Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Problem with Cosplay Celebrity

My husband and I are both 501st. My initial forays into cosplay were through the 501st, and I became an official member in 2007. We did local events. We did cons. And we branched out early on into other areas of cosplay.

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My husband and I out in front of our theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

As someone who has always been a nerd, usually in the process of varying degrees of hiding my nerdiness, the cosplay scene was like a dream come true. I’d never been involved in a more openly nerdy, less judgmental activity. It was a way to express your enjoyment of a certain thing and enjoy it along with others. The accuracy, complexity, or creativity of the costume was paramount. I remember examining the craftmanship on one woman’s costume as she proudly told me she learned metalworking in order to create it.

Then . . . it became popular. Mainstream culture moved in, and what happened to cosplay when mainstream culture moved in is what happens to everything when mainstream culture moves in. The values change. The culture changes. And the mainstream dynamic of “popular kids front and center, nerds to the margins” came roaring in. Cosplay went from an all-skate to Superhero Suicide Girls in no time flat.

Long-term cosplayers who voice concerns about the costuming and the fandom aspects taking a firm backseat to the hotness of the girl in the costume are told, repeatedly, that they’re “just jealous” because they aren’t as pretty as popular cosplayers, or are called “haters,” as if expressing dismay at being pushed to the margins of your own hobby is somehow being unfair. I felt exceedingly lucky to be able to remove myself from the whole thing by being 501st (armor is a great equalizer) but there are non-501st costumes I’ll likely never wear again.

Cosplay is now dominated by models and women striving to look like models, who sell seductive pictures of themselves posing in sexy costumes. And you know? There’s not a damn thing wrong with that. My issue isn’t what they do– it’s what we lost when cosplay changed. Cosplay, once a way of expressing fandom with other fans, has become another area of our culture where we privilege the concepts of celebrity, oppressive beauty standards, and the commodification of both over everything else.

Women who are young and beautiful (and, to a much lesser extent, men who are young and beautiful) are the “popular kids.” They’re minor celebrities with facebook fan pages, press attention, and now, web series, films, and video games devoted to them. Their popularity is based on their physical attractiveness. Cosplayers who do not conform to traditional beauty standards are publicly shamed (I will not post the many, many links as they do not deserve the hits), occupying the same position of “marginalized outsider” we occupied throughout our lives EVERYWHERE BUT THE CON SCENE, our little oasis. That was our one place to belong until mainstream culture invaded the cosplay scene and shoved us back to the margins, back to where the “not good enough” are always shoved.

I’m not implying that cosplay celebrities aren’t nerds or fans. Of course they are. Apart from the obvious– that everyone is suddenly a nerd in this cultural moment (I never thought I’d see the day)– I absolutely believe that these women are true fans of the work they represent. And I absolutely believe that most of them have no intention of marginalizing others. I see some cosplay celebrities regularly championing body acceptance and cosplayer diversity, shutting people down for shaming other cosplayers, and encouraging people of all types to get their nerd on.

I DON’T BLAME THE COSPLAYERS. Nor do I expect (or even want) them to stop doing what they’re doing. I’m so committed to not blaming the cosplayers themselves that I refuse to post any pictures of them along with this article, because I don’t want anyone to feel implicated or blamed. Cosplay celebrities are not, however, in control of the culture at large (would that they were), and even the most vocal supporter of nonconforming cosplayers has little power to change mainstream culture as a whole.

The problem isn’t cosplay celebrities themselves, it’s the way mainstream culture requires our celebrities, especially the women, to conform to oppressive beauty standards, the way we commodify women’s bodies, and the way we divide women into categories of “acceptable” and “unacceptable.”

Conforming to traditional beauty standards is the basic entrance fee to celebrity. Our culture demands that women who participate in the kinds of activities that might make one a celebrity conform to these beauty standards or receive a barrage of shaming. Actors, politicians, singers . . . and now cosplayers. Where once upon a time a cosplayer could be anyone with a costume and a lanyard, the rise of cosplay celebrity has brought with it our culture’s oppressive normativity for female (and often male) bodies in display-related activities, and that extends to body size, body type, gender identity, age, and race. Before this change, the display was from fan to fan, largely unseen in the mainstream community. Now it’s celebrity to admirers (or perceived as aspirationally so), bringing with it all the cultural restrictions on who is allowed to occupy that celebrity space and who is not. Mainstream culture demands that we know our assigned places and stick to them or the shaming is fierce.

