The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

Palin Newsweek Cover “A Clear Slap In The Face … Why? Because It’s Unretouched

Posted by Clem Bastow on October 9, 2008

So says Republican Media Consultant Andrea Tantaros, who – along with her colleagues – is up in arms about Newsweek‘s latest issue, featuring a close-up photo of Gov. Sarah Palin (pictured at right, click through for full-size).

Speaking on Fox News’ America’s Newsroom, the Republican media team – not to mention the show’s host – cried foul, suggesting that Newsweek have done Palin a gross disservice by failing to airbrush her into a palatable cover girl. As Tantaros says:

“It highlights every imperfection – that every human being has – but we’re talking unwanted facial hair, pores, wrinkles…”

Tantaros then suggests that Newsweek‘s Obama covers have made him look “Presidential … flawless”.

(Briefly, to compare and contrast and provide some perspective, here’s a Newsweek John McCain cover, and a Barack Obama one. And, to even things up, here’s their Hillary Clinton effort, and Michelle Obama. You’ll agree there’s not a lot of airbrushing going on anywhere, and why would there be? It’s Newsweek!)

The host then barks:

“I mean, c’mon … Any respectable magazine should be doing a little retouching if you’re going to have the extreme close-up”

Fortunately Julia Piscitelli from American University’s Women & Politics Institute then offers some sage words (saying that Palin is clearly “beautiful” either way), before Tantaros cries out that the cover photo is “mortifying! … [Any] woman who sees this cover would be shocked and horrified“.

Really? Have we become so sucked into the airbrushed world that to see a woman unretouched is “horrifying”? As Piscitelli notes, Palin’s cover is the Newsweek ‘Women & Leadership’ issue, “which means that she’s one of the top women in leadership in the country” – what is more important here?

Retouching remains one of the touchstones of feminist debate, and for good reason – when even supposed “real” women in the media (for example, Dove’s Campaign For Real Beauty) are being airbrushed, what does that do to the general consciousness? How pervasively does that affect women and girls’ self-esteem and body image? And when Hollywood actresses and supermodels are also retouched, how does that contribute to ideals of beauty, if the beautiful aren’t even beautiful enough to be presented ‘as is’?

Situations like this remind me of the wonderful psychotherapist Pamela Stephenson Connolly’s wise words about how fame (and all its trappings – i.e. stylists, retouchers, professional hair and make-up artistry) actually affect the famous themselves. As she told Andrew Denton:

I mean we all are led to believe that fame is, is a glorious thing and we should all aspire to it. But in fact what happens when, when one comes to public attention is that there’s a tremendous amount of loss involved. You lose the sense of yourself, how you experienced yourself to begin with, before you came to public attention. You pretty much lose every relationship in your life. It, well it changes radically from what it was. Ah the feelings might be one of – very often they’re envious because that self that’s out there in the public eye is really a very polished self. It’s usually perfectly made up. It’s usually, I don’t know in your case, you know suave and funny and intelligent. But Andrew, when you walk into the supermarket you know, seven thirty in the morning, you might be rather different.

In other words, famous people become, essentially, jealous of themselves – because, in their downtime, they are so completely different to the commodified versions of themselves that beam back at them from the cover of InStyle and Cosmo.

But this is tricky territory – does the airbrush debate become just another way to hook into other women and nitpick? As grand old dame Julie Burchill said, with tongue only very slightly in cheek, in the Guardian this year on the topic of Liz Hurley and others admitting to retouching:

Miss Hurley likes her photos doctored so they make her look ‘thinner and younger – I like a certain amount of retouching, like anybody. We all like to get rid of spots and shadows under our eyes. Every time I download my holiday snaps, I always go over them.’

Imagine that; being so conscious of being an APB – Ageing Professional Beauty – that you even doctor your own holiday snaps! No wonder Liz calls the rest of us ‘civilians’; this is surely a level of discipline that rarely exists outside the armed forces. Although of course the enemy in this case can never be beaten; an evil axis of one’s own mortality collaborating with Mother Nature and Old Father Time. Surely being a Professional Beauty – let alone an ageing one – is one of the most insecure and doomed careers imaginable. And the idea that they are happier with their lot than the rest of us – from Marilyn Monroe to Naomi Campbell – obviously isn’t true. Why in the world should we begrudge them a bit of airbrushing in order to soften the blow of being mugged by gravity?

Most women are wise to the fact that lots of men love a cat-fight, and thus go out of their way not to give them one. But there’s more than one way of giving a bitch-slap – and the weary old face-off between ‘plastic’ and ‘real’ women is one of them. At the end of the day, we are sisters under the skin – even if we are led to believe that theirs is like liquid silk, while ours is more like bubble-wrap. Vive la différence!

This is where we return to the very odd quality of Palin’s entering into the global media arena – for all intents and purposes she is a politician, and yet debates like the one on Fox News treat her as a celebrity. Such is the reach of American culture that, in some ways, their politicians are celebrities, inasmuch as everyone knows of them (and in many cases, probably cares more about the election result than a lot of Americans do).

But when will people start treating Palin as what she is – a politician – and then realising that, as a politician, she makes a pretty good pageant entrant? You can airbrush away unwanted facial hair, but political inexperience? Not so much.

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