The other day, Wired ran a photo of Limor "Ladyada" Fried, the first female engineer to ever to make it to the magazine's front cover. You'd think this would be cause for celebration, a sign that a publication as influential Wired was finally getting with the program and reversing its painful trend of only featuring woman primarily known as sex objects. But the internet still knows how to FUBAR this thing like nobody's business.
I'm usually a huge fan of the writings of Cord Jefferson, but this piece he wrote for Good magazine really got my blood boiling:
Wired didn't put Limor Fried on their new cover. What Fried actually looks like is below—she's a normal young woman with a lip ring and an abnormally strong brain, and that's worked wonders for her her entire life. What Wired put on its cover is an almost cartoonish Photoshop that caused one friend to look at these photos next to each other and ask, "That's the same woman?"
Here, Jefferson is basically the online equivalent of Jim Carrey in Ace Ventura, but instead he's screaming "THAT'S NOT WHAT SHE LOOKS LIKE! SHE'S REALLY HOMELY AND BLEMISHED." Sheesh.
Remarkably, Fried herself was incredibly gracious. Here's the comment she left in response to Jefferson's piece:
You found a 3+ year old photo of me in Japan, after a 20 hour flight and short hair.
The cover is stylized but that is really what I looked like. I was not 'plasticized' or 'heavily photoshopped'. if I take off my glasses, have my hair done, and wear make-up its what I look like. Jill uses lighting and makeup to create a glossy look, we saw the shots right off the camera and the only things that changed are the background color and the tool. Its her style and it looks cool! Its a bit different than my every day look, especially when shot with a proper camera and lighting, but it -is- me. I do get dressed up from time to time, being a magazine cover is one of those times! :)
My lip ring wasn't in for most of this year so far, WIRED didn't remove it or airbrush it. I wasn't wearing it, just like I wasn't wearing my glasses. If I'm happy with this and I say it's looks like me isn't that GOOD :)
A lot of things anger me about this situation. First of all, Jefferson is really complaining about a practice (airbrushing/photoshopping) that's endemic to magazine covers as a whole. So why bitch about it in this particular case? According to Jefferson, "it makes at least a little bit of sense when the women being Photoshopped are musicians and actresses, professions that, like it or not, often require their members to possess otherworldly features. Where Photoshopping makes no sense at all, not even a little, is in the world of science." I don't buy that at all. Regardless of who it is, magazines will still be following the same scripts regarding how their cover models should look. That may be troubling, but it's no more troubling because it's Wired's first cover for a female engineer.
More importantly, here's a woman who's put herself (and her face) out there in front of a national audience. Who among us has the courage to face the slings and arrows of a critical public, especially on a cover as attention-getting as this one? And you, Cord Jefferson, are going to try and "unmask" her in such a ridiculous fashion? Get a sense of decency, man.
Matt Buchanan over at Gizmodo made a great point about this too:
[M]ore interesting is what [this situation] says about the ways ultra-smart woman are perceived. What's implicit in Good's outrage is the assumption that Fried, badass engineer and genius, couldn't have possibly been as attractive as she appears on Wired's cover. The underlying message is that there has to be a distance between brains and beauty. Consider any article that marvels over the fact that Natalie Portman isn't just an attractive celebrity, she's like, smart. The general cultural narrative for attractive women who are recognizably intelligent is almost always one of surprise, one way or another—it's shocking that an attractive woman is intelligent, or that an intelligent woman is attractive...
I'm not really offering a solution (unhelpful, I know!) beyond that we need more nerdy women and more exposure for them, but in a way that's not misogynist or generally shitty. Oh, except to buy this month's issue, so hopefully Chris Anderson won't have that excuse for very much longer.