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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Where the Girls Are

Remember the controversial Annie Liebovitz Vanity Fair cover from March 2006? You know, the one with a nude Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley artfully arranged on black velvet, while fully clothed male fashion designer Tom Ford leaned behind Knightley, looking as though he’s whispering naughty nothings in Knightley’s ear. Yes, that one.
In the current issue of Vanity Fair, as a part of a larger piece on comedy’s role during the recession, Liebovitz contributed a photograph of Seth Rogen, Jason Segal, Jonah Hill and Paul Rudd, posed in parody shot of the March 2006 cover, with Rogen, Segal and Hill in nude bodysuits while Rudd plays the role of a leering Tom Ford.
A couple days ago MaryAnn Johanson, Writing for Alliance of Women Film Journalists, raised some interesting points (full disclaimer: the same article includes a mention of a recent Voynaristic column) about how the two photos highlight the difference in the way male versus female nudity is treated by the media.
Specifically, says Johanson, “Well, Vanity Fair has apparently decided that it wasn’t enough to treat women like meat. Now, it’s highlighting Hollywood’s deeply and ridiculously unfair double standard about men’s and women’s bodies with a new “naked” photo shoot.” Johanson has an interesting take, and you should check out what she has to say.
However, you might find it surprising that I’m going to disagree with her — not about Hollywood’s double standard, but about whether these specific photos are, in fact, reflective of it.

First, let’s look at the first photo. Really look at it. Observe way the Johansson and Knightley are arranged, with Johansson draped luxuriantly on the pillows, all curves and cream pooled on black velvet, and the petite, angular Knightley artfully arranged behind her, arms around knees, looking as though she’s listening intently something Ford is whispering in her ear, but pretending not to.
If the faces on those women did not belong to Hollywood starlets, and Ford was dressed in some velvet knickers and jacket with a bit of lace at his throat, you could imagine this image as a painting on the wall of a museum, could you not? If this picture had been painted by a great master, would you look at it and think “Mercy, those women are being objectified!”? Or would you pause to consider the exquisite care with which the painting had been composed, the languidness of the pose of the women in front contrasting with the taut angles of the woman behind her? Wouldn’t you ponder the story being portrayed by the painting? Admire it for its artistry?
Now put it in the context in which it’s actually presented: Ford, the fashion designer who turned around the House of Gucci in the late 1980s and early 1990s, is posed with two artfully arranged, nude starlets. The photo is titled “Ford’s Foundation,” but Liebovitz could have just as well titled it “Blank Canvas.” The idea being conveyed is clearly that the very different bodies of these women, one curvy and busty, one angular and tiny, are the bare canvas on which the fashion-designer-as-artist works his magic. The women are his creative muses, his inspiration for what he designs. Ford is openly gay, so to think that Liebovitiz set this shot up — particularly given the title she gave it — as anything other than a play on the age old relationship between artist and muse is really stretching for something to find a feminist issue with.
Now let’s look at the second photo, and put it also squarely in context. Here’s part of the intro that sets the photo piece up: “In these tough times, America is lucky to have the community of comic talent featured here: men and women who will band together for the perfect setup, charm laughs from their audience, and seize on just about any icon—a Founding Father, a famous artist, even a V.F. cover—as ripe for gentle subversion.
The photo of Rogen, et al is intentionally playing off the image from the March 2006 cover. Ask yourself why Liebovitz made both those choices, and what statement she’s making with each individually, and the two taken as parts of a whole. Is it possible she’s deliberately playing with Hollywood’s double standard here, while also subtly mocking the tempest in a teapot the March 2006 photo stirred up? Compare the composition of the two photos — the lushness of the former, evoking a painterly beauty, while the latter is clearly mere parody.
Is it possible that Liebovitz was seeking to skewer the very double-standard Johanson accuses her of having?
While you’re pondering these larger questions, here’s a link to a slideshow of Liebovitz’s Hollywood Issue Vanity Fair covers. Some of them are exquisite.

