In Defense of Jezebel's $10K Lena Dunham Photo Bounty   

What Women Really Think
Jan. 16 2014 5:06 PM

Jezebel's Lena Dunham Stunt Is a Public Service, Not a Shaming Tactic

Lena_Dunham

Vogue/Annie Leibovitz

While I was busy this morning crafting my carefully thought-out and meticulously worded reaction to Lena Dunham's clearly photoshopped Vogue cover debut, Jezebel went and offered a $10,000 bounty on the un-retouched photos, to the delight of some and the outrage of many. Jezebel, which made a name for itself running leaked un-retouched photos from women’s magazines, to everyone's glee, seems to have finally come up against a cover subject that the world does not want exposed. But why? 

The first time this happened, in 2007, Jez put out a call for prealtered images—anyone’s—and got back Faith Hill on the cover of Redbook. A gorgeous, glowing Hill with no flesh on her arm was revealed to be a gorgeous, glowing Hill with some flesh on her arm, plus tiny crow’s feet. The reaction to the stunt was overwhelmingly positive, and not just because most Jez readers aren’t protective Faith Hill fans. Hill looked fabulous—conventionally fabulous—before the retouching, so Redbook’s tinkering seemed totally unnecessary and evil. We all knew that Jezebel wasn’t shaming Faith Hill’s arms—they were shaming Redbook.

Which is why Dunham is a great subject for this stunt! Everyone (or at least, anyone who’s ever tuned into Girls) already knows what Dunham’s body looks like, clothed and nude. Jez is not trying to expose Dunham—it’s continuing its crusade against the fashion magazines that make us all feel like crap and have, in many ways, contributed to a pop culture in which Dunham’s perfectly lovely physique is so outside the norm. (Also it’s going to get a lot of Internet traffic out of this, but that is what we all want for our stories, so let’s not harp.)

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Without going into the journalistic ethics of offering cash for scoops, Dunham also seems ideal for Jez’s attempted payout because of the total dissonance between her work and Vogue’s. Here are some choice lines from the piece, written by Nathan Heller: 

In addition to tracking the fashion world closely, she’s become a kind of spokesperson for young women who want to express themselves stylishly but with personal whimsy, and a vocal critic of the stereotype that fashion belongs only to a tiny group of superslender people terrified of breaking rules. For almost as long as Dunham’s work has been in the public eye, she’s spoken openly and often about her body type, pointing out that not every strong and enviable woman on the air must resemble a runway model.

And:

Dunham’s comfort in her own skin—even when bared—has become part of her cool iconoclasm. It’s the reason many people see her as the voice for a new generation of empowered young women, and it’s slowly helped to shift the norms of female charisma on-screen. 

This sounds like a veiled challenge to Vogue and other outlets that make fashion the exclusive bailiwick of scared, superslender people. But it is laughable in the context of Photoshop. The Annie Leibovitz spread shows Dunham sprawled sexily across a bed, pouting at a deserted Bushwick subway stop (as one does), perched in evening wear on the rim of a bathtub containing Adam Driver (as one doesn’t), wearing a pigeon, and walking her dog while—in some sort of computerized fourth dimension, at least—getting an oddly dignified piggyback ride. Even without the obvious alterations to her body, Dunham’s pictures are superglamorous in a way that feels less like Vogue pushing the envelope or proving a point than smoothing away rough edges to make its subject fit the norm she’s supposedly shifting.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a little glamour! But you can get whiplash alternating between Dunham’s quotes and the accompanying photos. The Girls creator says things like: “There was a sense that I and many women I knew had been led astray by Hollywood and television depictions of sexuality … Seeing somebody who looks like you having sex on television is a less comfortable experience than seeing somebody who looks like nobody you’ve ever met.” But “nobody you’ve ever met” is exactly the vibe that comes across here (could be the Photoshop). While Wintour and co. don’t need to show their cover girl braless in sweats at the diner, they also could have taken a cue from her words and work.

Of course, Dunham herself is less of an Everywoman than her character, Hannah Horvath. As Heller points out, the star first appeared in Vogue at age 11, “as part of a spread about ‘a New York pack of fashion-conscious kids.’ ” The daughter of famous artists, a frequent New Yorker contributor, she is scarily accomplished and, yes, scarily well-connected. She already dwells in the rarefied world of runways and Prada gowns, of curating and media-manicuring, so it’s not like the modified photos are necessarily a betrayal of her essence. They just feel like a betrayal of her image. And, more importantly, a reminder that magazines like Vogue remain unmoved by what Dunham has to say. Good for Jezebel for wanting to point that out, again. 

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer.