Is it time to get over Photoshop drama?

22:51, Jan 20 2014
Lena Dunham
FACING UP: Lena Dunham's much talked about Vogue cover.

Five days ago, pop culture website Jezebel stunned its readership by announcing a $10,000 bounty for the original stills from Lena Dunham's Vogue magazine photoshoot.

Dunham - a woman unafraid to bare her body in unflattering angles and lighting week after week on her HBO show Girls - had scored the February cover of the elite fashion mag to the chagrin of detractors, some of whom argued that it was hypocritical for a woman who claimed to champion 'normality' to participate in the destructive and deceptive world of fashion spreads.

Bizarrely, one commenter argued that such a move was symptomatic of Dunham's arrogance; yet more proof that the celebrated writer and director was an "egomaniac" in pursuit of the kind of "mainstream recognition" that such errant human beings desire.

Lena Dunham
DOCTORED? Lena Dunham and Adam Driver in the Vogue photo shoot.

In justifying the controversial stunt, Jezebel's editor-in-chief Jessica Coen reasoned that, "Lena Dunham is a woman who trumpets body positivity, who's unabashedly feminist, who has said that her naked body is 'a realistic expression of what it's like to be alive' and 'if you are not into me, that's your problem.' Her body is real. She is real. And for as lovely as the Vogue pictures are, they're probably not terribly real."

Much has been written about the fallout from this decision, and the disappointing path Jezebel seems to heading down. Spend a cursory afternoon in the girls locker room that is Jezebel these days and you learn very quickly who's 'in' and who's 'out'. It's no coincidence that in the days leading up to Coen's announcement, the comment threads on the site's red carpet posts were filled with disdain for the clothes Dunham wears to upscale events.

The 27-year-old was criticised for pairing ill-fitting garments with underwhelming hair and makeup. Her waistlines are always too high or too short. In one particularly gobsmacking critique, I watched as a group of women theorised that her (apparently) consistently poor sartorial performances are a cynical ploy to increase her brand, the awkward girl at the party who always stands pigeon-toed and with a perpetual slouch.


These are the people to whom Dunham apparently owes an unblemished version of reality, if she is to maintain her artistic and personal integrity?

Of course, on its surface there's nothing wrong with running an experiment in how the magazine and fashion industries manipulate women into unrealistic representations of beauty. But Jezebel has a troubling history of ridiculing Dunham in a way that other famous women seem to have escaped. Is it because Dunham is 'like us', yet being treated (and rewarded) as if she isn't?

The internalised misogyny all of us born and bred under the patriarchy struggle with has instructed us to look at those women who seem to be acting above their stations and tear them down a peg or two. Why is she getting all this attention when she's not even thin? Just who does she think she is?

Indeed, it seems Vogue was never the target here - it was always Dunham.

Interestingly, the majority of commenters - even those who express a dislike for Dunham - reacted negatively to Dunham's plan. I guess there's a difference between talking gleefully about someone behind their back and dragging them onto the football field to tear them apart.

Or perhaps it was simpler than that. Perhaps, as Roxane Gay points out, Dunham's choice to appear in Vogue speaks to all of our vanities. "The retouching magazines like Vogue do is the professional version of the retouching we do when we, for example, apply Instagram filters to the pictures we take and share on our social networks," she writes. "Most people are interested in making reality look slightly better."

We all engage in our own manipulations of the truth every time we post a selfie online. It might not be exactly the same as photoshopping a fashion shoot in a major international magazine - but as far as self-doctoring goes, is it really all that different?

Given this, I wonder if it's time for the debate about Photoshop to move beyond simply yelling for realistic versions of women in uncritically consumed pieces of media.

For a start, we can no longer claim to be unaware of the manipulations applied to models and celebrities as we were when, say, Jezebel first published their infamous Red Bookexpose (which differed in intent primarily because their readership didn't routinely hate Faith Hill). But as Dunham herself argues, "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."

The reality is that unless we are calling for a complete destruction of the corporate beauty industries (as indeed many feminists do), calling for the inclusion of more women to somehow balance out the odds is nothing more than a half hearted stab at revolution. And it's not as if this tactic really achieves much.

Asking that all women be considered fair game for objectification is hardly the same as demanding that such objectification be done away with altogether. Already, the industries that have always profited from our misery have figured out a way around the barricades.

We now have Dove - whose parent company produces a product that reeks of cheap cologne and misogyny - championing 'Real Women' in order to sell body wash. Kellogg's woman-targeted Special K brazenly called for women to 'shut down the fat talk' with barely a nod to the fact their product is almost universally sold with the promise that it will help women lose weight. From hair products to makeup to food to clothing, companies are waking up to the fact that feminism - or at least the idea of it - helps to maintain their financial bottom line.

We cannot change the beauty industry from what it is. Dunham could have stood warts and all in poorly lit shots, showcasing the fuzz of hair and random bruises that appear on her legs as Hannah Horvath or the occasionally greasy skin and unbrushed hair, and to what end?

Would this be a victory for the Normals among us, acceptance into a previously exclusive clique that denied us entry because our legs weren't considered long enough to objectify alongside the rest of them?

Such thwarted attempts at obstruction does nothing to stop in their tracks entities which rely on the self hatred of women to sell products and make money. So it has always been and so it will always be. Are we really still surprised at this point?

Lena Dunham delivers a version of reality on TV week after week. In Vogue, she openly admits to selling a fantasy. And as one commenter put it to Jezebel, "Lena's just trying to sell her show. You're just trying to get hits. But she's not a gigantic hypocrite about it."

- Daily Life