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Vanity Fair’s Hollywood, Manet, and Betty Friedan

Vanity Fair's Hollywood, Manet, and Betty Friedan

What would the late, great feminist activist Betty Friedan think of Vanity Fair’s “Hollywood Issue” March cover, featuring Keira Knightley and Scarlett Johansson naked, alongside a fully clothed Tom Ford, the former Gucci creative director. Without a shred of irony, the cover photograph suggests what Edouard Manet’s famous painting “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe” indicated over 100 years ago: women are supposed to be looked at; men are supposed to look.

I realize Vanity Fair wants to sell magazines, but if they really wanted to be controversial — and belong to the 21st century — they should have reversed genders: In a year when “Brokback Mountain” is the leading Oscar contender, why isn’t Ford and some other male model naked, alongside a fully clothed dominant female figure? Instead, we get 100-year-old aesthetics and 100-year-old ideologies.


An article in The Guardian suggests that the starlets are not naked – “they are nude.” the writer states. “They have the gorgeous unreality of Botticelli’s Venus, or Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Eve, or the 18th-century paintings by Boucher and Fragonard that are its more direct models. These stars’ bodies are Art.”

Maybe so, but there is nothing particularly subversive or shocking about this “art.” In an age when female bodies are plastered everywhere, from magazines to billboards to TV commercials, these idealized nudes — gazing seductively at the viewer — display nothing particularly unique or new, just art-porn for the masses.

Friedan, who died last week, once said, “When she stopped conforming to the conventional picture of femininity she finally began to enjoy being a woman.”

You’d think in the year 2006, this conventional picture would start to fall by the way side. What did Friedan spend all those years working for? On the NOW website, you can read about all the other ways the Bush Administration is backtracking on women’s rights around the world. I realize Vanity Fair is the least on people’s minds right now, but it’s just one more indication that so little has changed.

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I am not sure I agree with your reading of the Manet painting in question when you write …”the cover photograph suggests what Edouard Manet’s famous painting “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe” indicated over 100 years ago: women are supposed to be looked at; men are supposed to look.”

Is not the nude woman gazing at the viewer?

As in Manet’s “Olympia,” whose implacable stare out of the canvass drove 19th Century critics and art connoisseurs crazy, the model’s outward gaze here, in stark contrast to the classical figure in the background, seems self-consciously aware not only of the artificial construction of setting, but also of the fact that she is on display. If we are to attribute all sorts of power to ability to “gaze,” then her gaze outward is closer to an empowering indictment than a passive surrender.

That said, my understanding of the Vanity Fair cover is that Tom Ford (who posed nude himself in W: ) is only on this cover b/c he stepped in when Rachel McAdams backed out at the last second. (

Jan Lisa Huttner

Thank you, Anthony! This year’s Oscar nominations are an insult to women & men of conscience everywhere. In every case, women’s roles are subordinate, & this in the year that the biggest political question on the table concerned the future of the Supreme Court. No wonder Coretta Scott King, Wendy Wasserstein, & Betty Friedan all died that week. I know my heart broke on 1/31/06!

kaitlin Hess

I agree completely with your statement except when you had to turn it into a Bush bashing opportunity… amazes me how the so called “feminists” turn the blind eye to the women in the Middle East and the oppression that goes on over there….lest you forget that George Bush has liberated millions of Women in the middle east and has given them more opportunity than NOW ever could hope for….very hypocritical.

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