What do you call a top fashion magazine that features a plus-sized African American actress on its cover? Progressive? Revolutionary?
If you’ve read recent Internet reports of Gabourey Sidibe’s October Elle cover, you might call it “racist,” “offensive,” or, as Salon puts it, “a weird fetishization that borders on patronizing.”
Allow me to explain. In honor of Elle’s 25th anniversary, the magazine is featuring a photo portfolio on “a new generation of smart, talented, game-changing artists, filmmakers, actresses, and activists.” Four of these lucky ladies landed a coveted spot on Elle’s special series of covers: Amanda Seyfried (Caucasian, thin), Lauren Conrad (Caucasian, thin), Megan Fox (Caucasian, thin), and Gabby (none of the above).
While the inclusion of a dark-skinned, big-bodied actress sounds like one giant leap for womankind, Gabby’s cover portrait frankly makes it hard to tell that she’s either one of those things. Illuminated from every angle and cropped just below her chest, she’s almost unrecognizable.
By the time I received my issue in the mail (hey, it’s considered About-Face “research”), I had already heard the hubbub surrounding Gabby’s Elle controversy. But my expectations for fashion magazines are never very high to begin with (though Glamour has been full of nice, body-positive surprises lately), so I wasn’t entirely shocked by the ultra-altered picture. I was more appalled by Elle’s lame excuses for the photo fiasco.
“It sort of boils down to this,” editor-in-chief Robbie Myers told E! News. “At a photo shoot, in a studio, that is a fashion shoot, that’s glamorous, the lighting is different.” Hmmm, “different” enough to virtually transform a person’s skin color?
“We absolutely did not lighten her skin,” Robbie continued. “Retouching is when we take a piece of hair and move it out of her eye, so you can’t compare a picture on a press line from what you do in a studio, where your job is to make them look beautiful.”
Oh, okay, I think I get it. Making someone look beautiful involves heavy-duty picture manipulation through careful lighting, calculated angles, and endless fun with Photoshop.
Whether Gabby’s skin was lightened digitally, or simply illuminated by “glamorous” lighting seems irrelevant. The question remains: why wasn’t the color of her face beautiful enough as it is?
And while we’re on the subject of her face, let’s ask that question too: Why was Gabby’s the only close-up cover shot? Why did Megan, Amanda, and Lauren get to flaunt their designer-swathed lithe bodies while Gabby’s presumably pricey frock was cut from the chest-down?
“What I loved about Gabby was that she walked in and was so jovial and ebullient and so happy and charming and she engaged the entire crew and everybody,” Elle‘s creative director, Joe Zee said. “She was 180 degrees not the character of Precious.”
Did anyone think she was, Joe? Are your readers typically vapid enough to equate actors with the characters they portray? Why then, wasn’t Megan Fox showcased in a smiley headshot, to assuage any fears that she is, in fact the demon-possessed, boy-eating serial killer she played in Jennifer’s Body?
Anyone that’s seen 2 seconds of a Gabby interview, or caught a minute of her hilarious “Saturday Night Live” hosting gig knows she’s not the tortured character she played onscreen. But Joe couldn’t take any chances. “She’s not Precious at all, and that’s what people should know,” he continued. “That’s what we captured in the picture and for any flak to come out of that is ludicrous, because at the end of the day it’s about her personality.”
FYI Joe and Robbie: it would have been just as easy to display Gabby’s decidedly un-Precious personality in a full-body shot, rocking her own lovely skin color. What’s the point of proving how inclusive your magazine is by blatantly controlling the content of your supposedly equal-opportunity covers?
— Michelle Konstantinovsky is a student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and an avid admirer of shiny objects and preteen entertainment. It would be nice if you visited her website: www.michellekmedia.com. Also, she may learn to use Twitter more effectively if you follow her @michelley415.