Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Vogue-Jezebel Lena Dunham Dust Up

So we all know by now that the popular feminist site Jezebel offered $10, 000 for the unretouched photos from Lena Dunham's shoot for this month's issue of Vogue. If you cared about that, you will also have learned that Jezebel's readership did not take kindly to what they interpreted as mean-girling, concern-trolling, anti-woman click bait. It may have been a sad day for pop feminism when Jezebel posted that article, but it became a happy day when the readership decided they wouldn't put up with it. And surely it's the least we can ask from feminism that it not do anything that can be interpreted as bullying and shaming a woman who's in the public eye. Or at any rate, isn't it kind of sweet that we develop these protective feelings towards female celebrities when we think they've taken too much shit – from men and women, critics and internet trolls? It almost seems like there's a wave of girl-bashing every few months, followed by the backlash. And I've jumped to the defense of them all over the years: Courtney, Britney, Amy, Lana, Miley. I even watched The Simple Life, and thought it was pretty funny.

There's always an “it” girl, someone we can't stop talking about, that we're obsessed with as a culture. We ogle, we nitpick, attack her appearance, laugh at her if she's supposed to be dumb, dismiss her as a “hipster” if she's smart. She's not the girl that everyone can agree to like, who's often presented as her opposite, like Lorde and Miley Cyrus, as if all women come in contrasting pairs, a Good Example and a Bad Example. The “it” girl phenomenon is perhaps partly the result of pop culture being pretty much wall-to-wall men (with eye candy hanging on the walls*), so that we can only think about one woman at a time, and partly the result of the general public (or mostly women?) projecting soap opera narratives onto the private lives and psyches of female celebrities in a way we just don't for men. The backlash is the result of men and women needing to decide on what represents acceptable femininity. If I say “I like this girl” or “I don't like this girl,” it is momentous, because I'm deciding on the kind of woman I want to be; and whatever side I choose, you can be sure I think I'm righteous, because of how, you know, civilization itself is at stake.

This is sort of a companion piece to my post on the David Gilmour PR fiasco. Anyway, I've pulled out the numbered list again. 

I'm Thinking of a Woman Called Jezebel, Who Did Evil in the Sight of God...”

1. Lena Dunham is an ordinary-looking woman, say some. Or, is she a hideous beast? According to others. Or is she in fact a better-than-average-looking woman? Which, I'd contend (like Bette Davis before her – or is Judy Garland the better comparison?), in some ways she is. She has celebrity charisma and an appealing clown face, excellent (as well as her slumped clown body) for comedy, that reminds me above all of Giulietta Masina.

2. Jezebel was trying to humiliate her by scrutinizing the appearance flaws in her unretouched photos. Or – Jezebel didn't think they're flaws. They thought that Vogue thought they were flaws. Jezebel thinks she looks fine without retouching! Only none of the commenters believe that. But does that mean that they think Dunham is a hideous beast, or that they think that Jezebel thinks that, whereas they think that Dunham looks fine? Is it possible for anybody to come out of this without admitting that they don't think Dunham looks fine?

3. Is it different to compare before-and-after photos of models or sex symbols and to do it with Dunham? Is is ever valiant to educate the public by showing the unrealistic standards to which the media holds women's appearance? Relatedly, in the episode of Girls where Hannah finds out her e-book editor died, I got the fullest view of Dunham's body in a while, standing up in nothing but panties, with nothing obscuring it, and I was surprised to see that she's bigger than I remembered, or thought she was from viewing her clothed figure. BUT. Take a look at Catherine Deneueve in Belle de Jour (1967), when she was considered one of the most beautiful women in the world. By today's toned, retouched, and implanted standards, she's chunky and small-breasted. THEN AGAIN. Check out Cary Grant in his shirtless scene in North by Northwest (1959). Half a century ago, that was fan service for the ladies, but by today's cruel standards, he looks skinny, saggy-breasted, and undefined. (He's also got a real Dunhamesque case of slope-shoulders.)

Not good enough!

4. Also, please note, people, that even the greatest beauties in history have facial flaws that were removed from sight so that their beauty could enter the realm of art and fantasy, where it rightfully belonged. Did you want to see Vivien Leigh play Scarlett O'Hara with a moustache? Even if it would make you feel better about your own femmestache? (Saw the before and afters in a book on Gone With the Wind. Also removed: eyebags. That was a long and stressful shoot.)

5. Why this idea by both Jezebel and some of Dunham's defenders in the comments that the unretouched photos show what she “really” looks like? There's no “really looks like” to a photo. A photo can be flattering or unflattering, depending on lighting and angles. On top of which some people are photogenic and some are not despite being attractive in person. I sure hope my worst “somebody tagged you” Facebook photos aren't what I “really look like.” On the other hand, there is such a thing as retouching beyond recognition, or to the point of inhuman flawlessness.

