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Why Jezebel Was Wrong to Put a Bounty on Lena Dunham's Photos

Lena Dunham lying on a bed in Vogue magazine

That dog looks fake.

It was the bounty heard ‘round the world last week when Jezebel offered $10,000 for unretouched photos of Lena Dunham in Vogue. Jessica Coen, editor of the Gawker-run women’s site, wrote that they were offering cash for the before pics from Dunham’s cover shoot because the after images are, “all in all, quite nice. She's well-styled and looks fantastic. As if Vogue would have it any other way.”

Because there’s no way a known slob like Dunham could look good without technological assistance, right?

Coen was quick to point out that the bounty wasn’t about seeing Dunham’s “real” body, nor was it about shaming her for working with a known-Photoshopper like Vogue. After all, anyone can see Dunham’s body for the price of an HBO subscription, and Dunham can work with whomever she wants. What then, was Jezebel’s point?

Clickbait. Attention. Body shaming. Um, Coen says “This is about Vogue”?

Offering a queen’s ransom for unaltered images of someone who is consistently shamed and policed simply for being okay with her body does nothing more than reinforce the notion that Dunham is abnormal and worth gawking at. “Oh, that woman looks pretty on the cover of a fashion magazine?! $10,000 for someone who can prove she’s actually a giant turd.” It’s a higher-stakes equivalent of pantsing someone at the middle school dance—a desperate attempt to prove that, deep down, they’re just as gross as you always thought.

Lest you argue that Jezebel is trying to uphold its mission of “Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women. Without Airbrushing” remember that no one is offering to make it rain for unaltered photos of other recent Vogue cover models like Jessica Chastain, Kate Winslet, or Sandra Bullock. If this were really about Vogue, wouldn’t the offer extend to unretouched photos of any celebrity and not just Dunham? The last and only other time Jezebel offered cash for unaltered pics was in 2007, and that time it was for any magazine with any celebrity on its cover—because that time it really was about calling the fashion industry out for retouching women, not calling out the women themselves for being retouched.

Of course, it goes without saying that if Jezebel has $10,000 to throw around in the name of women’s empowerment there are countless other ways to spend that cash than on unaltered images of someone we’ve all already seen naked.

But in the immortal words of Fran Drescher, “money talks and bullshit walks.” It only took hours for Jezebel to trade 10 Gs for some original photos from the Vogue shoot. And while Coen predicted they’d be radically different from the finished product, they… weren’t very different at all.  

animated gif of Lena Dunham's cover photo before and after alterations

It's almost like two different people except not at all.

Dunham was retouched in small ways, sure, but her face and body remain basically unaltered. In fact, even the pigeon-on-the-head photo turned out to be legit.

Coen explains that, “These slight tweaks [to the Vogue photos], the ‘you look great, but you'd look just a little more great if...’ stuff is insidious.” And yes, she has a point. A point that could also be made about the Instagram photos I take of my dog:

my dog Edith, before and after Instagram

I'll sell you the original for $10,000.

When alerted to the bounty and the unaltered photos, Dunham didn’t appear to give a rat’s ass. And seeing as how she’s currently living it up in Paris looking fly on the cover of a magazine, why should she?

tweet from Lena Dunham saying Some shit is just too ridiculous to engage. Let's use our energy wisely, 2014

None of this is to say that Photoshop is a good thing or that Vogue is right to promote an unattainable standard of beauty—it’s not, and Vogue is no champion of body acceptance. But Jezebel singled out Dunham for the same reason her other detractors do: Because they don’t think she belongs in a fashion magazine. By offering a boatload of cash (fun fact: Someone earning minimum wage would have to work full time for 34 weeks to earn 10K) for pre-Photoshop pictures of Dunham, Jezebel is reinforcing the idea that someone like her—someone comfortable with her body even though it’s not the body of a runway model—shouldn’t be in Vogue. And that stuff is truly insidious.

Kelsey Wallace is an editor in Portland, Oregon. Follow her on Twitter if you like TV and pictures of dogs.


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Comments

28 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Jezebel was Wrong

Jezebel is usually wrong. About a lot of things. Maybe they will address the Hugo Schwyzer debacle at some point, eh?

