"There is difference and there is power. And who holds the power decides the meaning of the difference." --June Jordan

Friday, February 16, 2007

Sweet (but complicated) Progress

First, the good news:

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Golden Globe winner and Oscar hopeful Jennifer Hudson will be gracing the cover of the March, 2007 issue of Vogue magazine, set to hit newsstands this Tuesday. One only needs to scan the whitewashed images in the cover archives at Vogue's website to see that she is a departure from their usual fare. Some of the buzz surrounding the selection of Hudson is that she is only the third African American woman to appear on the cover of Vogue, after Oprah Winfrey and Halle Berry, but that's only if you're counting actresses and not models. Check out a short history of black women on the cover of Vogue over at Clay Cane's blog.

This event isn't just significant because she's the first black singer to appear alone on the cover of the magazine. Perhaps an even bigger deal is the fact that Vogue has chosen to showcase a woman the fashion industry considers "plus-sized". It is famously known that stars like Oprah Winfrey and Drew Barrymore were told they needed to lose weight (twenty pounds in Oprah's case) in order to grace the cover, but this doesn't seem to be the case with Hudson:

"Why should I feel like the minority when the majority of America is a size 12?" she says. "Plus, a lot of singers don't sound the same when they lose weight." She grabs a handful of flesh below her belly. "I have a little singer's pouch, and that's where the voice comes from, so you're all just going to have to get used to my jelly." She laughs. "Hey, somebody has to represent the big girls. Why not me?" (Newsweek Entertainment)

Now, for the bad news:

Although it seems that the overwhelming response to the cover is more positive than negative, the backlash has already begun. Gossip blogs all over the web are desperately trying to put Jennifer in her place by claiming that the photos (shot by none other than Annie Leibovitz) are terrible, that they are airbrushed more than usual to make the star appear thinner, and that her image would be more at home on the cover of a catalog for Lane Bryant than on the "fashion bible". One blog-commenter even went so far as to say that she is pictured with her mouth open because she's always ready for a hamburger to be shoved into it. Because it would make so much more sense to show this outspoken singer with closed lips, giving us a silent and seductive pout?

Also, following the media's never-ending attempt to pit women against each other, the world of celebrity news is using the appearance of Hudson's skinny Dreamgirls co-star Beyonce Knowles on the cover of the upcoming Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue to create a rivalry between the two actor-singers. If there's anything the media loves, it's a catfight. When George Clooney and Brad Pitt appear together in those Oceans 11 movies, does anyone try to imply that the two actors secretly hate each other and constantly pout over who is more in the spotlight? Does the media try to get us to imagine the two in a screaming, hair-pulling fight? (For a great feminist analysis of competition between women, read Leora Tanenbaum's Catfight.)

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I couldn't be happier that the beautiful and talented Ms. Hudson is on the cover of a magazine usually reserved for white, blonde, size 2 waifs. I'm only saddened that she has to appear as a token when her image is much more healthy and normal than that of typical covergirls. It's also disheartening that her appearance will doubtfully have any influence over the content of the magazine -- in this issue or any subsequent issues. Anna Wintour states in her "Letter from the Editor" column: “The question of body image is a current one, and I can’t think of a more compelling and beautiful argument for the proposition that great fashion looks great on women of all sizes than the sight of Hudson in a Vera Wang dress on the red carpet.” But my expectation is that, following this statement, this will be just another issue filled with skinny fashion models and articles about how to lose ten pounds.

(Thanks to Kim and her pop culture radar for keeping me up-to-date!)