6. It's not exactly that male celebrities are allowed to be more flawed. Things like wrinkles aren't considered flaws on men; they lend gravitas, which is considered attractive in men, whereas women are supposed to always look like they did at peak baby-making time. I'm sure that nevertheless magazines retouch the hell out of pictures of male celebrities, they just get to leave certain things in. And we're used to seeing a greater variety in men's appearance in the media, from exceptionally handsome to average to sloppy, because the role of women in the media is still largely to be eye candy for men, and if they are also actors, or singer-songwriters, or comedians, they are still expected to be eye candy on top of that.

7. Is Dunham a hypocrite? Is she's all for body positivity, why appear in evil Vogue, which conspires to hold women to an impossible ideal? Well, I hope it's because Lena Dunham loves Vogue. I certainly did as a teenager and in my early 20s, back when I emulated current high fashion on a budget by shopping in thrift stores. After I stopped expressing my creativity through my clothing, I also stopped buying fashion magazines; the Dunham cover is the first time I've picked one up in maybe a decade. I was more interested in the clothes than in the models, although I loved Kate Moss like everyone else. But there's nothing wrong with beauty. And while it would be great to see Vogue expand its notion of beauty a little (beyond “anorexic 19-year-old”), photo retouching has not become oppressive for women because of the fashion magazines, but because everywhere in the media women are held to that standard.

8. Speaking of Kate Moss, unleashed photo retouching has allowed supermodels to have careers that go on forever and ever. This is good for the models, but not so good for women in general, since the effect is that, more than ever, we're not allowed to age.

9. The effect of all of this is that we have actually forgotten what real women look like. And I don't mean some ideal “real woman,” who is somehow more “essentially womanly” because she's heavier-set, say. I mean “real woman” as opposed to a made-up media ideal. And a lot of the Dunham hate coming from men on the internet is because men, too, have been brainwashed into thinking that women ought to look like women on TV, in movies, in magazines, and in ads... oh and porn. And yes, that has to stop, and on her show, Dunham is trying to help put a stop to it. We, men and women, have to be able to look at a physically imperfect woman in the media without freaking out and thinking she's a monster.

10. Carol Burnett was a funny-looking comedian. Did she take this much crap, or was there a time when women didn't have to be hawt to be on TV? What about Mayim Bialik over on The Big Bang Theory? My impression is that she's a very popular character, and while the show sometimes calls attention to the fact that she's less hawt than the two other main female characters, it never makes her the butt of jokes based on her looks, and she is definitely presented as sexually viable (albeit also frustrated because she's dating the asexual Sheldon). Why does she get away with playing a female nerd, and Dunham doesn't? Conversely, why don't we hear about everything that Bialik is doing for female body image?

Rocking the cardie for comedy

11. I understand that by confronting us with her naked body a lot on Girls, Dunham is desensitizing us to what a real woman's body looks like, and that's a good thing. That said, I don't necessarily want to see imperfect naked male bodies on TV, either. For example, I have a big crush on Jason Schwartzman which I'm pretty sure would only be negatively impacted by constantly seeing him undressed on a TV show. Yes, we're used to seeing a lot of average-looking men on TV, but then again, George Costanza kept his clothes on**. Well, mostly.

Ilu, and because ilu, I will try to forget I saw this

Naked for comedy. I can never forget I saw this

12. This idea we have, by the way, that you can't say or imply that a woman is less than lovely without causing irreparable psychological damage and being a brute – where does that come from? It seems to have been behind the irate reaction of Dunham's producers to a reporter who questioned her about her nudity on Girls, another Dunham story that was all over the internet recently. Dunham goes out of her way to look awful on Girls, while cleaning up nicely in her (public) private life and making an effort to look pretty, because, some women (obviously not Hannah Horvath) like to do that sometimes. It's a sad day for a comedian when your fans and even your producers feel that they have to jump in and reassure you that you're beautiful all of the time. Pretty sure Jason Alexander does not inspire, or require, this reaction, or Woody Allen. And all it does is reinforce the idea that appearance and desirability are a woman's most important attributes.

13. Likewise, every time someone reacts to criticism of Dunham's appearance by objecting, “But Lena Dunham isn't ugly – she's cute!” or “But Lena Dunham isn't fat – she's average!”, my immediate thought is, “Well then, what about the women who are ugly and are fat. Do they not deserve to be represented in the media? And would they deserve the hateful attacks that you are saying Dunham does not because she's not?” The media is always going to be a place where pretty people thrive, but when a female entertainer isn't permitted to look any other way, even if the departure is as minor as it is in the case of “Hollywood Homely” Dunham, that's a problem.