The cosplay community was never perfect. Don’t get me wrong; there are douches everywhere. And there’s nothing (apart from being publicly shamed: again, not posting links) stopping anyone of any type from slapping on a costume and living the dream.  I see cosplayers who don’t conform openly flouting the new oppressive standards, setting up tumblrs for cosplayers of size and of color, with some cosplay celebrities in full, vocal support. I see resistance from lots of sources, and it’s good.

But it would be disingenuous in the extreme to assert that there’s been no change in the cosplay community over the past 5 or so years, or that all change has been positive. And it would be disingenuous in the extreme to pretend that the mainstream dynamic of “popular kids > marginalized misfits” hasn’t taken over cosplay to at least some degree, particularly in how it’s expressed on the internet and in press coverage, which is, let’s face it, MOST of cosplay now. Cons are only a few days long and not everyone can go to them, so cosplay celebrity lives primarily on websites, fan pages, and the like.

And even as they sit at the top of the heap, is cosplay celebrity nothing but good for these young and beautiful women? Their authenticity is questioned nonstop, as if beauty cannot coexist with a love for comics. A young and beautiful cosplayer is inundated with disrespectful attention from the kinds of guys who are at the con primarily to see hot girls in costume– the new phenomenon of cosplay fans. There have always been young and beautiful nerdy cosplayers, and there always will be, but they haven’t always been forced into a cosplay situation that values their beauty far, far more than their craftmanship, or that forces them into competitions they never sought over “who’s the hottest Poison Ivy” or “which Slave Leia is hotter?”

I don’t have a solution. I don’t think one exists, apart from the obvious: keep resisting and keep the conversation going. I think cosplay will slowly become more accepting of cosplayers whose size, age, gender identity, or race currently marginalize them, but only if we choose to carve a place for acceptance of difference in a space where acceptance of difference used to be the norm. I honestly don’t know if that will make it easier or more difficult. And maybe the change will come when mainstream culture gets bored with us and tosses us back onto the scrap heap. Until that time, I’ll stay under my helmet for the most part. But I think you look great– truly.

UPDATE: I approve almost all the comments I find in my moderation queue. I will not, however, despite the fact that they prove my point, be approving the comments I’m getting that are accusing me of being a “jealous hater,” or that are based on reading comprehension errors, such as the assertion that I “hate” that there are beautiful cosplayers now, where before there were none, all of which is demonstrably false and nowhere in the blog post, and is, of course, just another way of calling me a “jealous hater.” I have no problem approving comments that disagree with me– I welcome debate– but I am under no obligation to approve comments that have no purpose other than to attack me. So, gentlemen (and so far, all of the attacks are coming from self-identified guys), that’s what happened to your eloquently worded “Your just jealous” comment, and all comments of that ilk.

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I Ain’t Shit

I read Questlove’s article about Trayvon Martin and how Black men are perceived in America (which also had the byproduct of teaching me who Questlove is) while it was making the rounds of twitfacetagram in July. I thought a lot about it, and what it means to walk around in a body that others perceive as threatening. I’ve been told stories in the past about hearing the sound of car doors locking as you walk by, of women clutching their purses a little tighter. I’ve wondered at that, at what it must feel like. When I read Questlove’s elevator story, it really hit me hard, as things do when privileged people suddenly become aware of a piece of their privilege previously invisible to them. It had never occurred to me that anyone would think that they had to be on their guard around me, fearing MY POSSIBLE FEAR OF THEM and its potential disastrous outcomes.

