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