Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being: Vanity Fair's Young Hollywood Issue

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.

Young Hollywood 2008

... 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.

Seyfried and Stewart, flanking Emma Roberts and Blake Lively,
Hollywood's New Wave, by Mark Seliger

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.

M'onique, Lee Daniels and Gabouery Sidibe, by Annie Leibovitz

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?


  1. Wow. What an excellent analysis Joseph! As I read Evgenia Peretz's description of these women I couldn't help but think "No wonder I grew up thinking I was ugly."

  2. Ugh, I hope it's not the future.

    Good point about how the cover was like a masturbatory fantasy about high society and rich Daddy's Little Girls in ball-gown dresses, circa early 20th century. I haven't even thought about that.

    I hate and despise people who romanticize the past, when someone like ME, would have been forcibly put in a mental asylum for being Deaf, or being shunned by society for being Indian and Muslim.

  3. As an actor, I consider myself fortunate that my physical appearance serves as a visual shorthand for sophistication and privilege.

    I kid. If there were a male version of this cover, filled with Jonas Pattinson-LaBeof types in creative black tie, I'd get cast as the guy driving the catering truck. Off-camera.

    What I'm saying is, Vanity Fair makes me puke. It's the only magazine that will run a well-written piece about how the economy fell next to a 12-page spread about "Europe's Young Sexy Royals." Unironically.

  4. @Sobia
    The fact that a woman as beautiful as you are could be made to feel ugly says more about this than anything I could add.

    I agree with you completely about romanticizing the past. It is no accident that Back to the Future was about a suburban white guy. Who the hell else would want to go backwards? Octavia Butler deals with this in her great book Kindred, which is about what happens when a modern day black woman is drawn backwards in time.Do you know it?

    I was actually thinking of you and your adventures with casting when I wrote this. I've often told my students: there is often very little relationship between who you are, how you look and beyond that, what your looks may be used to represent by people WHO ARE NOT YOU. That's how you end up getting told you are "too ethnic" to be in a national cereal commercial, right Ant? (true story)

  5. Thank you for this post Joe. As a women of color let me just make a few observations. The truth of the matter is according to the stereotypes of what is currently considered beautiful in the African American community, Zoe Saldana would certainly fit right into this photo. Of course we would have to do a minor touch-up and "lighten" her up just a smidge. There was a time when being "black" was beautiful but it has only been in moments that come and go much like fashionable trends.

    But, in the personal interest of moving away from race and focusing on body type I want to talk a little about Gaby Sidibe. My heart goes out to the girl because the truth of the matter is this is her moment. Because there is no way in the world that she will find an opportunity like this again. Hollywood is not going to find a place for her because of this film. They will feel the guilt of Precious for about one awards season and then move on. Do you know how many articles I read where people remarked how hard it was to look at the character of "Precious"? They had to turn away because they were horrified. Not because of the awful hand she had been dealt in life but because of how she looked. But, wait that's not the character you have a problem with, essentially it is with the way gaby looks. You see being light or dark skinned can be the "in" thing but being fat, overweight, thick or obese that will NEVER be a trend in Hollywood.

    Gaby was good in Precious, really good. It's a very difficult story to tell especially for an amateur. Do I think she was good enough to play other roles, YES? Will she get an opportunity to play a leading or even supporting role, ummm hell to the NO. What is so ironic is that Mo'nique is her mentor and as she accepts each award she gets just a little bit thinner. Now believe me I am happy for her because I do admire her talent but why all of a sudden this obsession with losing weight. It's because she knows in order for her to capitalize on this opportunity and expand her career she must now conform to what Hollywood expects in their actresses. I wish it wasn't that way but it is. I am sorry to say it but in the case of Gaby Sidibe and body image this will continue to be our future for a very long time.

  6. @Amina
    Wow. You said a lot with this comment--it's a post all on its own. I don't want to be cynical but I can't help but think they will put Gaby Sidibe on the Ricky Lake/Marissa Jarret Winokur career track (assuming she keeps working at all). i.e. t.v. movies about being a sassy chubby girl who gets the guy anyway, playing the sassy chubby friend to the Main Girl and then eventually bravely losing weight and being an ex-chubby (but still sassy) girl whose main job is to talk about losing weight. Whether that trajectory would work with a black girl or not remains to be seen. If I were her agent I'd being knocking myself out trying to get her a second-lead in a sitcom or ensemble drama before this all dies down.

    Whatever happens her weight will be an issue, one way or another--you're right.

  7. Great post. And I hate to be so cynical, but honestly, she is probably considered to big to even be the cute, chubby girl. Because she is black, if she loses weight, she can be the sassy, bossy sidekick to the white lead or something.
    Hopefully, they develop good sit-coms that have a black cast ( I personally hate the recent ones to come out, namely those with Tyler Perry behind the helm). I think if they developed roles for her on shows like The Game, or Moesha (the one starring Brandy), or Monique's old sit-com she could do really well.
    I really hate it that despite her immense talent and supposedly great personality that makes her fun and easy to work with, her success has little to do with her talent and so much to do with someone willing to take a chance and break away from tradition by putting her in good roles that don't specifically call for a certain appearance.

  8. This was very well written and served up a few good points, but I think you may be reading too heavily into the 'lack of color' in the issue.

  9. @Brie
    Thanks, but I don't think so. I think when we apply the same level of analysis we would for a work of art or a political issue to silly things like magazine spreads of starlets we are doing something important: acknowledging that even if the thing itself is trivial the effect of it is serious. That is what I was trying to do here.

    Also, when I wrote, "If I were (Gaby Sidibe's) agent I'd being knocking myself out trying to get her a second-lead in a sitcom or ensemble drama before this all dies down" I called it. She is doing just that on Showtime's new show C Word.

    I win.

  10. @Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist, Minamo, and Joe
    Um...I am currently lazing around my house watching a romantic comedy. I started to google the main actress, Amanda Seyfried. I found the pictures from vanity fair and was attracted by the pretty dresses. When I went to click on the image this blog popped up. I read this entire article and the comments posted underneath it.

    I was consuming without thinking.
    I am a girl of colour.
    The moments I start buying into my own inferiority are the most shameful for me. It seem to happen all the time.

    I must sound young and silly but I am trying. I am really thankful to those voices that motivate me to think critically, to resist.

    Thank you

  11. @Dri
    Thank you for your comment. Of course you don't sound silly, you seem very thoughtful. Please come back around and join the conversation.

  12. I just think that the whole point was not to make it seem like they were "High Class" and that it was because they are white. I feel that if this shoot had all girls of color no one would be saying it was racist at all. So why should we think that about this? They have before put girls of color in this magazine I so I don't believe there was anything "Racially" wrong with it.
    This is just MY opinion, I do think that you made some great points in there but this is simply what i think.