You might have seen me tweeting about the article published last week on New York Daily News, featuring six young women poets from NYC. It’s not the kind of publication I’d expect quality criticism or journalism from, and the text of the article is of course completely vapid. But it’s the photographs of the featured poets that really made me uncomfortable. Three of the photos are quite tasteful, rather nice portraits of the poets. (I especially like the one of Ana Bozicevic, one of my favorite poets.) The other three are tonally way off – sexed up in an almost calendar-girl-ish way. Two of the women are actually reclining on couches in the classic “male gaze” pose familiar from nude paintings. The third is wearing a lace bustier and posing (cheesily) behind a fence. It would be one thing if these were candid photos – capturing the poets “in the wild,” in their street clothes, in the midst of a performance. But they’re clearly planned, posed shots. So it comes off pretty gross.
In conversations I’ve had about the article, I’ve noticed a tendency for people to leap to the defense of both the poets and the photographer, suggesting that a) maybe it wasn’t the photographer’s idea to vamp them up in this way, but someone else at the magazine, blah blah blah and b) aren’t we taking away the women’s agency when we suggest they have been tricked or manipulated? Perhaps the outfits, poses, etc. where their ideas, and why should we “slut-shame” them for just being themselves on camera?
I’m pretty resistant to this line of thinking. Here are some reasons why I don’t think we can apologize this kind of article away:
It’s very late-wave-y to permit any kind of behavior on the grounds that it’s the woman’s own choice, that she has “agency,” and if she wants to be a stripper, more power to her, etc. The problem with this idea is that it’s giving both women and men too much credit. Nobody really has as much agency as we’d like to believe; everyone is deeply influenced by cultural standards and pressures. Just because a woman believes she is acting under her own agency and for her own best interests doesn’t mean she is. People act against their own best interest all the time, especially oppressed people. (See poor people voting Republican.) And even if the poets in the couch poses believed the photographs came out of their own ideas and choices, I call bullshit. Men in powerful positions were influencing and profiting from those decisions. Nearly naked women in sexy poses sell magazines, and the poets didn’t get a cut of that money. You could argue that maybe those photos will sell those women’s books. Well guess what, it sucks to high heaven that women have to show their cleavage to sell books. You’d never see a similar article about hot young male poets from Brooklyn lying shirtless in bed. So even if this does help their careers on some level, it’s still deserving of a cultural critique. We shouldn’t have to do that to get attention.
We had the same conversation at a national scale when Miley “twerked” with bears and stuck out her tongue and humped a Styrofoam finger at the VMA’s. The same argument applies: I’d love to live in a world where that performance was something she drove and owned, but I don’t believe it. She’s being manipulated by an industry controlled by old white men who get all the money. Of course they love it when a young woman with a hot bod wants to twerk on stage, that’s how they make their millions! Sex sells but it’s mostly images of women that sell, and men who profit.
Why this isn’t “slut-shaming”: We’re talking about women’s representation in the media, not their personal choices. Let’s say, for example, that Lisa Marie Bastile showed up to the shoot in a bustier. That doesn’t mean a sexy photo of her in a bustier belongs in this particular article, and putting all the responsibility on her feels like a version of “She was asking for it.” Speaking of, why are women’s clothes so often equated to their sex lives? Notice how men’s sex lives have nothing to do with their wardrobes. And men aren’t considered more or less sexy based purely of square inches of flesh that are showing at any given time. As I said above, I think candid photos would tell a totally different story, a woman living her own life for her own reasons. The photos in this article clearly had art direction (except, perhaps, for the one at the top of Monica McClure, which looks like it could be candid – it still feels pretty random/inappropriate in this context).
We’re all obsessed with beauty and youth, we’re all complicit, of course. It’s not really possible to divorce writing from appearance completely today, if it ever was – not with author photos and author websites and social media and the avatar. Your face and your body are going to get into the mix, they’re going to complicate your reception. How you look makes more of a difference if you’re a woman. And if you’re an attractive woman, it’s probably very difficult to resist the cultural forces that are trying at every turn to sexualize you. Smart, feminist women with their fair share of “agency” occasionally allow themselves to be objectified (which is not the same as women objectifying themselves, which I don’t think is possible; that’s like “reverse racism”). But we have to draw the line somewhere. We should be able to say, yes, she’s beautiful, yes she’s got great tits/legs/whatever, but right now we’re supposed to be talking about her poetry, her intelligence. This is supposed to be an article about writing. Isn’t this the time/place for a portrait that foregrounds the face, the expression, not the body? Susan Sontag and Joan Didion were very beautiful when they were young, but the photos you see of them are never pinup-sexy. In fact they look intimidating, almost mean. Unfortunately, as a woman, you usually have to challenge people to take you seriously. (See Laura van den Berg’s comments on her unsmiling author photo.)
Quick note on age: John pointed out that it’s the poets over 30 who get the “respectful” treatment, even though they’re all young. (True except for Alina Gregorian who is 29.)
Look, women can’t win. I’m not criticizing the women featured in this article. I don’t blame them. I don’t even blame the photographer entirely, though I think the photographer is much more to blame than the poets. (Look at these photos he, Lawrence Schwartzwald, took of a bunch of old dude poets – Ron Silliman, Charles Bernstein et al. The only skin showing is on their faces and hands!) I blame everyone involved in the creation of article (the writer, the editor, the publisher) but even more so the culture that allows this shit to happen and then apologizes for it and diffuses blame to the point that anything is permissible. We deserve better! All publicity is not good publicity.