<insert slow clap here>

Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for this post. I'm not the biggest fan of Dunham's work but the impact she's had in such a short time on the conversation around women and their bodies in the media is undeniable. She shouldn't be the focus of Coen's derision under the guise of it being directed at Vogue. If this was a Vogue issue, then, perhaps a more measured approach focusing on a wide rang of photoshop disasters would've been the best course of action instead of zeroing in on one young woman and trying to rip her to shreds for it.

But, if the originals prove anything, it's that there WASN'T a rampant abuse of photoshop and Jezebel just wasted their money and outed themselves for what they've truly become: internet trolls.

Disappointed in the tone of this piece.

Both Bitch and Jezebel are about women fighting FOR women. Why must Bitch fight AGAINST another organization that is trying to do the same as Bitch. They may be your competition, however you should take a step back and think about the purpose of all of this. I'm disappointed these organizations are not more united. Critiquing their bounty decision is acceptable, the malicious tone against fellow feminists is not.

YES! Thank you!

YES! Thank you!

Respectfully disagree

Thanks for your comment Anonymous, but I don't consider Jezebel a site about women fighting FOR women, nor do I think Jezebel—a for-profit website run by a large media company—is trying to do the same thing as Bitch (an independent feminist nonprofit). That said, I have nothing against fellow feminists, just this particular stunt, which I found to be disingenuous and a poor use of 10 grand.

____________
Kelsey Wallace, contributor

Ask me about our Comments Policy!

Couldn't agree more. Seems

Couldn't agree more. Seems rather petty and spiteful, instead of thought-provoking and corrective. It's so cliche it's almost not funny anymore... when will people figure this out???

Critique and disagreement

Critique and disagreement have always been part of the feminist movement. That's the one way we can figure out where we stand, one way we can hash things out with one another, one way we can reach new grounds. Jezebel has messed up many a time now. This stunt they pulled was annoying, not to mention shaming and wasteful. There's nothing wrong with Bitch bringing these issues to light.

Jezebel stan, step off

I would hardly call the tone of this piece malicious. It is absolutely essential for all kinds of feminist publications/blogs to fight to hold each other accountable, especially in the context of fostering critical feminist insight. I would hardly call Jezebel Bitch's competition. Jezebel are proudly much lighter, much less serious, and 100% online publication, versus Bitch's longstanding high quality print publication. You're projecting here.

Jezebel...feminist?

It constantly blows my mind that people still revere Jezebel as some sort of modern bible of feminism. I just went onto jezebel.com and the articles I saw were literally "Your Spanx are hurting your digestion!" and "Robin Thicke seen nuzzling woman, not his wife!". That's not feminism, that's trash and frankly its condescending.

All the articles are written in basically the same tired semi-sarcastic tone and them "feminism" they do publish is basically pop-feminism that is thoughtless and unarticulated.

The real reason people Jezebel is paying $10,000 for Lena Dunham's untouched photos is because they make a good news story and will bring tons of webpage hits. Not because they give a sh-t about feminism, or women's body images, or the hypocrisy of the fashion world, or whatever unoriginal reason they're claiming.

I didn't read Jezebel's

I didn't read Jezebel's article the same way at all. To me, the article pointed out that Dunham's real beauty (less chiseled jawline, bigger waist, etc.) is more important than the form of beauty used to sell magazines (the Photoshopped chiseled jawline, oddly tightened waist, etc.)

But, ya know, first Jezebel tries to call out sexism, then Bitch tries to call out Jezebel, and then we're all enveloped in one hell of a woman-on-woman mess. To quote Madeline Albright via Katie Couric via Taylor Swift, "There's a special place in hell for women who don't support other women."

Possible, but I doubt it.

Thanks for your comment, Anonymous. It's entirely possible that I misunderstood Jessica Coen (Katy Waldman at Slate agrees with you: http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2014/01/16/jezebel_offers_10k_for_l...) but I still don't consider this a woman-on-woman mess. Jezebel is run by a huge media company, not a lone woman or even a group of women. I doubt I'm going to hell for calling Jezebel out on this one, but time will tell.

