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)



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:


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:

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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11 thoughts on “Stand Like You Mean It!

  1. This makes me think of two things and Also, the image you have of the Avengers, notice that Black Widow is the only person who is closed off from the viewer in the original image. She is the only one with her back to us. She is the only one whose chest is not pointed toward camera. She listlessly looks over her shoulder at us as she shields the audience from her acts of aggression. In the parody, Iron Man is re-positioned in the mirror image of her “official stance”. She is the only character that is not advancing in the image. I respect Lena Dunham as an artist but I am not a fan of her art. I forced myself to watch Girls and tried to find value in her band of misfits, but personally I found her work to be dangerous more than daring. Maybe I tuned out before the characters developed their own sense of agency, but for what I gleamed the men and the women were “idiots in their twenties who made terrible decisions because everyone is an idiot in their twenties and makes terrible decisions”. If that sort of thing amuses you or stirs the emotional center of your brain, then awesome keep watching Girls. I’m going to go watch VICE and some super Sorkin, and then Supernatural as a pallet cleanser, but I’m 30 and a writer, so you know, I like the heavy shit.

  2. Danny Cantwell says:

    Dude! Great article. IMO , soft power is nothing to be ashamed of. Soft power runs the world and what makes women so much stronger then men. The playwright Megan Cohen has a great monologue exclaiming its virtues in “Orion”

  3. You are awesome. Awesome, I say.

  4. Stephen Aldrich says:

    You wrote:
    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.

    Ameliorate means to improve, which doesn’t make sense in this context. What did you mean to say?

    • It actually means making something bad satisfactory. In our culture, women’s power, and in particular young women’s power, is often seen in a negative light. Any woman who wields power in this culture is at some point taken to task for it. So we ameliorate that power– we do little things like adopt harmless poses, meek voices, less direct ways of expressing dissent– as a way to make our power more palatable in a culture that still has difficulty with powerful women.

      So yes, I meant “ameliorate.”

      I have the OED print version, but not the online subscription, so I can’t send you my preferred dictionary nerd link. Here’s Merriam-Webster, showing the word to mean to make “make better or more tolerable” :

  5. jacob marx rice says:

    I’m generally a big fan of this blog and I agree with the overarching point but I feel like any blog post that starts with a disclaimer that you don’t know a lot about someone’s work and then proceeds to castigate them is at the very least in danger of judging a book by it’s cover and at worst ends up objectifying the subject into merely a representation of one’s own fixation (which seems to be exactly the problem you’re, justifiably and eloquently, railing against). You’re right that Dunham is an enourmously powerful young woman but by not being familiar with her work you have no way of knowing that he power has been built on her ability to create work that simultaneously fulfills, explodes, comments on and renders irrelevent stereotypes. Hell, her show is called “Girls.” In doing so she has frustrated a lot of people and, I would argue, enlightened a lot as well. A critique of her style and body of work could be interesting (although so far most attempts have boiled down to baby boomers demanding she get off their lawn) but a critique without information seems unfair to everyone.

  6. Gail Swain says:

    Yes, you are so right. Thank you for sharing. Love your posts, keep them coming, keep us thinking. Pooh on the idiots that try to stifle you. Blessings, Gail

  7. Phyllis Farr says:

    I found this post because I searched for it. On Google, I entered, “Why do women pose pigeon-toed? Do they want to look like little girls?” These are supposed to be grown-ups — adult women, for Pete’s sake! In these photos, they just look confused and pitiful. The hair, the make-up, the clothes all say adult, and then they stand there like they think they’re “cute.” Embarrassing.

    • victoriaking says:

      Same here, I googled it after seeing female cousins and friends pose so often that way and was wondering wtf is up with all these women’s legs all of a sudden? Neat post, idk anything about the show Girls, but glad to know others share my confusion. I mean…. Just stand normal, man. Own it.

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