Soon after that, I went to Kaiser and parked on the 5th floor of the garage. I always park on the top floor of every garage ever because I can never remember where my car is. I stood alone and waited for the elevator to arrive. When it finally did, it was empty save one person: an older Black man with graying hair and a neatly-trimmed graying beard, in work coveralls, who had been cleaning the elevator. He was finishing a wipe as the door opened. We looked at each other and he instantly said, “I’ll leave the elevator to you,” holding the door as he stepped out. Time slowed. I knew he had no reason to leave that elevator since there wasn’t a damn thing on the top floor of that garage save a handful of parked cars: no office, no storage closet, no nothing. I knew he was doing it because he was nervous about frightening ME, about what I might say or do or accuse him of. Without thinking, I smiled and started teasing him, “You’re not riding with me? Is it me? I’m not good enough for you?” He smiled back and got back into the elevator, smiling and flirting with me the entire way down, calling me “good eye candy.” In one respect, it was one of the best elevator rides of my life (nothing will beat 33 floors with Malcolm McDowell), because who doesn’t want to be called “good eye candy” by an older gent? But I think about this man over and over and over, and I feel sick. I feel sick that he felt nervous around me. I feel sick that our culture has given him good reason to be on his guard around me. I feel sick that I had so much power in this exchange. HE’S the elder; HE should be the one deferred to, the one with the power. Who am I? I’m NO ONE. I have no power. But the racial dynamics in the US being what they are, I have power I do not deserve.

Whoever you are, elevator cleaning guy at Kaiser Richmond, you made my day with that “good eye candy” comment. You gave me the second best elevator ride of my life. And I’m so, so sorry.

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Hotel Discovery: A Photo Essay

My husband and I just got back from a little anniversary getaway. We went to our favorite B&B right on the beach. I’m not a “lay out in the sun” kind of person. I’m more of a “soak up the magic of a gorgeous, chilly, foggy day by the ocean” kind of person. Luckily, my Viking-descended husband is exactly the same way. So our spot is where we can listen to the crashing waves all night while the fog rolls in. It’s gorgeous.

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Oh hell no.
(photo cred: 123rf.com. In case you couldn’t sort that out from the watermark that is my Mark of Cheapness)

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Oh hell yes!
(photo cred: aphotoathought.blogspot.com)

We’ve been to this B&B many times, so I was surprised to discover something new this time: in a cabinet was a second, older TV and a set of four Shakespeare plays:

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The Tempest, Othello, King Lear, and The Tempest. I CALL PROSPERO.

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Husband with Shakespeare

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Ooh, King Lear! One of my favorite plays in the whole wide world!

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But wait . . .

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Wha . . . ?

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Hmmmmmmmm. Suspicion sets in.

ImageImageENTIRELY SHAKESPEARELESS.

Not only did we discover that someone has manufactured VHS cases that look like classic literature so you can hide your collection of cheesy movies and porn behind a veneer of CULTURE, but we also discovered that VHS tapes evidently STILL EXIST. Who knew?

(For the record, I’m not hating on movies at all. Shaun of the Dead is better than Comedy of Errors. SERIOUS FACE.)

Despite the crushing lack of Shakespeare, we still found plenty of stuff to do.

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Art by Brad Slavin

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What Actors Aren’t Telling You

Recently I posted on The Book of Faces that I was considering writing a post about audition tips for theatres, and I was deluged with responses from actors: horror stories, pet peeves, constant annoyances, along with gratitude for moments of kindness, special consideration, and respect. I had comments both publicly, on the post itself, and privately, in messages and emails, by the tankful.  Actors shared with me their ups and downs about the entire process, not just auditions, and it was quite an education. Going through them all, one thing stuck out to me immediately: No one is telling anyone else the truth about any of these things.

This is where I always come in, right? My brother likes to call this “career-limiting behavior.”

Career limiting behavior. Part of JD Hancock's awesome Stormtroopers series.

Career limiting behavior. Part of JD Hancock’s awesome Stormtroopers series.

So here you go. The things actors are thinking but don’t ever tell you.

Note: I invented exactly none of this. Everything you see below comes directly from the actors themselves. And while I’m certain there will be actors who disagree (“What? I LOVE having to come in for 6 callbacks for a show that pays $250.”), I only included issues mentioned by multiple actors.

Also: This is for producers and directors, and I include myself in that (obviously). I’m in no way perfect and make mistakes all the time, so don’t think I’m castigating you from on high. I am but the messenger. I have many posts with advice for actors (this one, also this one, here’s another one, yet one more), so don’t worry– I’m an equal opportunity meddler.

