Four reasons to flinch at Vanity Fair’s 2018 cover photo

Vanity Fair’s annual 2019 cover, by Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki, is a beautiful picture. It shows Hollywood’s stars, representing an era of change and diversity in the film industry. Each performer in this picture has a unique story, and together they display an array of strength, determination and a pinch of good fortune.

Vanity Fair 2019 cover by Emmanuel ‘Chivo’ Lubezki

In many ways, the 2019 cover is the opposite of Vanity Fair’s last year (2018) cover, by Annie Leibovitz. While Lubetzki’s cover presented the actors and actresses in a variety of position, allowing women to display strength and directness, Leibovitz’s cover presented women as weak and vulnerable.

Vanity Fair 2018 Cover by Annie Leibovitz

The 2018 cover, amid Hollywood’s awards season, marked by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement, featured Hollywood’s A list stars like Oprah Winfrey, Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Tom Hanks and more. Leibovitz’s work is mesmerizing, yet the photo underscored what’s wrong in Hollywood’s traditional balance of power between men and women.

There is no doubt that the actors and actresses who were invited to participate are among the most powerful and influential players in the entertainment industry. But they were not presented equally.

During the 1970s, the famous sociologist Erving Goffman wrote about framing theory, explaining how content and communicating texts present structured thinking patterns called schemata of interpretation. These patterns help the viewers to understand what is happening, by providing context, meaning, and moral authority. Goffman’s basic concepts are particularly relevant to the alignment of the gender balance of power in Leibovitz’s photo.

Vanity Fair 2018 Cover by Annie Leibovitz

First, we can notice the chromatic division: the men’s identical black suits are protecting them from the judgment of their physical traits. Unlike the women, they don’t need to ‘surprise’ or seduce to garner the viewers’ interest. The women, however, are arrayed in colorful dresses, revealing their body parts and contours. This spectrum is beautiful and fascinating but is a complete contrast to the black dress statement at the 2018 Golden Globe awards, which promoted the #TimesUp call. It also questions the effectiveness of such statements: if women need to wear black to express a stance in the public sphere, then their feminine colorfulness could make their position superficial and limit it to the private feminine sphere.

Second, the actors’ positioning present traditional and conservative gender power relations: most of the men in the photo are standing up straight, hiding their hands in their pockets, while the women are presented as subordinate: they are leaning, reclining in vulnerable positions that make it difficult to defend themselves, depending on their surroundings and devoting themselves to the power above them. Their palms are dangling or caressing their bodies. They are positioned in a breath-taking position as if the world is just “too much” for them and they can’t handle it. Even Oprah Winfrey, an influential and beloved popular figure who was once mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, isn’t transmitting her real power.

Vanity Fair 2018 Cover by Annie Leibovitz

Third, the differences between men and women are also revealed in the level of cognition: although the photo presents powerful actresses, it seems they are not aware of their surroundings. Goffman called this Licensed Withdrawal, the authorized ability to withdraw from the world and proper functioning, and to become distant even almost fainting. Except for Gal Gadot, who stands straight and aware, it looks like the women are daydreaming. Even when they are looking at the camera, their gazes are foggy. It is especially disappointing to see Claire Foy, who played the role of the impressive and resilient Queen of England, lying on the room’s floor, empty and listless.

Finally, while the men in Vanity’s Fair photo are presented in the splendor of their age, Nicole Kidman seems like a schoolgirl. This is because in today’s social codes, girls are expected to become women and women are expected never to age.

It is surprising that the actresses and even Annie Leibovitz collaborated to produce such a troublesome message: men are confident, relaxed, and aware, while women are weak, vulnerable, dreamy, and submissive.

It is encouraging to see the change in Vanity Fair’s 2019 coverage, expressing a new approach to equal social codes. We can only hope that within the current gender discourse, Hollywood’s opinion leaders will stand together as equals, men, and women. May their future photos be unique and powerful, and no less mesmerizing.



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Dr. Shani Horowitz-Rozen

Helping companies and executives to tell their stories & focus their messages. Framing is Everything