Amy Poehler

The Great Funny Girl Cover Up

Why are ‘Vogue’ and ‘Elle’ cropping, cloaking, and Photoshopping the crap out of female comics Mindy Kaling, Melissa McCarthy, and Lena Dunham?

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First, Elle put Melissa McCarthy on one of its “Women in Hollywood” covers, her curves hidden beneath a cashmere coat. And that would’ve been just fine if, on other versions of the same issue, we didn’t see Reese Witherspoon showing off a svelte frame in a body-hugging black dress and Shailene Woodley stripped down to a Calvin Klein bathing suit.

Perhaps that would’ve seemed like an honest mistake if, just four months later, the magazine didn’t strike again with its February “Women in TV” issue’s four covers: While the whiter, thinner Zooey Deschanel, Amy Poehler, and Allison Williams posed in full-color, full-body shots, Mindy Kaling got a staid black-and-white close-up. It did not go unnoticed—controversy ensued, with fans questioning whether the magazine was hiding its more voluptuous cover girls, not to mention sidestepping Kaling’s skin color.

And while the Kaling uproar still simmered, yet another fashion magazine sent bloggers into a tizzy when Vogue ran retouched photos of Girls star Lena Dunham—and Jezebel paid $10,000 to get its hands on the originals so it could dissect every nipped waist and removed blemish. Perhaps magazines are making some progress by occasionally putting a non-white or non-skinny woman on the cover, but we’ve still got a ways to go if it sparks an uproar every time it happens.

That said, this is a small step for womankind in the glossies, who seem to have finally noticed that funny women are, well, funny: Once upon a time, not that long ago, Vanity Fair was patting itself on the back for featuring a few women from comedy in a fashion spread. (And this just a year after the same mag let the late Christopher Hitchens lecture the world on why he thought women weren’t the least bit funny.) Now we have McCarthy, Deschanel, Poehler, Williams, Kaling, and Dunham on covers, looking like paragons of glamour, whether in a coat, in black and white, or sandblasted by Photoshop.

But the rub comes when their ascension smacks up against long-held norms that don’t fall overnight: beauty standards implicitly touted by those same magazines for decades that dictate none of us can ever be thin enough, white enough, perfect enough. The world wants to embrace these women for their brains and talent, but, as usual, the media is lagging behind. Women’s mags are eager to give us the women we love, and they may even intend to embrace these women for who they are, as they are—in theory. But their advertisers would still prefer that women feel insecure about themselves so they will buy more of their beauty products, which means we can’t celebrate anything outside the skinny, white ideal too much.

The funny women in question, true to form, made jokes about the covers and the controversies—they are, after all, comedians. McCarthy called it “Jacket Gate,” adding sarcastically, “How dare someone put me in a $3,000 coat? That’s terrible!” Kaling, who often talks about her body issues and addresses feminist discussions on her show, hit a little closer to the truth: “There was a weird reaction, which was, ‘Does Elle magazine think Mindy’s not skinny enough to show her whole body, standing up from head to toe?’ The implication was, ‘What, Elle, you can’t put her big, fat body on the magazine? Why? ’Cause she’s just fat and gruesome? Why can’t we look at her beautiful fat body?’”

Here’s where we start to see how well-intended media criticism can go too far, disparaging the very women it’s trying to “defend.” Calling these magazines out on their treatment of McCarthy and Kaling implies that there’s something different about—something wrong with—their bodies. Elle has certainly featured other cover stars in close-ups, skinny or no. But, alas, not often.

I harbor such affection for Kaling that I felt a little sad seeing her discuss the experience of feeling so glamorous on her first fashion cover being ruined by talk of why she didn’t make the full-body-shot list. On the other hand, Elle editors should have the sense to look at any multiple covers they do, pre-publication, and play the “Which of these things is not like the others?” game that readers will inevitably engage in. None of us—not the editors nor the readers—is stupid enough to not notice that it’s only the biggest of the women whose body is obscured, only the woman of color who isn’t in color. (And, yes, the magazine made this same misstep back in 2010 in a cover featuring Precious star Gabourey Sidibe.) Here’s another idea: Feature a woman of color or a woman larger than size 2 on her own cover without multiple other versions to force a comparison.

When it comes to the Vogue dust-up, Jezebel clearly crossed the Media Criticism Gone Wild line. As Ad Week reporter Emma Bazilian told NPR, “Despite the fact that Vogue did clearly Photoshop Lena Dunham, their cover girl, they’re actually winning this. Vogue is supposed to be this sort of fantasy version of a fashion reality, and it’s really nothing that you wouldn’t expect from them. And plus, they really get kudos for putting such a real girl—who’s not like a size 2 model or actress—on the cover.”

In fact, no less a feminist goddess than Tina Fey has defended her own right to a little bit of Photoshop while appearing in national publications. In her book Bossypants, she writes, “I feel about Photoshop the way some people feel about abortion. It is appalling and a tragic reflection on the moral decay of our society … unless I need it, in which case, everybody be cool.”

We want to see our favorite smart, funny women celebrated as glamorous. We want them to feel good about themselves, because they make us feel good about ourselves. And we need fashion magazines who don’t insist on having their cake, eating it too, and then making us (and our favorite stars) feel bad for wanting some cake once in a while, too. Is that so much to ask?

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