____________
Kelsey Wallace, contributor

Ask me about our Comments Policy!

I don't see what Jezebel

I don't see what Jezebel being run by a huge media company has to do with this particular opinion of theirs.
I saw it as an attempt to prove that Dunham's unadulterated images were beautiful enough without their default Vogueification, too.
I don't think you're going to hell for "calling them out on this one", either, but basing a criticism of a well-meant article and idea on a subjective, and very possibly wrong, understanding of them is kind of wasting the time people could be spending on supporting it, or discussing other important issues.
It's a good idea. Get behind good ideas instead of looking for sexist / commercial undertones in one of the few places where they're actively avoided. [Yes, i do mean Jezebel.com. Shocking as it sounds]

Can a woman's publication not

Can a woman's publication not criticize another woman's publication for making issue of a woman's appearance for no good reason? Where does the Albright rule end?

Ya, I don't like Dunham

Ya, I don't like Dunham either but I do like her consistent nakedness and apparent comfort with her body. I don't understand why Jezebel would do this. Most of their writers just don't get it. They claim to be feminist but when it comes down to it, they don't understand feminism at all. What will this prove? It's good to have some of those before and after pictures so women can see that photoshopping does happen and that real human being aren't meant to or able to look like what we see in magazines. But why single out Dunham as if she's guilty of something herself? She posed for a magazine that does a lot of that. What's the big deal? Most women would be in Vogue if they were asked and what happens to those pictures after they're taken is completely beyond their control.

The simple solution...

... to possibly misguided, and definitely open to negative interpretation "expose" type deals like this would have been for Jezebel to actually *involve* Dunham and have her comment on the retouching. Maybe she could have guest-written the text for the entire post.

Then it would be all critique (of Vogue) and no complicity (with body shaming).

Sadly, Gawker Media has, I think, been far too mean spirited toward Dunham in the past for such a thing to happen.

Opportunity lost.

Too bad.

Turning potential allies into enemies by publishing attack-pieces that could, with a bit of effort, be transformed into thoughtful and careful critique is such a dumdum play. Maybe, as another commenter kind of pointed out, Bitch could stand to learn a thing or two about that too.

Publicity stunt for all

Anyone maybe think that Jezebel had Lena Dunham's consent before publishing the piece? Because I'm pretty sure they would've run it by their legal department, which would've thought to cover their backs on that one. And at the end of the day, this is nothing but a cheap publicity stunt to get a little extra foot traffic for everyone. Before reading this, I had no idea who the fuck Lena Dunham even was, and I'm sure the same goes for a large number of Jezebel readers.

Dunham's tweet heavily implies that she did not give consent

Can't a publication you like be wrong every once in a while? The way people instantly circle to Jezebel's defense is intense. They publish some good stuff, they publish some not-so-good stuff.

Agreed, Asterios. The way

Agreed, Asterios. The way some people are jumping to the "women criticizing other women is ALWAYS wrong" defense is bizarrely hilarious, in this context. Especially since Jezebel constantly criticizes other women ALL THE TIME.

I'd be comfortable going out

I'd be comfortable going out on a limb here and saying that 90% of Jezebel readers have at least some idea who Lena Dunham is even if they haven't seen an episode of Girls.

I Agree, Jezebel Was Out of Line

I didn't like the stunt Jezebel pulled either. I agree, if they are going to call out Dunham, call out every other celebrity or Vogue photo too. It felt like an attack on Dunham, not Vogue. Besides, as you pointed out, the photo alterations were very minimal too so it just furthered the ridiculousness of the situation.

What I don't like is that a woman who is ok with her body apparently can't also be ok with a little Photoshop from time to time, especially if she is going to be on the cover of a national magazine. If anyone is reading Vogue and doesn't know they use Photoshop in this day and age, it is on them, not the celebrity on the cover. Why open Dunham up to all that criticism.

The one picture with all the arrows pointing at the edits felt like a sorority rush event where we circle a girl's flaws for everyone to see and comment on. It definitely didn't feel like an article attacking a magazine's editing practices.

