Aeons ago, in 2012, Lana Del Rey appeared nude on the cover of British GQ. Doe-eyed, mouth agape, clutching her knees to her naked chest with manicured fingers, Lana seemed vulnerable, almost frightened. That was the point. The magazine was honoring her as their “Woman of the Year,” but she couldn’t possibly have appeared less triumphant.
As for the magazine’s “Man of the Year,” James Corden? GQ opted to photograph him up close, in a smart tux, framed by four preening, disembodied female hands. John Slattery, their “International Man of the Year?” Photographed in a tuxedo, at a slight distance, serving blue steel for the camera. “Solo Artist of the Year” Tinie Tempah’s cover features him touching up his bowtie in yet another virtually identical tuxedo. Rounding out the bunch is Robbie Williams, named “Icon of the Year.” You guessed it: a black tux.
What happened? Did those four suits just completely drain their clothing budget? Why do the men on these covers – standing upright, swathed in black tie finery – exude confidence, while Lana, seated naked on a bare floor, looks so vacant?
Hold that thought.
Let’s look at Neil Patrick Harris’s recent Rolling Stone cover. Like Tinie Tempah, he’s reaching up to adjust a smart, black bowtie. Unlike Tinie Tempah, he is nude, save for a strategically placed top hat.
ThinkProgress loved Harris’s cover, sang its praises, and compared it to Lupita Nyong’o’s People Magazine cover and Vanity Fair’s recent Hollywood issue, which included six black actors. “Change has come to America!” they cried. “[This cover] doesn’t try to dress homosexuality up in a way that would be palatable for skittish straight people.”
Right. Except skittish straight people understand male homosexuality only as hyperfeminine and hypersexualized. They are quite comfortable to call any boy in a pink shirt a sissy. They have no trouble implying that the gay community brought HIV/AIDS upon itself through supposedly rampant promiscuity. Their bigotry relies on two massively popular assumptions: that gay masculinity is impoverished, and that gay male sexual expression is degrading.
This image of Neil, possibly the most famous openly gay man in the world, striking a coy pose under Terry Richardson’s sex-soaked lens, is, in fact, perfectly coterminous with straight expectations for the portrayal of gay men. It’s all about sex – passive, feminine sex. Richardson shot Neil the way he shoots women. And there’s nothing progressive about that.
A media property like the cover of Rolling Stone or GQ is carefully constructed to make straight men feel as comfortable as possible. Little wonder, then, that front-page nudity and sexuality are pretty explicitly packaged to sate the male gaze. Take a gander at Rolling Stone’s convenient slideshow of racy covers. Look at Julia Louis-Dreyfus, fifty-three years old and, curiously, without a wrinkle in sight, baring her ass. Look at Anna Paquin, nude and drenched in blood, wedged between Alexander Skarsgård and Stephen Moyer in a parody of double penetration. Look at Rosario Dawson and Rose McGowan, clad only in machine gun belts like hyper-risqué Second World War pin-up girls. There are a handful of shirtless men in the gallery, but their covers are, pretty uniformly, opportunities for them to flash a tattooed bicep.
The nudity itself, of course, is not the problem. The problem is the way in which the nudity is organized. Nine times out of ten, the nude cover subject is a woman, and her portrait is intended to titillate and arouse straight men. While Neil Patrick Harris’s nudity may not have been targeted at Rolling Stone’s straight male subscribers, his coy, flirtatious pose hearkens back to a litany of exploitative Terry Richardson shots and pin-up girl stereotypes. The purpose of the portrait, ultimately, is to feminize Harris – and in the process, reinforce the tired, homophobic supposition that male queerness is synonymous with femininity. There must be a way to capture Harris in a light that doesn’t erase his identity or hypersexualize him, but Richardson’s camera probably can’t be part of that equation.
That brings me to another infamous Richardson portrait: Kate Upton on the cover of GQ, resplendent in a tiny string bikini, feeding a cylindrical popsicle into her open mouth. A friend of mine, visual artist Allison Hoffman, was furious about this cover. She was furious that a national magazine would publish, on its front cover, a thinly veiled nod to fellatio. She was furious about the rest of the shoot, too – panel after panel of Upton in various states of undress, in bikinis, in wet t-shirts. After a few hours of blogging about the GQ spread, Hoffman received an anonymous Tumblr message asking her what the big deal was.
Using her tablet, she recreated the GQ cover in perfect, exacting detail, right down to the stars and stripes on the string bikini. The only difference? She replaced Kate with a muscled, tanned Ken Doll dreamboat named Keith Upton. She wanted to highlight the absurdity of it all, the reduction of women to pretty dolls, objects of sexual fantasy.
The project became something of an obsession for Hoffman. Studying old-school pin-up posters, she painstakingly drew enormous, beefy men in provocative pose after provocative pose. The men in these drawings became objects for her own fantasies – in one painting, she poses in a souped-up red convertible while a man in Daisy Dukes sprawls on the hood, covered in suds.
Hoffman’s art makes one thing clear: there is no empowerment in objectification. Pin-up photography, the kind Richardson adores, is intended to degrade, and does degrade, no matter the subject’s gender.
I wish the solution were as simple as locking Terry Richardson up and throwing away the key. But arriving at a point where women and queer people can be represented in popular media as human – really, fully human, with all the trappings of agency – will take time and concerted effort. Until we get there, raise hell every time you see a nude Woman of the Year next to a Man of the Year in a Tom Ford tux.