Jezebel falls into feminist self-parody in Lena Dunham Photoshop ‘controversy’

Less than 24 hours after feminist blog Jezebel promised $10,000 to anyone who could supply un-retouched pictures from Lena Dunham’s Vogue cover shoot, some enterprising soul has delivered … for better or worse.

Jezebel editor-in-chief Jessica Coen published the photos and a series of GIFs today, each purportedly showing Vogue’s pernicious disdain for normal bodies. What it actually shows, I suspect, is a blog profiting off the same ogling and body-consciousness it’s allegedly fighting against.

For starters, it’s a known fact that fashion magazines routinely Photoshop their models — but Jezebel didn’t offer a bounty for pictures of Jessica Chastain, Kate Winslet or Sandra Bullock, Vogue’s last three cover girls. They singled out Dunham as being somehow more “Photoshop-able,” an implicit judgment of her body and attractiveness far more severe than whatever tweaks the people at Vogue might’ve made.

And those tweaks were, let’s be clear, not severe at all: some cleavage covered up, the bump ironed out of a dress, some adjustments to the light and shadow on Dunham’s face. (Dunham’s co-star, Adam Driver, got the same flattering light-and-shadow treatment.) You can almost hear Coen trying to stretch the edits into a scandal: “elbow shadow/dimple removed. Hands smoothed.” As if that type of minor tweak is any different than Olan Mills editing a zit off a yearbook photo, a change few people object to.

In fact, Jezebel’s critique of the pictures comes close to feminist self-parody: Coen doesn’t just object to the type of unrealistic, unhealthy Photoshopping that warps our collective perception of what constitutes a normal size and shape, but to alterations of any kind. (“These slight tweaks … [are] insidious,” she writes.) But illustration photography is an art — which means, at the end of the day, it needs to stand as a composition, with light and lines and colors and shapes and depths of field that make sense. Infinitesimal touch-ups of things like the shadow at Driver’s jaw or the curve of Dunham’s neckline enhance the work as a piece of art, not the object of body-shaming fraud that Jezebel wants it to be. And dealing in those types of extremes — i.e., don’t retouch anything on her body at all — seems to undercut the very nature and integrity of illustration photography as a genre, nevermind the whole body image issue.

Of course, putting Dunham’s before-and-after pictures on proud display doesn’t really further that cause, either. Anyone clicking into a post about pre-Photoshop Dunham is doing it for one of two reasons, as Jezebel knows well: to stoke righteous indignation over the evils of the fashion/media industry, or to voyeuristically — even maliciously — ogle Dunham’s imperfections. It is, to quote Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody, “total mean-girl s— masquerading as feminism,” and in terms of moral defensibility it doesn’t quite stack up.

How we talk about women’s bodies is, without a doubt, a critical issue for both public health and the media. But talking about this particular woman’s body, just for the cheap clickiness of it, is getting pretty old. Even Dunham herself thinks so, and she’s certainly never shied from that conversation before.

Amen to that.

Also on The Style Blog

The latest in country music publicity: Get murdered on prime-time television