AUDITIONS:

Directors, we need to be realistic about callbacks. If you’re directing for a LORT and have big AEA contracts to give out, yes, you are entitled to three callbacks. If you’re working for a small theatre paying a $500 stipend for the whole shebang, you can bring the same actor back to see the same people once. You get a second callback if it’s significantly different from the first in the material covered or in the approach to it, or if the actors are there to be seen by different people (for example, a dance callback on a different day than the vocal callback). However, if you’re asking actors to come in for a second or third callback to do basically the same things for the same people they saw in the initial audition and first callback, some actors are starting to think you just don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t know what you want, or both. They start to wonder if working with you will be a good experience. You might want to address with actors specifically why you need to see them do the same stuff over again. Maybe having to articulate it will help you understand what the issue is, and might even guide you to making your decision without additional callbacks.

Another oft-cited problem with auditions in general and callbacks in particular is poor organization. This takes two forms: Disrespect for the actor’s time and disrespect for the actor’s preparation. When our callbacks are poorly organized, we run behind and end up making actors wait– sometimes even for hours– past their slot. Actors have time commitments just like anyone else– they need to get to work or pick their kids up from school or meet friends for dinner. If you told them they’d be there from 7-7:30PM and they’re still there at 9PM, you blew it. But wait! All is not lost! Did you apologize profusely for blowing it, or did you act like an entitled jerk? A sincere apology goes a LONG way.

Disrespect for the actor’s preparation often stems from running out of time. If you ask an actor to prep five sides, that’s a HELL OF A LOT OF SIDES. Actors will spend a significant chunk of time prepping that massive callback for you. If they get into the space and only get through 1 and 1/2 of those sides before you send them on their way, they are not happy. So be realistic about the amount of time you’ll need for each audition and the amount of material you’re giving each actor to prep. And again, a sincere apology when you blow it really goes a long way. Let’s face it: We all blow it sometimes.

bob.ross

Another pet peeve actors have about auditions is when directors ask them to perform material they haven’t been asked to prep. Again, a sincere apology goes a long way here, and there are always exceptions. An actor’s not going to get cross with you if you call him in to read for a small role and decide on the fly to have him read for the lead. But actors WILL get cross with you if you ask them to perform “something” from a show you see on their resume (“You mean the one I did five years ago? In college?”). Another pet peeve of actors is when directors ask for outlandish adjustments, such as asking them to perform the monologue they just did for you, but this time as a spider. If you know you’ll want actors to do improv work or extreme, unusual adjustments, tell them in advance. If you decide on the fly you want to see something unusual, be cool about it and understand that you’re asking a lot.

Cold reads are so problematic I’ve given them their own post. Send your sides out in advance.

What actors love about your audition: Being treated with respect and kindness. Free snacks (a simple bowl of mini Reese’s peanut butter cups was mentioned as an especially nice touch). Available water, bathrooms, and seating.  Directors who pay attention during the monologue rather than text or eat. Directors who respond to an actor after the audition either way. An offer is always nice, but a timely release is appreciated as well, as difficult as they are to send.

We’re auditioning for the actor as much as the actor is auditioning for us. Think of it as a blind date.

Your blind date is less likely to end in happily ever after if you text through the whole thing.

Your blind date is less likely to end in happily ever after if you text through the whole thing.

REHEARSALS:

Directors, you should probably know that a lot of actors don’t want to pretend their characters are animals, especially experienced actors who already have their own character creation processes developed over years of trial and error. Being forced to choose an animal seems twee to many actors. It works for some, but not (from what I’m hearing) most.

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“Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York. Squeak.”

The most popular complaint, though, was time-related. “Mind if we stay late tonight?” I’m hearing that directors ask actors to stay late in the middle of rehearsal, or even at the end. The actors who pointed this out as a pet peeve fell into two basic categories: people who use public transportation and people who have early morning jobs. If you hold actors until 11:30, it makes it difficult for them to get home using public transportation (in the Bay Area, at least. Sigh.). Actors who have early morning jobs are already stealing from sleep to be at your rehearsal and are not at all excited about going in to work tomorrow on 4 hours of sleep, especially since you’ve scheduled another rehearsal that next night. No one wants to be the one who has to say, “Yes, I mind.”

Another issue is lack of concern for safety. This includes things like refusing to bring in a fight director and making untrained actors stage their own fights; making an actor perform blocking they feel is unsafe; making actors wear a restrictive costume that makes them feel unsafe (such as restricting vision). I’ve already blogged about why you need to hire a fight director. Otherwise, we need to remember to listen carefully and respectfully to actors when they tell us they feel uncomfortable or unsafe, and check in with actors when we’re asking them to do things that might be difficult or uncomfortable.  And actors, if you’re reading this, please be honest with us. Lying to directors about your comfort level serves no one.

