It’s hard being the voice of a generation. Well, a voice of a generation. And having to be the body of feminism to boot is really just a little unfair. It seems like most people by now have seen Lena Dunham play characters having depressing sex. It’s not difficult to find revealing images of Lena Dunham’s colouring book of a body which she has happily sent out into the world.
Of course, her’s is the kind of “real woman’s real body” that feminists have been waiting for, none less than those caring girls at Jezebel. In 2010, they couldn’t get enough of Dunham, though conscious of her relative privilege (“White men with interdisciplinary studies degrees and existential angst watch out, white women with interdisciplinary studies degrees and existential angst are here to piss right in your mouth!! Vive la revolution!!!!”) Yet it seems impossible to separate Lena Dunham from her body. The article from which the above quote is taken is titled: “Lena Dunham’s ‘Lumpy-Looking’ Attitude.”
Fast forward to the February 2014 edition of Vogue, however, and it’s a different story. Rather than celebrating darling Lena’s cover and photo spreads within the discerning publication, who, God knows, are not exactly au fait with “real women”, Jezebel came out with an outraged demand for the untouched photos, offering $10,000 for their delivery. There isn’t much critique of the article itself, which seems on the whole rather harmless. (Unless you count the online comments. Whatever you think of Dunham’s writing, statements like ‘for the love of God, please spare us all and put your clothes on, Lena! I get that you’re trying to make a statement with your body but it’s really not necessary and frankly, gross” are not necessary and are instead, frankly, extremely saddening). But a feature on a successful woman isn’t what anyone wants to hear about, no-one cares what what’s inside the magazine. We’re here to judge its cover.
At the same time, it seems reasonable to at least question Dunham’s rationale behind doing the whole Vogue thing. Once there, retouching is pretty inevitable, not because Lena Dunham is Lena Dunham, but because Vogue is Vogue. Dunham’s original responses were verging on lame. Or, let’s be fair, not really responses: as she tweeted on the 17th January ‘Some shit is just too ridiculous to engage. Let’s use our energy wisely, 2014.’ Then again, she’s a busy girl who’s not unused to media backlash: if you google Lena Dunham, straight under her twitter and instagram, the autocomplete suggests ‘Terry Richardson’ and ‘racist’. Speaking to a reporter on the matter, Dunham went on to say ‘I don’t understand why, photoshop or no, having a woman who is different than the typical Vogue cover girl, could be a bad thing.’ Which sidesteps the issue of the minimizing of ‘difference’ rather than celebrating it, but as she points out, ‘If they want to see what I really look like go watch the show that I make every single week.’ She also says she felt supported by Vogue, that they understood who she was, and helped express that. Dunham isn’t a victim of the cruel world of fashion, these add to the various images of herself that she is happy to have sent out into the world.
The stunning denouement of all this is, of course, the delivery of the untouched images, which are rather underwhelming. They are the same photos with different lighting and, yes, photoshop tweaks. Jezebel’s angle is that if she looks that great in the real photos, why change them at all? It goes on to point out every alteration and what it is trying to fix, mostly circumstantial, relating to posture for example, and the slightest pulling in of hips which looks more like the straightening of ruffles in her skirt anyway. For the cover photo her jawline is made narrower, but nothing else is changed that couldn’t have been altered by make-up anyway.
The best thing to come out of this is Vogue’s Original Short “The Cover Girl”, showing Lena Dunham and fashion journalist Hamish Bowles preparing for the shoot, looking through the legends who have graced their pages, turning their definitive poses into a dance sequence, choreographed by the fantastic Celia Rowlson-Hall. I defy any Jezebel to watch this video without then spending an evening Shalom-ing it out before engaging in a little Twiggy improv.
At the risk of getting a bit too “Leave Lena alone!” she’s certainly taking more steps forward for women in the public eye than backwards. There are better things to do with our time than calling her out on every aspect of her life, and better things to do with her time than have to answer for them: She’s busy. Trying to become who she is.