grown and increasingly been forced into the molds of idealized beauty and sexual desirability, photographed for Vanity Fair and other magazines in a progressively more revealing succession of ensembles) are expected to meet certain standards of attractiveness in order to be palatable and in order for their talent to be given a platform.
Both Jezebel and Mary Elizabeth Williams of Salon discuss the complicity of Annie Leibowitz in the production of this and other questionable images. As Williams puts it:
“That this drivel is being peddled by the same woman who shot one of the most famous male nude photos ever — the beautiful, vulnerable image of John Lennon curled up against Yoko Ono for Rolling Stone, just makes the whole business all the more cynical and pitiful.”
Do I think that within the realm of media imagery there are far more egregious examples of sexism? Sure. Does that mean it’s petty or not worth it to discuss this example? Certainly not. In fact, sometimes the examples which are less egregious are those which are harder to recognize and therefore too often do not get discussed. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, too, I think that sexism couched in comedy is often seen as out of reach of cultural criticism, met with retorts that amount to “calm down, can’t people just take a joke?” or “but we were just kidding!” However, I believe comedy is still an area in which sexism (and racism–the New York Post’s chimp cartoon, anyone?) is very much alive and well. The very fact that the cover story of the issue of Vanity Fair in which this photograph appears, entitled ” Comedy’s New Legends” features only men on the cover and almost entirely men in the article is very telling. And then, of course, there are Christopher Hitchens’ disgustingly misogynistic pieces (published, again, by Vanity Fair), such as the one entitled “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” a piece which was “rebutted” by another Vanity Fair cover story, this one entitled “Who Says Women Aren’t Funny?”, which, frankly, seemed more intent on answering the question “Who Says Women Comedians Aren’t Hot And Sexy?”, what with its accompanying photo shoot, which featured female comedians like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig and others making like Paris Hilton and Lindsey Lohan. With splayed legs, lots of bare skin, smoky eye makeup, and amped up hair, the photos as a whole were more straightforward imitation than camp, and seemed aimed at putting these women on display as sexual objects in much the same way as the starlets they were imitating. Less conventionally attractive SNL comedian Cheri Oteri was notably absent from the photos and later confirmed that she had not been invited to participate in the shoot.
What I am getting at is the fact that this new photo comes with a larger context, one which only bolsters and strengthens the critiques of Jezebel, Salon, and others.