Lack of respect and hostile work environment. Just because you’re the director does not mean you can yell at an actor until she cries. You can’t throw fits, scream at your tech people, call your staff names, or make racist. anti-Semitic, or misogynistic comments. Learning how to direct by watching movies about directors is ill-advised. I understand there’s cultural support for bad behavior by directors (the auteur being SUCH A GENIUS that he is allowed to be horrible to everyone around him) but it’s actually not OK. Producers: WHY WHY WHY do you hire these people? There are brilliant directors all over. Give someone else a chance. You really don’t need to allow someone to treat your people poorly.

WATCH ME! IT'S SO SIMPLE! GIVE ME THE PLAYBACK!

WATCH ME! IT’S SO SIMPLE! GIVE ME THE PLAYBACK!

What actors love about your rehearsal process: Respect. Being treated as collaborators. Having a clean, safe rehearsal space with bathrooms and nearby, easily accessible places to get food and beverages. Having a detailed rehearsal schedule sent out in advance.

DURING PERFORMANCES AND AFTER:

Refusing to do maintenance. Yeah, you kind of have to make sure the laundry gets done, props get repaired or replaced, etc. It’s not the actor’s job to do any of that. It’s our job as producers.

That's what I get for doing another blood show . . .

That’s what I get for doing another blood show . . .

Refusing to honor contracts. I’m not going into details here, but I’ve personally seen contract violations of both AEA and non-AEA contracts, in addition to the people who added this to their list of pet peeves. Honor your agreements.

What actors love about performances and after: Being allowed to use PR shots for their websites; producers who are accessible and approachable; a reasonable comp policy (no one expects 100 comps, but no one expects zero either); staying in touch after the show closes; recommending an actor to other companies; being paid on time with a check that doesn’t bounce.

We will not make our processes as magical as Batman riding a robot unicorn, BUT WE CAN TRY, DAMMIT.

We will not make our processes as magical as Batman riding a robot unicorn, BUT WE CAN TRY, DAMMIT.

Of course we all screw up from time to time. I’m no exception. I make 12 mistakes every day before breakfast. The overriding message I’m getting, though, is not that actors expect you to be perfect, but that they want to be treated with respect and dignity, and are happy to forgive you if you apologize sincerely for your mistakes.

Also of course, every actor is different. What one actor finds odious is perfectly fine for another actor. Talk to your actors and listen to what they have to say. Do your best to create an environment where your actors aren’t afraid to come to you with issues. Ask questions. Use your actor friends as a resource if you’re unsure. Communication is key.

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Stand Like You Mean It!

I don’t know a lot about Lena Dunham or her work. And this post isn’t about her specifically. My point is the fact that in this major portrait of a powerful young woman shot by Annie Fucking Leibovitz, the photographer who shows up to tell you you’ve ARRIVED– she is posed like THIS.

cn_image.size.lena-dunhamThis familiar, infantilizing, pigeon-toed stance that is one of the ways we pose young women to make them look hapless and charming and harmless. The semiotics of that pigeon-toed stance are clear and culturally very well-defined. And of course everything in this photo is deliberate. Leibovitz is a master photographer, not your aunt shooting holiday snaps. Both of these women know what they’re doing, and deliberately chose a pose with a specific cultural meaning.

As I’ve said, I don’t know much about Lena Dunham and I’ve never seen Girls (because I suck at watching TV) but I’m fairly certain that this woman who is well on her way to heading a media empire is, if anything, sure of herself.

Why does it matter? Why do I have any fucks to give about a person I’ve never met and the pose she’s throwing in her Annie Leibovitz portrait?

Because: How we portray powerful women MATTERS. This is a portrait of a young woman who is newly very, very powerful, and she is posed in such as way as to ameliorate that power. Lena Dunham is a very powerful, very young, very wealthy woman now, and whether she herself chose to ameliorate that by using a childlike pose and Leibovitz agreed, or whether Leibovitz posed her that way deliberately and Dunham agreed, it sends exactly the wrong message.

