The Vogue-ification of Lena Dunham
Congratulations to the tragically underpaid employee of Condé Nast—possibly one of those former interns currently suing the company —who is now $10,000 richer.
After months of speculation that Lena Dunham would be gracing the cover of Vogue, the Girls star debuted on the front of the fashion bible’s February issue to predictable commotion. But most of the noise came from a stunt pulled by feminist website Jezebel, which offered a $10,000 bounty on pre-Photoshopped images taken of Dunham by famed photographer Annie Leibovitz, presuming they had been dramatically smoothed and retouched. Vogue might have put a “real” woman on the cover—something unthinkable two decades ago—but for Jezebel, she wasn’t real enough. Two hours later, the website got its photos —and a Condé Nast employee (we presume) got a healthy check.
Jezebel orchestrated the same (then unprecedented) skit in 2007, offering a reward for pre-Photoshopped photos of anyone and, two months later, assiduously dissected Faith Hill’s nip and tuck job on the cover of Redbook magazine. But something seemed gratuitous and troll-y about the charade this time, particularly because—as Jezebel has pointed out, ad infinitum—Vogue habitually takes great liberties with Photoshop. And where Jezebel made an example out of Redbook for tweaking Faith Hill’s conventionally beautiful face and body and underscoring that no standard of beauty was good enough for the magazine’s cover, drawing attention to Dunham only seemed to illustrate the distance between her and that conventional ideal.
So what did we discover in seeing the raw, unaltered photographs of Dunham? Nothing we didn’t already know about the Vogue or the Girls star, who frequently doffs her clothes on camera. Compared to other Photoshop jobs in women’s glossies (many of which Jezebel has singled out), these were so anti-climatic that we can’t help but roll our eyes when Coen calls them “insidious.” The cover alterations were impossibly subtle, but Coen detailed the portrait’s offenses against the “real” Lena Dunham in the language of a police report:
- Eyebrow on the right filled out
- Neck made thinner
- Head made smaller—so that eyes appear larger
- Jawline made narrower
- Shoulder on right side of image dropped down—gives the appearance of a longer neck
And according to Jezebel, Dunham herself has likely been victimized by the Photoshop-happy editors at Vogue: “It doesn’t matter if any woman, including Lena, thinks she’s fine the way she is. Vogue will find something to fix.” Lena Dunham, an unwitting participant in Annie Leibovitz’s anti-feminist propaganda! Again, Jezebel stressed that this was a campaign against Vogue and not Dunham: “This is about Vogue, and what Vogue decides to do with a specific woman who has very publicly stated that she’s fine just the way she is, and the world needs to get on board with that.” You see, the world must get on board with Jezebel’s anti-photoshopping crusade.
But a funny thing happened during the creation of this faux-controversy: Dunham, the woman famously “fine just the way she is,” decided she wasn’t on board. “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,” she told a Slate reporter. Dunham previously tweeted about the ordeal when Jezebel first posted the bounty. (“Some shit is just too ridiculous to engage.”) Even Salon called out their sisters at Jezebel for being “disingenuous.”
And Jezebel’s commenters, usually their biggest cheerleaders, unloaded. A sampling: “Here’s a vital conversation to have: where should we draw the line at doing asshole things because those asshole things ‘create a conversation’? “Are your pageviews down this month?” “How long til you stop finding creative ways to beat up on Lena Dunham while pretending your cause is noble?”
Indeed, the backlash was so pervasive that Slate published a piece “in defense” of the Jezebel bounty, as though the website’s decision to offer a $10,000 reward for the photos needed defending against a mob. Even after Dunham sided with Vogue, telling Slate she “felt really like Vogue supported me and wanted to put a depiction of me on the cover” and that she “never felt bullied into anything,” Jezebel persisted in its takedown of the magazine—and tacked on a hair-splitting criticism of Dunham’s use of the word depiction: “That word choice is telling, and it’s also the problem.” You see, publishing flattering photos is “the problem” with magazines like Vogue, which has brainwashed Dunham so much that not even she can recognize this pernicious problem.
Given how outspoken Dunham is about body image and her refusal to conform to Hollywood’s (or anyone's) beauty standards, there is indeed something contradictory about her posing for Vogue. The actress acknowledged as much to Slate, admitting she understood why “people” might think it out of character for her to do so. But Dunham isn’t a victim of Vogue, and Jezebel infantilized her by declaring her as one. Even if the site’s intention was to empower “normal” women, most saw it as a tasteless ploy for web traffic or a hypocritical display of body-ogling.
If there’s controversy aside from the one Jezebel created, it’s that Dunham isn’t Jezebel’s poster child anymore. While the site’s audience caters to Dunham’s fanbase and her “I love my body” philosophy, it’s worth noting that the more she becomes a superstar, the better suited she is to the pages of Vogue than to being a Jezebel icon. Perhaps not incidentally, this season of Girls feels more Vogue-ified than ever before, down to the poster of the show’s characters wearing tulle dresses and cocktail rings sans shoes. (In the language of fashion, their twenty-something, cool-girl angst apparently translates to “disheveled ball gown chic.”) Let’s not forget that Dunham, the daughter of two prominent downtown artists, has long been a member of New York City’s elite. As writer Nathan Heller notes in the February issue of Vogue, Dunham was interviewed by the magazine when she was 11 “as part of a spread about ‘a New York pack of fashion-conscious kids.’” But Jezebel insists on calling her a “real girl” because of her “real girl” body.
In the end, Jezebel took a stand against Vogue for the umpteenth time and spent $10,000 in the process. And with the controversy of its own making, the site earned the scorn of its traditional allies, along with mentions in major papers like The Guardian and The Daily Mail. The final indignity? It probably also earned $50,000 in ad revenue.