By Katherine Morgan | Staff Writer
A photograph supposedly speaks a thousand words. However, after the recent controversy surrounding a $10,000 offer by Jezebel to Vogue for their untouched photos of Lena Dunham, creator and star of the HBO show Girls, the popular women’s blog will have to offer up a little more than a just a roll of film and a gung-ho apology on their website.
When Vogue announced that Dunham would grace the front cover of their February 2014 issue, the highly fashionable magazine was given a standing ovation by Jezebel because they believed that Dunham’s body was and still is one of the best portrayals of the average woman’s form to be broadcasted on mainstream television. It has been reported that Dunham’s character in Girls, an aspiring writer named Hannah Horvath, does appear without clothes on more times than any other character featured. The issue has been another target of debate, after The Wrap’s Tim Molloy asked Dunham why Hannah was “often naked just at random times for no reason.” Molloy went on to state that he understood why the characters in Game of Thrones were often featured naked: “They are doing it to be salacious and, you know, titillate people.” The comments sent many of the other speakers on the panel (which included executive producers Jenni Konner and Judd Apatow) into a rage because they implied that because the reporter personally didn’t find Dunham’s body to be visually appealing, he didn’t see why she had to be portrayed naked in the show at all.
That thought pattern seemed to occupy the minds of Jezebel’s staff members after the now-infamous February issue of Vogue hit the newsstands. It was apparent that Dunham’s photos, like every all of the photos in Vogue, had been edited. But Jezebel wanted to know exactly how much Vogue, whichboasts a reported distribution of 1,250,000 issues per month, had tweaked the pictures. So Jezebel offered a cool $10,000 for the unedited photos of Dunham from the Vogue photo-shoot.
While Jezebel’s offer received praise from some readers, others questioned the true reasoning behind it. Comments on the January 16th article, appropriately titled “We’re Offering $10,000 for Unretouched Images of Lena Dunham in Vogue,” ranged from the supportive to downright outraged. One user named Pillow19 argued thatJezebel “could have continued this conversation without the bounty. You could have continued this conversation without singling out this one woman in a hostile manner.” Pillow19 finishes off their comment with “So don’t spout your B.S. about the ‘good’ you’re doing. No one is drinking that kool-aid.” That comment has been favorited over 200 times. Other comments asked point-blank if Jezebel or their parent blog, Gawker, needed to drum up pageviews.
Ms. Dunham herself was less than flattered. Two minutes after Jezebel posted their analysis, she tweeted, “Way cooler when people do things out of pure blind spite than out of faux altruism.”
Two hours after posting their offer, Jezebel received six unedited photos from the Dunham shoot. Their analysis of the touch-ups, in “Here Are the Unretouched Images From Lena Dunham’s Vogue Shoot,” uses GIFs of the before and after photos, with critiques of the changes. In a picture of Dunham leaning against a bathtub containing her costar Adam Driver, Jezebel wrote that the changes in Dunham’s image included “Shoulder/back of neck shaved down, lengthening the neck; Neckline of dress pulled up — cleavage altered, armpit covered; line near mouth on face removed,” and so on. In another photo of Dunham, on what appears to be a Brooklyn subway station, there are only a few details that are changed: her waist had been raised up and one of her legs had been lengthened. Her cover photo had only a few significant changes, including the size and shape of her head, which was made smaller so her brown eyes would appear bigger and more doe-like.
Jezebel got what they wanted, but unleashed a firestorm in the process. Comments on the initial article accuse Jezebel of pettiness and “concern trolling,” saying they threw Dunham under a bus in a flailing attempt to lash out at Vogue. Dunham responded to the backlash, stating in an interview with Bill Simmons from Grantland that their request made her feel “gross.” Jezebel did issue a few apologies, including:
In the end, while Dunham’s images were not drastically altered, it’s important to remember how unforgiving the media is when it comes to images of women. Men are generally allowed to have pores and wrinkles; women are supposed to be ‘perfect’ — a state that does not exist.
Dunham was less than overwhelmed by this response. “Instead of going like, ‘Hey, we kind of f****d up. These pictures are not that (retouched),” she said, “they were like, ‘She’s not retouched, but she could have been.’ It was this weird, almost like political maneuvering that I just had a lot of trouble respecting.”
This article was originally published in the March 2014 Women’s Forum issue.