Truth

I think that your critique is right on. Jezebel likes to make noise about supporting feminist ideals when it suits them-until they want to do something problematic like employ Hugo Schwyzer or run blatantly anti-feminist pieces as clickbait. Then it's "oh, but we never SAID we were a feminist site!" This stunt smacks of them again trying to play both sides against the middle. There was a time when their anti-Photoshop campaign was groundbreaking, but this just feels mean and petty.

While I agree that a lot of

While I agree that a lot of what Jezebel posts is eyeroll-worthy, I do actually see why they would leap on Vogue for airbrushing Lena Dunham while ignoring the pages and pages of other Photoshopped women. Lena Dunham is a trailblazer for the depiction of "average" sized women in the media, and a role model of sorts. Most of the other women in Vogue are not - in fact they are chosen for their slender bodies specifically to perpetuate the objectification and commodification of women. Nobody is surprised when they're airbrushed because nobody expects them to be upholding an ideal of authenticity. People do, however, expect that of Dunham. That makes the alteration of her body in a fashion magazine seem like more of a slap in the face.

I haven't seen Lena Dunham naked

I appreciate Bitch's perspective here, although the Jezebel vs. Vogue debacle is not one I feel passionate about (and I haven't seen Girls, though I've read plenty about it). One point I take issue with, however, is that "anyone can see Dunham’s body for the price of an HBO subscription." Perhaps the author should have noted that "anyone," in this case, really means "anyone who can afford a subscription to a premium cable channel."

Considering the author's later assertion that "there are countless other ways to spend that cash than on unaltered images of someone we’ve all already seen naked," I have to wonder who, exactly, is the audience for this post. Of course Jezebel could have spent that money differently. But Bitch's argument against Jezebel's actions relies partly on the easy availability of Dunham's body for public viewing. Public, meaning everybody. That assumption is based on a socioeconomic privilege which is thoughtlessly disregarded here and which does warrant some discussion (yes, I recognize that this was not the overall point of the piece).

Jezebel's actions -- as well as Vogue's insistence on making everyone on their pages harder, lighter, sleeker than they are in real life (which has happened to Dunham's images here, even if the author feels the changes are trivial) -- affects all women, regardless of their...cable status. Even if they can't afford HBO, even if they can't afford a copy of Vogue, even if their lives don't or can't include an interest in either. This post doesn't feel inclusive.

I see what you're getting at...

and it would be true if Girls didn't put the first 2 episodes of season 3 on Youtube for free.
and also if no one streamed Girls for free.

i, for one, cannot afford HBO and have still managed to see Hannah naked. not quite a socioeconomic issue in this digital age. sure, you could argue some people might not be able to afford a computer and internet, but then they really wouldn't have access to bitch's post, or jezebel's either.

I agree

I agree. If someone appears in Vogue - anyone - they will have been photoshopped. They'll photoshop the wrinkles off Kate Moss, correct the posture of Lena Dunham and lighten the skin tone of just about anyone. Vogue AIMS to be elitist. They photoshop EVERYONE. Why doesn't Jezabel attack them for photoshopping other actresses? Or attack men's publications for the same thing? The guys on the front of 'Men's Fitness' and the like actually sweat themselves in a sauna and limit fluid intake before a shoot so that their muscles stand out more under the skin. That's awful.

More please!

Great to see an article by Kelsey Wallace again! I've missed her writing dearly.

This article succinctly articulated what was rubbing me the wrong way about the Jezebel stunt. I so badly wanted to believe the motivations were similar to the 2007 request for unretouched cover shots, but there's too much context to ignore here. This really was completely different. I'd even say that this is an interesting barometer for how Jezebel has (d)evolved as a feminist site over the last few years.

I Liked Roxane Gay's a Takedown Better.

This article is fine and whatever, but it's a Cliffs Notes, right down to the Instagram point, of Roxane Gay's takedown of Jezebel's bounty for Dunham's photos in Salon.

Not Adding Up

So if Miss Dunham is "consistently shamed and policed simply for being okay with her body" (which implies she is okay with her body) why does she allow the alterations? She could refuse. Maybe she is not as "okay with her body" as is implied.