Internalization and Defiance

Incessant criticism of one's appearance can be psychologically damaging to a female celebrity, however. Look at Judy Garland. Look at Courtney Love, although her examination of cultural expectations of female beauty was so intense and personal that her plastic surgery just seems like an extension of it. Look at Amy Winehouse. Bette Davis weathered it out and took advantage of the acting opportunities it gave her, and the opportunity to be taken seriously as an actor, but she so frequently made herself appear grotesque that you know she took it to heart. Katharine Hepburn, however, an actress criticized by the Hollywood moguls for her “sexlessness” and the general public for her privilege and the confidence and eccentricity that went with it, came equipped with enough narcissism that she seemed impervious to the first kind of criticism, at least. I strongly advise any Hepburn fans to check out the fascinating, prickly Dick Cavett interview, where, early on, the elderly Hepburn repeatedly insists that he check out a picture of her taken for a play as a half-naked teenage hottie, a picture so smouldering that, she claims, it launched her in Hollywood.

I assume it's this one.

However, Hepburn did seem to internalize the public's criticism of her personality, to the extent that she commissioned a play from Philip Barry that would humble her persona and therefore, she hoped, finally make her a popular actress. The self-abasement worked, but this aspect of The Philadelphia Story still makes fans of the original, uncompromised Hepburn cringe. To judge by the new season of Girls, Dunham seems to be internalizing the criticism directed at her in a different way: instead of trying to appease her critics, she defiantly keeps making Hannah Horvath more and more unlikable. Which I find a bit of a shame, because I never understood why Hannah was supposed to be unlikable in the first place. In her cadences, her irony, her articulate, paragraph-long observations and reports on her inner life, Hannah reminded me of girls I knew in university, fellow English students – the kind of girl I'd want to be friends with the moment I heard her and took in her wonderful, awful fashion sense. The kind of girl I was. 

I'm so predisposed to empathize with this character type that Hannah's flashes of unmistakable sociopathy still feel OOC to me, and when the other characters gang up on her, as in "Dead Inside," and try to browbeat her into conforming to social norms, I side with her the way I used to side with Oscar the Grouch against the sanctimonious adults on Sesame Street when I was three. "Adults" on this show are often the regular male characters, Adam and Ray (who is in fact significantly older than the girls); they, in any case, see themselves as adults, and talk like adults, although Ray can't pull his own life together and Adam is capable of egregious interpersonal misjudgments, to say the least. In that respect they serve a killjoy role a little bit like the Skyler one (a very little bit) on Breaking Bad, scolding the girls for their bad behaviour; as men, however, they also represent the norm that the girls are passively-aggressively rebelling against. 

"Very Little to Distress or Vex Her"

Dunham's not just any other “it” girl, or controversial, Courtney-like hate-magnet. Her genealogy traces back through Hepburn to Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse, the seminal privileged white girl of Anglo-American fiction, who irritates readers because of the confidence and narcissism that her sheltered life has given her. That confidence, however, is the reason that, to use Lionel Trilling's sexist phrasing, she is one of the rare heroines of fiction who “has a moral life like a man”; which is to say that she sees herself as the protagonist of her life, and she has enough power that her morally incorrect decisions have consequences for others. Dunham, however, isn't pretty enough to be an Emma – but she'd make a great Elizabeth Bennet, who's not supposed to have much going for her in the looks department except “a fine pair of eyes.” Maybe Patrick Wilson would like to play Darcy?

Bizarrely, some of the hatred directed at Girls by some media commentators seems to derive from the archaic idea that privileged white girls are the most useless human beings on the planet, parasites (because this idea was born in a world where women could do nothing with their lives except marry) who nevertheless think of themselves as the height of human perfection because they've been raised to believe that the world revolves around them. It can't possibly be that the girls of Girls are self-absorbed, petty sitcom characters like any other self- absorbed, petty sitcom characters – like the Seinfeld characters, say, or the central characters on any number of British sitcoms, like Peep Show, or for that matter, Absolutely Fabulous. (Joanna Lumley's Patsy is surely what Jessa is going to grow up to be.) 

No, because they're young girls from privileged upbringings, they must be “princesses,” towards whom we must direct a special hatred to compensate for all of the undeserved love we think they must have been given. Including all of that undeserved love from critics, since depending who you ask, Girls is either the most hated or the most overrated show on television.

Besides, if shows that ask the viewer to sympathize with the trials of privileged white people are the problem, go complain about Downton Abbey. Seriously.

* The argument can also be made that the relative lack of celebration of male beauty and the male body in our male-gaze-assuming, heteronormative culture is bad for men in all kinds of ways, while "metrosexuality" is in some ways a gain for men. Of course it can, and if you want to see how it can, check out the fascinating writings of my friend Mark Simpson

**On the other hand, if you want to know what male privilege was like in the bad old days, when it was assumed without question that the only value a woman had was her desirability to men, a while back on the Facebook Film Forum, someone posted a link to some "off the record" interviews with Orson Welles from which the press had pulled his remark about Bette Davis that he couldn't watch her movies because he couldn't stand to look at her. To which I replied, "I wonder how she felt about looking at Orson Welles."

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