The purpose of this essay is to explore the recent Photoshop controversy related to the celebrity Lena Dunham through the lens of the complex, interdisciplinary philosophy of Jean Baudrillard. Specifically, this investigation will highlight philosophical and ethical issues concerning media saturation and the incessant dissemination of computer-generated, erotic images that often appear to transcend reality. In numerous works such as La Société de Consommation, De la séduction, Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe, and Le système des objets, Baudrillard fervently asserts that ubiquitous simulations of sexual utopias in consumer republics are far from innocent or harmless fantasies. In addition to being part of a larger hegemonic strategy which imposes a new social order through various interlocking structures including the mainstream corporate media, Baudrillard maintains that the advent of what he terms "hyper-reality" is on the verge of obliterating meaning, the pursuit of happiness, and any semblance of self-actualization outside of an exploitative code intentionally designed to manipulate passive clients into procuring all of the latest fads.
As this study will underscore, Baudrillard’s assertion that nearly ever facet of the human experience, including our very corporality itself, has now been (re)-appropriated and commodified by enticing simulacra that have replaced the real might not be that far-fetched at all. Given the disquieting questions that scandals like the Lena Dunham spectacle force us to consider, perhaps it is time to reengage with Baudrillard’s philosophy. Indeed, Baudrillard’s seminal works seem to offer an invaluable framework for broaching sensitive yet urgent subjects which continue to become more pressing with each passing day. Although Baudrillard is too often automatically dismissed as being a radical thinker by the academic community, certain events like the Dunham Photoshop incident appear to suggest that this unorthodox philosopher’s apocalyptic vision of a global society where the modern subject ceases to exist utterly engulfed in a sea of insignificant signs actually has a considerable amount of merit.
After placing Baudrillard’s philosophy and the Lena Dunham controversy in their appropriate contexts, this essay will attempt to illustrate why a nuanced dialogue related to the nefarious effects of idealistic simulations of feminine beauty is so critical in today’s society. Perhaps the mental and physical well-being of millions of women around this planet depends on our willingness to deconstruct seductive chimeras that are grounded in hyper-reality. From a Baudrillardian perspective, is the female body the latest in a long line of casualties that have been "murdered" by the proliferation of alluring images depicting a fantasy world that only exists on our television, computer, and tablet screens?
II. Overview of Baudrillard’s Philosophy
Despite the evident natural progression which is clearly visible in Baudrillard’s thought from the publication of his first essay Le Système des objets in 1968 until his death in 2007, the reader discovers a remarkable consistency throughout the philosopher’s career. In every major work that he published, Baudrillard expresses his profound anxiety related to the pervasive phenomenon of hyper-reality. According to Baudrillard, the modern subject is constantly immersed in the hyper-real in front of a plethora of different screens. Thus, the vast majority of our experiences are now filtered or carefully packaged for our immediate consumption. Baudrillard affirms that purchaser citizens are no longer able to distinguish between appealing simulations and concrete reality given this endless barrage or sensorial assault, which has destroyed any meaningful distinction between public and private space.
As Douglas Kellner explains in an article entitled “Baudrillard, Semiurgy and Death” from Theory, Culture & Society, there is “no exit” from the omnipresent nature of the insignificant, artificial simulacra whose only purpose is to increase revenue for transnational corporations. When removed from their economic and ideological context, these signs which endlessly urge us to consume images of the good(s) life represent a sort of parallel universe that is void of any true significance because of the distance that separates these idyllic fantasies from actual reality. Nonetheless, in spite of how transparent or even laughable this gap should be for most individuals, Baudrillard asserts in Seduction that the “acute crisis of simulation” has affected the entire planet. The maverick philosopher theorizes in La Société de consommation that the boundaries between reality and "the fantasies of a land of milk and honey" have become fuzzy at best because the modern subject spends nearly every waking moment internalizing a code that she/he no longer questions. In the context of the proliferation of exploitative signs, which is emblematic of the age of information, Trevor Norris concludes in an essay entitled “Consuming Signs, Consuming the Polis: Hannah Arendt and Jean Baudrillard on Consumer Society and the Eclipse of the Real” from The International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, “Consumers essentially ‘buy’ into the code of consumption so completely that the capacity for critical reflection diminishes.” In this vein, Baudrillard laments the "death of the subject" who is unable to tell the difference between reality and its symbolic representation. Trapped inside of our elaborate hyper-real prisons from which there appears to be no escape, Baudrillard hypothesizes that lucrative yet hollow images have transcended reality thereby taking its place. For Baudrillard, modern life is epitomized by the unending exchange of empty signs which reinforces an economic system predicated upon constant expansion and growth at all costs.