We have a lot of trouble with powerful women in our culture, and even more trouble with powerful young women. We pose young, powerful men in ways that celebrate their power (this, this, this, this, this, and this). We pose young, powerful women in ways that sexualize or infantilize them (or–ick–both). See this, this, this, this, this, and this.

I understand that Lena Dunham’s character in Girls is all about straddling the line between adolescence and adulthood. I get that. But this is not a portrait of her character. It’s a portrait of a powerful writer, producer, and actor.

I understand that it’s her choice to pose how she likes, and Leibovitz’s choice to shoot what she likes. I understand that Dunham is likely considering her branding in this image, and uses the helplessness and winsomeness she’s portraying here to aid her success in an industry that’s famously skittish around powerful women. I understand the “don’t mind me; I’m harmless” branding choice. I understand branding yourself that way makes powerful men in the industry less nervous, and makes potential audience feel protective and charmed.

Understanding all this is part of what makes me so frustrated with it. We only ask women to ameliorate their power in this way. Only women need to soft-sell their power. This is gendered branding.

What would make it suck a lot less for me, personally (because this whole blog is, of course my personal opinion, and YMMV)

DID YOU JUST READ THAT?

DID I JUST TYPE THAT?

OK, I’m stopping myself. I have a blog that’s read by more people than I ever imagined possible. I’m in the middle of a post about the portrayal of women, and how it sucks that we’re encouraged to soft-sell our power. AND I JUST MITIGATED MY OWN OPINION IN THE MIDDLE OF WRITING IT. This training runs deep.

In the facebook discussion leading up to this post, I was told by an older man that my “style of criticism” was “over the top.” Whenever women speak out, whenever women claim our own power, whenever women voice an opinion without a meek “Well, it’s just my opinion,” someone is there to tell us we’re wrong for it. Often, we do it ourselves. This training runs deep.

I’m choosing to own my power. This is my critical read of this image and this branding. Full stop.

Deep breath.

What would make this a lot less frustrating for me would be if the imaging and branding of men and women were less gendered. There’s nothing wrong with a woman posing for a portrait in an infantilized way in and of itself, but at this cultural moment we’re faced with the hard, cold reality that women– young women especially– are instructed to present ourselves in ways that mitigate our power, and are met with a wagonload of disapproval if we do not, while men are encouraged to do exactly the opposite. This kind of gendered branding sucks for women AND men.

I’ve spent quite some time this morning looking through images of young, powerful men and women. I’ve flipped through hundreds of images of dozens of people. And the one that seems to sum it all up is this:

scarlett-johansson-and-keira-knightley-gallery

This photo of Tom Ford, Scarlett Johansson, and Keira Knightly, shot by Leibovitz for a Vanity Fair cover in 2010, sums it all up nicely. The parody shot Leibovitz did later also speaks volumes about how we portray powerful men vs. how we portray powerful women. It’s funny because of the ironic juxtaposition.

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It’s the same kind of humor we get from this bit of awesomeness:

Created by Theamat on Deviant Art

Created by Theamat on Deviant Art

and this:

What is all the Avengers posed like artists draw female superheroes?

What if all the Avengers posed like artists draw female superheroes?

And this:

Vicious Grace - Jim

The man in the above photo is fantasy author Jim C. Hines, who has an entire series of photos of himself posing the way women are drawn on book covers. It’s glorious, so check it out here.

There are numerous examples of men posing or dressing the way women are posed and dressed, all creating humor out of the ironic juxtaposition and all (hopefully) highlighting the sexualized and infantilized ways we create images of women. Check this out, and this, and this.

Lena Dunham is a powerful young woman, and an Annie Leibovitz portrait is a potent, lasting statement of one’s celebrity. I just wish they had chosen to frame her within that power, rather than mitigating it.

UPDATE: To my astonishment, 3000 people read this post within the first 48 hours it was up. So far I’ve read and/or received dozens of comments on it in various venues. The people who agree with me are a mixed bag of genders. The people who disagree with me are, so far, 100% men. That was, I must say, completely unexpected. I assume there will eventually be women who disagree (or, more accurately, voice their disagreement to me), but the fact remains that it’s gone this long with only male voices telling me I’m wrong, scolding me for “reading too much into it,” or taking me to task for “attacking” Lena Dunham. Interesting, right?

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