Up Close and “Real”: The Implications of Mindy Kaling & Lena Dunham’s Recent Magazine Cover Photographs

One of the big pop culture stories that has helped kick off the new year has been the “controversy” and hype surrounding comedian/actress/writer/producer/all-around kick ass woman, Mindy Kaling’s cover photo on Elle Magazine. She is featured as one of the four “Women in TV” issue–the others are Amy Poehler, Allison Williams, and Zooey Deschanel. There has been a lot of talk in the last two weeks about how she is the only woman of color featured, yet her photo is black and white, and that she is the only one depicted close-up as opposed to the full-length shots of her peers (below).
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 Don’t get me wrong. The photograph of Kaling is absolutely stunning and it’s important to recognize the beauty and art of the image and celebrate the fact that she is on the cover (aka recognized as a woman in television deserving of cover-photo status recognition. That’s legit.). But it’s part of my job, research, and disposition to call attention to events in popular culture that reinforce and perpetuate dominant narratives and negative stereotypes relating to race, gender, economic class, sexual orientation, heteronormativity, and ability. So there.

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The Four Covers for Elle’s “Women in TV” 2014 Issue (Photo credit: International Business Times)

I was happy to see that Kaling chose to publicly confront the backlash against the magazine cover, preventing cultural critics from completely speaking for her. As she notes in the clip below, she recognizes that many of the attacks towards Elle were coming from a supportive and “well-meaning” place, but she makes it clear that she does have her own thoughts about the cover and subtly resists being silenced and “othered” by those who have the access and power to voice their opinions on various platforms. Below is a clip of Kaling on The Late Show with David Letterman, offering a response to the backlash and dissecting the cover herself (favorite quote: “Look at this…[the photo] is black and white…it looks like I died at my most beautiful…[like people should be saying,] how could they have taken her away so young…if only a million dollars for another second…”). She brings in comedy and realness to her response and I respect that.

At the same time, I can’t shake the fact that this magazine cover controversy comes only a few months after a brief, but great interview with Parade magazine where she talks about working in a male-dominated comedy world, dealing with the passing of her mother, and when asked about the attention paid to her appearance, Kaling responds:

I always get asked, ‘Where do you get your confidence?’ I think people are well meaning, but it’s pretty insulting.  Because what it means to me is, ‘You, Mindy Kaling, have all the trappings of a very marginalized person.  You’re not skinny, you’re not white, you’re a woman. Why on earth would you feel like you’re worth anything?’

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Below are the four covers of last year’s Elle “Women in TV” issue. Melissa McCarthy, seen in the lower right image, is wrapped in a beautiful, but draping coat, and half of her face is covered by her hair. The composition of her cover lies in stark contrast to the other three actors featured.

Although June Thomas of slate.com offers that Melissa McCarthy apparently chose the coat herself, Thomas leaves it at that, failing to interrogate the larger sociocultural factors that may be at play (for instance, that McCarthy, knowing what critics might say, chose a coat that was glamorous but could also serve to literally shield her against harsher criticisms, if she were to reveal more of her body on the cover of a fashion magazine).

Mini-media literacy activity: Deconstruct Elle’s collection of covers for the 2013 “Women in TV” issue. I invite you to leave thoughts/reactions in the comments section!

Ask: (1) Who is the author, what is the purpose? (2) What techniques are used to attract my attention? (3) What values, lifestyles, and points of view are represented? (4) How might different people interpret the images and messages on these covers differently? (5) What is left out of the images and messages? (Adapted from NAMLE’s Core Principles of Media Literacy Education)

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Elle Magazine’s “Women in TV” 2013 Covers

I offer this not to put words into McCarthy’s mouth (like Kaling addresses above) and make assumptions about her motives and reactions to the photograph; I do so to simply urge us all to maintain a critical gaze towards magazines, especially when multiple covers are released for an issue. It is imperative that we work to actively remind ourselves and others, particularly the young girls in our lives, that every word, color, accessory, piece of clothing, eyelash and strand of hair seen on a magazine cover is the result of conscious decisions made by a group of people who sit in a conference room scrutinizing and strategizing, asking: What do we think our readers want to see, and what and who will sell copies of our next issue?

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While I have been meaning to engage in the conversation about Kaling’s cover, the catalyst for this post was a short story on Good Morning America today about Vogue’s new issue, featuring Lena Dunham on the cover. The brief segment on the show celebrated Dunham’s career successes, while also noting how she “dropped her hipster look” for couture in the photo shoot (the focus on Dunham’s sociocultural code-switching in “real” life and with her character, Hannah Horvath in Girls merits its own conversation–but for another time…). Dunham has received a lot of attention (criticism and praise) in the last two years for her weight and the amount that she is naked in her show. No doubt, there is something to be said for a young female actor/writer/director/producer powerhouse owning her body, her sexuality, and really challenging viewers’ conceptions of “normalcy.”

Some of you know my thoughts on Girls, but show aside, I am intrigued by Lena Dunham. I don’t always understand or agree with everything she says and does, but I respect her for her intentionality, her willingness to challenge social norms and expectations, and her participation in the group of millennial women helping to break new ground for young female writers/producers/directors in film and television (in company with Kaling, and Sara Bailin, I’m including you in this too). And like Kaling’s photograph, Dunham (photographed by Annie Leibovitz) is also absolutely gorgeous.

Yet, on the tails of the Kaling controversy, I couldn’t ignore the up-close shot of only Dunham’s face on the cover. On the selection of Dunham for the magazine cover, Anna Wintour, the long-time editor of Vogue, offered,

Lena is a strong, confident woman who charts her own path, and that, to my mind, makes her an inspiring role model.

Lena-Dunham-Vogue-Feb 2014

All I could think about was Kaling’s cover photo, as well as her comment about feeling insulted when praised for her confidence. The bodies of both Kaling and Dunham have been scrutinized, criticized, and deeply intertwined with what the media portrays as an “unfathomable” sense of self-esteem (given their weight), amazed by how they manage to persevere in a society that engages in fat-shaming as a daily practice.

Additionally, for such a bold, lauding caption: “Hey, Girl, Lena Dunham: The New Queen of Comedy,” Dunham’s wide eyes, pronounced in thick smoky liner; her open mouth; a taut hand supporting her worried head, seem a bit less than regal to me. Feminists might argue that this expression is wrought with a longstanding history of objectifying women, taking away a sense of agency and power by portraying them in mainstream media as more emotional, weaker, and in this case, seemingly unsure of her own place and potential.

I’ve been wrestling about whether or not to write on “these” issues when they come up for fear of sounding repetitive to both my readers and myself. But the reality is that if every popular culture critic ceased to critique (and deconstruct, and analyze, and on occasion celebrate), then quite a few people would be out of jobs and more importantly, it would mean that such behaviors and actions (racism, stereotyping, photoshopping) were being condoned. So, I’m gonna keep on keeping on. Hope this sparks some conversation and invokes a deeper commitment to asking questions and reimagining futures.

*Update: This morning (Friday, January 17) Jezebel obtained the photographs from Dunham’s shoot pre-retouching. Of course, it is no mystery that magazines [pretty much] always retouch those gracing their covers, but it still never ceases to amaze me. Definitely worth taking a minute or two to scroll through the before and after.