The GEM Debate:
Should We Be Upset Over THIS?
Elle magazine has just come out with its annual women in TV issue. The February issue features four different covers with the actresses Mindy Kaling, Zooey Deschanel, Amy Poehler, and Allison Williams. Some people are calling the magazine racist because Mindy Kaling’s photo is different from the other white actresses: Take a look for yourself:
The controversy comes from Mindy’s photo being a close-up and black-and-white while the other actresses are shown full-bodied and in color. The detractors say that because she is a woman of color and curvier (she’s a size 8) than her cohorts, there is an attempt to treat her differently.
Is Elle following a pattern? Rene wrote a post here about a controversy with Elle and their portrayal of actress Gabourey Sidibe.
More currently, the November 2013 issue features the actress Melissa McCarthy. Unlike many other Elle covers that dare to bare nearly all, McCarthy is photographed in a coat.
Melissa says that she chose the coat herself and that the styling was her choice. Her fans didn’t buy it. They felt she was slighted and some are saying the coat was intended to cloak her full figure.
As a woman who is neither white nor model-skinny, I’m going to pass on feeling offended about the Elle covers. I have no idea why they chose to make Mindy Kaling’s cover different from the other actresses. I believe Melissa McCarthy when she said she did her own styling. I feel certain that the editors weren’t sitting in their offices laughing in their Dr. Evil voices and trying to find a way to set them apart from other cover models.
I acknowledge that that’s exactly what happened, but in these two cases, I choose to look at it differently. When I compare Mindy’s photo to the other actresses, I find hers more striking. Black and white photos tend to capture my eye because they’re not done as often as color on magazine covers. She’s in your face with her beauty. Mindy is sexy without being sexpot. I’m not suggesting that the other cover models look trashy or anything less than beautiful, but their photos don’t make me interested in getting to know them or their work. They are far away from the camera and because of that, they feel distant. Mindy looks like she’s giving me an invitation to be her friend.
As far as Melissa McCarthy and the coat scandal, I think she chose to wear something that made her feel sexy. It doesn’t matter that she’s not in a small dress showing more skin. People need to redefine for themselves what sexy is. Some women feel sexy in bikinis, some in jeans and a fitted T-shirt, some in coats. All of those feelings are okay. I think it matters more that a full-figured woman was featured on a fashion magazine cover. No, it doesn’t happen enough, but I’m more interested in magazines showing the full spectrum of womanhood.
Some people are making the argument that we should care about what message these covers send to women of color and full-figured women. Their point is that seeing someone who looks like you cropped or covered up feels like social exclusion. I think the fact that Mindy and Melissa were on these covers feels like social inclusion.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying that we should take what we can get when it comes to how the “other” is portrayed. I’m saying that the fact that these women are on the covers means that somebody was thinking in the right direction. Can the editors go further? Absolutely, yes, but we consumers will be the ones to get them there with action they can understand.
If this matters to you, make the magazines that feature the kind of women you want to see fly off the newsstands. Talk about it on social media. Encourage your friends to buy that issue. Flood the editors’ offices with letters letting them know that you will gladly pay for more of the same.
Even these actions will only add up to mere tokenism if we don’t help these editors change what’s in their hearts. Indignation and outrage has its place, but it too easily falls victim to the next news cycle. If this matters to you, consider explaining to the editors why it does. Expect resistance, then explain again.
What do you think? Are the Elle magazine covers evidence of latent racism and fat-shaming? Are they conducting business as usual? Share your thoughts.
Alexis Trass Walker lives in Gary, Indiana, with her husband and four children. She is managing editor of Good Enough Mother. Read more about Alexis on her blog www.lilliebelle.org or follow her on Twitter @LillieBelle5.