Vanity Fair's Young Hollywood 2010
Through an unlikely chain of circumstances I ended up with a copy of Vanity Fair's Young Hollywood issue for 2010 (Someone said "I'm finished with this, you want to read it?" And I said, "Sure"). If you know me even a little bit via this blog it would not surprise you to learn that I am not a regular reader of Vanity Fair, a magazine that seems to consist of equal parts worshipful profiles of rich people and sad essays about Stars From Back When There Were Stars. Not my thing. But between novels I will read anything, and faced with a long subway ride I cracked open the magazine.
I was vaguely aware that people were angry about the perceived exclusion of actresses of color from the titular pictorial, which involves ingénues-of-the-moment clustered together like cupcakes in a bakery case (Vanilla cupcakes, as it turns out). But I will admit that I didn't take that criticism too seriously. There are, after all, real people in the world who are actually suffering, and in comparison the "suffering" of young actresses--whose job it is to pretend to be real people-- is not that meaningful to me. People dying from broken limbs in Haiti vs. Actresses not getting their pictures in Vanity Fair? No contest.
But then I looked at the issue. And the longer I looked the angrier I got.
People have focused on the cover but for my money the central pictorial (see above), of a group of young actresses lounging like debutantes mid-Ball, is the telling one. The pictured actresses, Carey Mulligan, Kristen Stewart, Abbie Cornish, Mia Wasikowska, Amanda Seyfried and Rebecca Hall in a double page spread, with Emma Stone, Evan Rachel Wood and Anna Kendrick on the following page, are all lovely, (mostly) talented and... white as notebook paper. Further, they have been styled in pale, ice-cream colored dresses and bathed with diffuse light to create a Gatsby-like dreamworld. It's a perfect realization of the fetishization of wealth and privilege and their conflation with youth and beauty that fascinates publications like Vanity Fair (and Esquire, and the New Yorker...) And hell yes, race and ethnicity are a part of that discourse.
Zoe Saldana, who starred in two of the highest-grossing films of the year, Star Trek and Avatar, and Gabouery Sidibe, star of Precious, are notably absent from this image. The objections to their exclusion have rightly focused on the relationship of race to standards of beauty (Advertising Age's Doug Melville referred to Young Hollywood 2010 as the "White issue". Ouch), but I want to tease out another element suggested by this photograph, the relationship of race to social class, or at least its depiction. In an era when actual heiresses are more likely to be found on reality television or in self-released sex tapes, with this pictorial Vanity Fair lovingly recreates a long-past moment when young women from "good" families represented the beauty of privilege (and vice versa). In Evgenia Peretz's cover story on the photo shoot she writes rapturously of Abbie Cornish's "Cupid’s-bow lips... downy-soft cheeks, (and) button nose." And in case we miss the point she elaborates that Cornish, " has those Ivory-soap-girl features we’re so familiar with..." Right. Peretz goes on to describe Rebecca Hall, daughter of English theater director Sir Peter Hall, as having "patrician looks and (a) celebrated pedigree" while Amanda Seyfried has a "full, dewy, wide-eyed loveliness." It becomes clear that Sidibe and Saldana would not have fit into this image because their presence would have undermined the debutante theme by commenting on it, making the uncomfortable historical truth of the relationship between white wealth and racial exploitation all too visible.
I once saw an episode of the old MTV cartoon Beavis and Butthead that describes this dynamic perfectly: They were playing the video for "Karma Chameleon" by Culture Club, which is set in the American South on a riverboat. To get around the uncomfortable racial implications of making a pop video in this setting the director mixed black actors, in tailcoats and hoop skirts, among the white ones, thereby promoting them past slavery by creating a world in which it didn't exist. After a significant pause Butthead asked Beavis, "Is this supposed to be the future?"
Annie Leibovitz, Vanity Fair's house photographer since 1983, has shot all the previous pictorials and portraits of "Young Hollywood" and is responsible for creating its tone. A little research shows that the spreads are all similar, if sometimes more diverse in past years. And it turns out that Saldana was featured, along with America Ferrara, in Vanity Fair's "Young Hollywood" spread in 2008, albeit after the gatefold, a point the magazine's defenders raised in the hope of settling the matter.
... Except that Kristen Stewart and Amanda Seyfried, two of Vanity Fair's 2010 cover girls also appeared in the magazine in 2008 as part of its Hollywood's New Wave issue (How many times a year does this this freaking magazine salute Hollywood? Nevermind. I don't want to know.) The point is, there isn't really a justification for not including Saldana at least, especially given the success of her recent films.
Some of the criticism of the 2010 shoot has been leveled at the actresses pictured, which is unfair. The most salient feature of the job "actress" is to be told what to do: they had no power to influence the theme of this image, except perhaps by refusing to appear in it. (The criticism of their thinness in light of Sidibe's pointed exclusion is also unfair. "Thin" is another job requirement for them and anyway, none of them seem underweight for their height, a victory in an industry that once considered Kate Winslet "plus-sized".) The fact is, they were assembled to portray a scenario that probably has nothing to do with them, except for the fact that the way they look suggests it in this context. It isn't their fault, but they embody the nostalgia for a moment when whiteness, beauty, and power seamlessly flowed together to represent the glamor of wealth. In the imaginary world suggested by this photograph the only brown person possible would be refilling the drinks.
Sidibe responded to her exclusion from the pictorial gracefully, saying, "At first I thought, 'Hmm, should I be there?' Then I very quickly got over it. I think if I were a part of that shoot I would have felt a little left out anyway. I would have felt a little like ... whether or not I should have been there. [It] doesn't matter, because I wasn't on it and I'm excited to be mentioned anywhere, and it doesn't matter to me where I'm not mentioned." While she does not appear beside other young actresses, she is pictured with her director Lee Daniels and costar M'onique among the best picture nominees in a portrait titled "The Real Deal". However Saldana does not join Avatar director James Cameron in his portrait, titled "The Visionary", which depicts him alone in profile, staring meaningfully into the future. Right.
Is this supposed to be the future?