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7 Responses to “Where the Girls Are”

  1. Jay Andrew Allen says:

    If the faces on those women did not belong to Hollywood starlets, and Ford was dressed in some velvet knickers and jacket with a bit of lace at his throat, you could imagine this image as a painting on the wall of a museum, could you not?
    The first photo is, in some ways, reminiscent of Manet’s LUNCH ON THE GRASS (,which shocked Paris upon its premiere.
    Liebowitz got us talking as much in our time as Manet did in his – which is the function of great art.

  2. Toby Kwimper says:

    Keep in mind, though, that Tom Ford (who was guest-editing that issue) was not supposed to be in the shot — he was a last-minute audible when Rachel McAdams walked off the shoot and Ford felt that the shot wouldn’t work without a third person. So whatever story Ford and Liebowitz set out to tell, it was one that involved three naked women, not two girls and a guy. What would the photo be saying if it was a naked McAdams whispering in Knightley’s ear?

  3. leahnz says:

    unless i’ve missed something here, looking at those two cover photos by liebowitz, if she is indeed doing a send-up of herself and the hollywood double-standard, she merely falls into the trap of perpetuating another patriarchal double-standard: women’s nude bodies as beautiful objects naturally suited to the ‘male gaze’, while men’s naked bodies are portrayed as awkward and goofy, better suited to comedy.
    both vanity fair covers are obviously geared towards the male sensibility; if leibowitz really wanted to take the mickey out of herself and the double-standard, she would have used actual nude men in her send-up male version of the cover photo. the bodysuits are a huge cop-out, and just a further nod to the hollywood boys’ club, imho.

  4. Kim Voynar says:

    To clarify, the second photo was not a cover photo — it’s inside the issue in a piece on the new faces of comedy, along with a bunch of other photos of comedians/comic actors doing various takes on aspects of pop culture — Danny McBride as Jack Nicholson in The Shining, a group of actors re-enacting The Honeymooners, etc. You can see them all here:
    I see your points, but at the same time, truthfully, would I want to see these guys naked in a magazine? Probably not. If they were male actors who looked as lovely as Johansson and Knightley, though, sure. I wouldn’t object too strongly to George Clooney laid out on black velvet. But the other side of the point you were making is that Clooney — or any male stars at the level of Johansson and Knightley — wouldn’t do that — and wouldn’t be asked to, in all likelihood.

  5. leahnz says:

    my bad, i knew the guys standing with the barrels was the cover shot. i don’t know why i said that, just tired.
    as for wanting to see those guys naked in a magazine, why not? have women become as conditioned to the narrow confines of the overwhelmingly socially prevalent, patriarchal ‘male gaze’ as men?
    personally, i don’t find knightly’s nude form particularly lovely to look upon (scarlett is arguably rubensesque so i can see that), but i don’t think the clooney comparison is apt because he’s FAR too old. let’s see liebowitz do a nude shoot with some up and coming 25-yr-old actors, then i might believe she’s not just a lapdog of the patriarchy (i love saying that, it’s so extreme, but it makes a point). the young bucks might do it, but i doubt they would ever be asked by ‘vanity fair’.

  6. leahnz says:

    further to that comment above, i’ve always suspected an element of insidious homophobia as a component of the double-standard in the use of nude male bodies used to sell/promote stuff. can you imagine a ‘vanity fair’ cover with beautiful nude young men with their genitalia artfully concealed? no, because the perception would be, ‘that won’t appeal to men and they won’t want to look at/buy that magazine’.
    so even though women now have far more purchasing power than ever before, we still put up with a disproportionate use of naked ladies to sell everything (including movie tickets) and somehow it’s socially acceptable, because we women can appreciate the female form without it threatening or commenting on our sexuality, we just shrug it off; but if men at large actually appreciate a cover with nude young men, the underlying subtext is that it’s an affront to hetero machismo and acknowledging the beauty of your fellow man could mean latent homosexuality, so hide those naked men away, men don’t want to see that for goodness sake…that’s my theory, anyway.

  7. RedheadedWonder says:

    Remember this is the same Annie Liebovitz who took the revealing shots of Miley Cyrus just a few months ago. Imagine if Vanity Fair did a story on the Jonas Brothers and had a spread highlighting them in the poses of Greek athletes. Now that would be an interesting comparison.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon