Early this month, two publications that consider themselves champions of women faced-off, with an unexpected outcome.
Jezebel, a website that protests artificiality in women’s magazines, announced a $10,000 bounty for anyone who could produce unretouched versions of photos of Lena Dunham from the new issue of Vogue. The next day, Jezebel posted the originals. The unedited photos garnered over 1 million page views. Within hours, Jezebel faced accusations of insensitivity, while Vogue drew praise for showcasing a woman whose body looks nothing like a supermodel’s.
To many readers, Jezebel picked the wrong target, a writer and actress who had managed to put her own “different” body on television. And though Vogue had performed a major reconstructive surgery on the photos’ backgrounds, it had left the body of Dunham, creator and star of HBO series Girls, intact.
“They want unretouched images of Lena Dunham? I’ll sell them my season one DVD of Girls,” TV critic James Poniewozik quipped on Facebook, referring to Dunham’s take-me-as-I-am nude scenes. Longtime “Jezzies”, or readers of the website, complained in the comments. Even Anna Holmes, the website’s founding editor, said she was “surprised” at what her successors had done.
The gimmick may have flopped for another reason: feminists can finally celebrate major milestones in their longstanding fight against such magazines. Instead of advice on how to please men, the February cover of Cosmopolitan urges its readers not to skip a prenuptial agreement because they may outearn their husbands. In the current issue of Glamour, the first few pages feature African-American models, actresses and a disabled athlete.
In Vogue, Anna Wintour’s editor’s letter says Dunham is “so very right” for the magazine because she wasn’t a conventional choice. “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,” Dunham told French Slate in response to the fracas.
For decades, women’s magazines did feminists the favour of giving them clear targets, monthly illustrations of the constricting social attitudes they were fighting against. In March 1970, nearly 100 women took over the office of the male editor of Ladies’ Home Journal for 11 hours. The next year, Gloria Steinem and peers founded Ms. Magazine. The magazines were not always as vapid as the caricatures suggested: Cosmopolitan, for example, mapped its own kind of liberation, articles explored then-taboo topics like breast cancer. However, their mainstays were still white, skinny models.
In 2007, Holmes started Jezebel as an alternative to Glamour and InStyle, both publications where she had worked. In its first year, when it published the unretouched version of Redbook’s cover featuring country star Faith Hill, Jezebel was lauded for inspiring a new wave of scrutiny about images that looked nothing like real women. Redbook had erased the bags under Hill’s eyes, as well as a significant portion of her body fat. But since then, cover lines and content have shifted. “Women changed and our culture changed in general,” Cindi Leive, editor-in-chief of Glamour, said. Vogue pledged last year to no longer use models who “appear to have an eating disorder” and Glamour has expanded its use of plus-size models.
Jezebel’s editor, Jessica Coen, said in an interview that the women’s magazines were still worth fighting. “We’re still talking about an industry and aesthetic that tells us that under-eye circles are wrong,” she said.
However, Roxane Gay, part of a new crop of feminist critics, said that Vogue and its peers were not a central concern. “The front lines right now are not women’s magazines,” she said. Instead, Gay said she would rather focus on the “erosion of the middle class” — and enjoy the magazines for the fantasies that they are.