Friday, September 7, 2012

Lana Del Rey in GQ: Sexual Expression or Objectification?

I'm sure by now you've seen this image floating around. Lana Del Rey was featured on GQ's cover nude as their "Woman of the Year." That alone is not surprising. But when you see the four other covers featured as the "men of the year" and notice that they're all wearing tuxes, the situation gets a bit trickier.

[Photo: the male covers featuring James Corden, Robbie Williams, Tinie Tempah, and John Slattery all in tuxes followed by Lana Del Rey nude]

Look, I'm not going to pearl clutch and get all up at arms because a woman is nude. I don't think female nudity is inherently anti-feminist--it is much more how the use of female bodies has played out in our society. Given that, it's fair to analyze such depictions and look at what messages they are sending. And it brings up a critical question: When is sexual expression legitimately female owned and when does it tread into objectification?

It can be a really difficult distinction to make and feminists are certainly as divided about this as we are anything. Lots of sexual situations fall into the gray area where some of us will read it at self expression and others will read it as female objectification. Looking at something and saying definitively "YES THAT IS EMPOWERING!" is a rare thing.

And I'll be honest. I think that in our media, authentic expressions of female sexuality are not the norm. On a daily basis, I feel that I am interacting with much more objectification than empowerment. And when I do see empowering self expressions, it is usually not through the main stream media, but rather the various blogs that I follow.

So looking at Lana Del Rey's situation, I can't help but take a critical perspective. As they said at the Miss Representation blog:
On the multiple covers of their latest issue, all of GQ’s “men of the year” are dressed exactly the same, while their singular “woman of the year” – singer Lana Del Rey – is not dressed at all. The implication is that the men here are valuable for something beyond what they look like (since they are all presented almost identically), but that the woman is valuable only for what she looks like (since she is visually presented so differently from the others).
If I had been uncertain of my feelings from the covers alone,  one of the inside photos certainly made my mind up for me. It's this one.

 [Photo: Lana Del Rey is sitting at a table with her dress top down. A man is standing behind her, reaching around to cup her exposed right breast with one hand and the other is firmly around the left side of her neck and jaw. Her expression is ambiguously vulnerable, lustful, or even fearful. His face is cropped out.]

When I look at this image, I can't help but feel that the power is squarely with the man. Del Rey is vulnerable, with the placement of his hand over her breast and it is unclear what her feelings are about this or what is actually happening. The man's other hand near her throat area furthers the sense that she is vulnerable and he is in control. We don't really even know if he is threatening some level of violence. As he is dressed and she is partially nude, the feeling that she is an object is magnified. And as Miss Representation pointed out, it really is about her looks and body. He is in polished formal wear, and she's almost a plaything or an accessory to him.

Now, if it needs to be said, I'm not against female vulnerability or submission as a blanket statement. But these images of Del Rey in contrast to the pictures of the men tell a story which, unsurprisingly, affirms the stereotype of men at the center of power. Take the James Corden cover:

[Photo: James Corden in a tux from the mid torso up. Four women's hands with red fingernails and lots of jewelry caress his face and chest.]

When Corden is the focus of a photo, women are accessories. When Lana Del Rey is the subject of a photo, she serves as an accessory to a man. It's all around just the same old power dynamics and stereotypes in action. Men are powerful, active, and in charge. Women are passive objects. 



  1. Some women want to be submissive. Some of them can accomplish being submissive during sex without giving up assertiveness in life. To say that they can't, and that they can't be true to themselves and recognize a natural desire to submit to a man for sex without compromising other areas of their life is ridiculous and anti-feminist. What good are rights for women if they have to change who they are and not enjoy being women? Lana Del Rey's arrival on the scene is refreshing because she is a strong woman. She knows what she wants and she isn't afraid to admit that she wants it. When feminism stops reacting to things and starts championing who women really are, it will become powerful again. Surprise, women like their breasts squeezed. Why is that so bad to admit? Isn't that sexist to look down on someone for posing for a picture where they are enjoying sexual contact? Lana Del Rey is honest, because she doesn't sit and think for hours about the politics of sex, she just enjoys it and loves it for what it is, and she is a strong enough woman to not let that submissiveness bleed over into her career/family/non-sexual life.

    1. OH thank god you arrived here to educate me with your clearly superior brain. What was I doing thinking I could examine the implicit messages of a piece of media though our cultural context? Clearly by doing so I've been oppressing women who desire submissiveness. I became the problem! How wrong I was! You've convinced me! I really just need to rest my feeble woman brain from all these hours I've spent thinking about the politics of sex and just enjoy myself. What would I have done without you?

  2. If it was a clear case of the magazine editor forcing a dominant woman uncomfortable with nudity to this position there would be an issues. However, this is Lana del Ray, who has included objectification and submission as part of her brand and self expression.

    The reaction above is unfortunately common. Instead of discussing issues there is an instant personal attack, belittling and snark. I am a woman and by no means feeble. I enjoy both sexual submission and domination, am comfortable in my own body and found Lana's picture simply beautiful. Not as a blanket statement of gender superiority (I hate the concept), but because Lana is portraying her own sexual choice of submission in public. The issue is that she is being judged for it. If feminists forbid women from having the choice of their own sexuality, there is something seriously wrong. Not everything needs to be over generalized.


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