Skin versus skills: Do talented celebrities need to “bare all”?

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One of the things I enjoy most about the AfterEllen.com blog is that, while it may have the occasional variation on a

hot 100 theme, the entries tend to focus on more than just pretty faces (or pretty

arms,

abs,

instances of that other “a” word … you get the point). Writers

call out crap when they see it,

lists are more fun than prurient,

and the blog overall covers less Lindsay, more Lena and Leisha.

However, it’s likely safe to say that few of us read absolutely, strictly for “the articles.” The pictures are quite a nice bonus, and sometimes they’re

quite nice period, like these recent shots of indie darling Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Nice doesn’t begin to cover it (or her — see the uncropped photos

here). But is it really as simple as a sexy smile and some snark?

Of course not, most of us would say, as does Kira Cochrane of The Guardian.

It must be body image week for me, because I can’t resist posting about her

interesting take on the oft-tread, never-resolved topic of sex and sales.

Cochrane starts by examining Nicole Kidman‘s recent

Vanity Fair series (“passionless and perfunctory”)

alongside the Agent Provocateur Gyllenhaal campaign (“awkward and unhappy”),

and then explains that she finds these pics particularly depressing because they involve not just “any” women as sex objects, but “talented” women as sex objects. Apparently

it’s all right — or at least not surprising — for sentence-winning Paris Hilton, but different for Oscar-winning Kidman.

Cochrane recounts several controversial magazine covers, ranging from Kate Winslet‘s

GQ legs to Teri Hatcher‘s Vanity (Un)Fair

disclosure of sexual abuse, and then explains:

I think what I find so incredibly discomfiting [is the suggestion that], no matter how talented a woman is, how many plaudits she has received,

how intelligent her reputation, how garlanded she has been for depicting one of the most talented writers of the last century while sporting a huge prosthetic conk on her noggin,

at the end of the day, if she wants to stay in the public eye, if she wants the magazine covers and the leading roles, she has to be willing to reduce herself to tits and arse.

Not only can Cochrane pull off using conk and noggin in one sentence, she states her point well.

Jodie Foster may be having her week in the September sun, but she’s an exception, not a rule — and one who doesn’t stay completely out of

the camera’s eye.

Think, then, of the Scarlett Johanssons and Keira Knightleys; Cochrane observes that we haven’t

heard much of Rachel McAdams since her withdrawal from what became an overwhelmingly disturbing Vanity Fair cover,

but while it seems obvious to me who made the right decision, the amount of press and starring roles indicates otherwise.

Although Cochrane doesn’t take the idea further, it’s not tough to jump from “too much clothing ≠ star material” to “darker skin ≠ star material.” Substitute “wrinkled skin” or

“more than 130 lbs.” and you see even more favorite Hollywood equations; unless you’ve got Salma Hayek‘s

golden touch

or Helen Mirren‘s silver, forget it.

Cochrane touches briefly upon the risks associated with risqué pics (even young, white bankable stars have to ask, will increased public awareness outweigh the possibility

of decreased respect for my talent?), but she concludes by despairing that, regardless of talent, the “need to be pleasing to men, to say, ‘However powerful and clever I might seem,

I’m just a playful, bra-baring bunny underneath,’ trumps everything.”

I have to wonder, though, does a traditional “need to please men” really trump everything, or does it merely mask the business-savvy

need to please the ones with the money? A few other questions for Cochrane and for you, readers?

Is it really worse when talented celebs disrobe, or is it sad that anyone has to operate in a skin-over-skills system? Does the line between between tasteful and tasteless

exist or matter, and where do we draw it? And can I enjoy pretty pictures one moment and interrogate the complicated factors making them available to me the next?

Since I enjoy both good debates and dishy stars, I’m voting yes on that one — right before I plan my next conversation with

the shimmy-shaking scholar.

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