Jenny Lewis’s new album has a striking cover picture of her wearing a cut out dress. The image was a glamorous twin of her cover for previous album ‘The Voyager’. On that album she had worn a rainbow suit inspired by Gram Parsons and the headless shot focused all our attention on that outfit. The ‘On The Line’ cover is almost an identical shot but this time Jenny is in a satin jumpsuit, her hair styled and her cleavage exposed. Those in the know connected the images together and understood that the new album cover was a metaphor for Jenny freeing herself from the past, glamming up in response to all the dark times she had gone through. Later she acknowledged the image was also in honour of her late mother, a Vegas lounge singer who wore similar stage outfits designed by Bob Mackie and who had a mole in the exact same spot on her chest.
Both images were taken by Autumn De Wilde, chosen by Jenny. She was neither forced to use her image to market her music or attempting to ‘sell out’ to commercial pressures. This wasn’t like some creepy Terry Richardson style photoshoot where faceless women were exploited or violated by the male gaze. It was a little bit of fun – note how Jenny has put the images on t-shirts, quipped about ‘breast new music’ and happily retweeted those who have put their head on her picture. It was just a flash of boobs anyway – who could possibly be offended?
Well it turns out quite a few people. When I tweeted my album review I had some angry responses to the image and I saw similar complaints when scrolling through social media. A lot of these came from conservatives, or men trying to police women’s bodies. Others were from feminists asking why a serious musician like Jenny was sexualising her image. One equated the cover to the ‘headless woman’ trend in the book industry, which was said to have marginalised books by women, trivialising the writing and gendering their work. And yes, I would have to admit that it is rare to see any albums by men that use sexualised imagery on the cover (unless they are pictures of women, of course). But in Jenny’s case this cover was not intended to offend or objectify – it was a considered, artistic choice celebrating the freedom of a single women in her forties.
Alongside those critics of her image were the equally troubling sexist responses to the picture by some men. Last weekend I was in a record shop and heard some men making some suggestive comments and I knew exactly what album they were looking at. At the time I just laughed and rolled my eyes. At the counter the sales clerk stared just a little too long at Jenny’s picture before scanning the album and asking me about her. I tried to make serious points about her music and encouraged him to listen. I don’t know if he did or if he just spent more time ogling her after I left.
In the end I concluded that the image itself was not the problem, objectification was. Looking good and showing your body off isn’t a crime against feminism. Men need to take women seriously whatever they are (or aren’t) wearing. And we all need to be less judgemental about how other people present themselves.
Recently I was shocked at the horrific personal comments made online about the image on the front of the Maren Morris album cover. To see people who I followed cruelly mocking a woman for wearing a bikini top was so depressing. What harm was done by her posing in a pretty pink bra? Why was this such an affront to some music fans? It didn’t change the songs contained within. I genuinely hope she didn’t read the abusive comments because they were so mean-spirited and hurtful you almost wonder if these trolls had forgotten Maren was an actual human being.
Avril Lavigne was also criticised by the Guardian for her last album cover, where she posed naked behind a guitar. Again the image wasn’t offensive – you couldn’t see much more skin than if she had been wearing a sundress. Avril had suffered a health scare so the image was supposed to represent her rebirth. Maybe that idea was a stretch but the photo certainly didn’t deserve such a damning op-ed. Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé have also been unfairly attacked for the provocative pictures they have used in the past.
Why are so many people upset about these images of women? It just doesn’t make sense to me. Of course I would be concerned if anyone was forced to use their image in a sexual way or if men were using these images to exploit women. But that just isn’t the case. The reaction to these covers seems symptomatic of a deeper problem with how the world views women.
In a patriarchal society women are expected to look and act in a certain way. If they don’t fit those expectations then they are cruelly judged for being fat, ugly, outspoken etc or for having work done to try and meet those expectations. If they do meet the standards then they are both objectified and judged for any action which draws attention to their attractiveness. Women can’t win in this scenario.
The only way women can fight back is by supporting each other and rejecting sexist policing of all women’s bodies. Let women do whatever they hell they want and wear whatever they want without fear of judgement or objectification. In the music industry women should be able to use their image as part of their marketing strategy if they so wish and it shouldn’t affect how anyone hears the music. Of course, it may not be possible to like every song or admire everyone’s image but we don’t need to make cruel comments. As Kacey Musgraves once sang, if you ain’t got nothing nice to say, don’t say nothing at all.