The all-encompassing crisis to which Baudrillard refers in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, which has resulted in “the triumph of the virtual over the real,” has effaced genuine femininity according to the author as well. After explaining, “The simulation becomes more real (because it is that which we desire) than the thing it is simulating,” Andrew Root underscores how inauthentic simulacra of feminine beauty and sexuality have adversely affected women and young girls in his article entitled “A Screen-Based World: Finding the Real in the Hyper-Real” from Word & World. Summarizing the negative social repercussions of women desperately longing to emulate contrived, hyper-real images, Root elucidates, “Maybe the best example of this is the fashion or photo model. For all intents and purposes, this model is no longer a woman but a sign of a woman - a simulation that represents a woman, but not the real thing.” Root reiterates in this same article, "Typically, the model must be over six feet tall and weigh less than a hundred pounds, something very few women can (or should) be...And even after the model has simulated the woman’s body with diets and makeup, her image is taken into Photoshop...to erase any wrinkles or dimples. Here image is now complete as a simulation...So now men judge real women by the sign, by the simulation, and want the simulation more than the real, measuring beauty not by the real, but by the simulation."
In his exploration of Baudrillardian hyper-reality, Root alludes to the fact that the pervasive realm of signs might at least be partially to blame for self-image problems and eating disorders that have become extremely prevalent on a global scale. Root correctly notes that Baudrillard is quite concerned about real "flesh and blood" women whose appearance has not been radically altered by software programs such as Photoshop to conform to the skeletal feminine ideal. Moreover, even before these dangerous (potentially deadly for some young women) images are artificially generated in a hyper-real, virtual space far removed from the real world, Baudrillard observes that sex symbols must proudly display commercial signs of beauty and eroticism all over their bodies.
Baudrillard often warns the reader that certain consumer items are part of a greater hyper-real fiction that compels women to procure expensive and unnecessary accessories and beauty products incessantly in a misguided attempt to maximize their happiness and to discover their sexuality. Offering a similar interpretation of the feminist threads throughout Baudrillard’s philosophy as Root, Tim Dant reveals in an article entitled “Fetishism and the Social Value of Objects” from the periodical Sociological Review, “The fetishisation of the body through makeup and adornment creates a seductive sexuality that is not grounded in real sexuality. It is no more than a sign or simulacrum, a circulation of meaning through which the subject is transformed by sign objects into a fetishised object.” As both Root and Dant highlight, Baudrillard reaches the alarming conclusion that the female subject has been reduced to a mere object of consumption. Although very few women could ever live up to the impossible beauty standards endlessly transmitted to them through a variety of hegemonic channels, they despondently try to breathe life into these illusory simulacra anyway because they think that this is what men expect in an ideal mate. In defense of this unsettling and unhealthy comportment, Baudrillard seems to suggest in La Société de consommation that men do indeed strive to fulfill their sexual and affective needs based upon a hyper-real "code of beauty." He claims that everyone has been duped into blindly accepting the sign as the real thing.
In La Société de consommation, after providing earlier what could be considered an operational definition of his notion of hyper-reality, which states that "we thus live sheltered from signs and in the denial of the real," the philosopher muses, ‘We sell women to women ...a woman consumes herself...if a woman consumes herself, it is her very relationship with herself that is objectified and fueled by signs, signs that constitute the Feminine Model, which constitutes a true object of consumption." In this early seminal work, Baudrillard steadfastly maintains that every time a woman buys a feminine beauty product from a department store or a mall, she is pledging her allegiance to a prefabricated model created by advertisers to generate profits. For instance, certain items like red lipstick are deemed to be sexy because companies need to sell these goods in order to make money. According to Baudrillard, these simulations or marketing techniques more closely resemble banal caricatures of female sexuality than faithful representations of what an attractive woman is supposed to look like and how she should conduct herself. Baudrillard explains that these seductive simulacra are predicated upon a shaky, hyper-real edifice that has no basis in reality.
In the chapter of La Société de consommation entitled “Mass media, sexe et loisirs,” the author articulates even deeper fears related to how consumer republics exploit the female body itself like one would any other good or service. In the aptly named section of this chapter “The obsession with thinness: the waistline," Baudrillard grumbles in disgust, "Beauty no longer knows how to be fat or thin, heavy or slender as it could have been in a traditional definition founded upon the harmony of forms. It only knows how to be thin and slender according to the present logic of signs...It is actually rather skinny and scrawny in the image of top models, which are the negation of the flesh and the exaltation of fashion."
In this poignant passage, the philosopher directly takes aim at the fashion industry which endlessly disseminates the anorexic ideal of feminine beauty to the masses. Baudrillard reveals that fashion moguls created this female archetype to reinforce an economic system from which they continue to derive unheralded profits. The fashion industry is an important cog within a larger hegemonic apparatus of social control.
In this section of La Société de consommation, Baudrillard also mourns the loss of traditional conceptions of female beauty that have perhaps been forever destroyed by the omnipresence of the code. Although it was possible for women with vastly different body types to be considered attractive in the past in Western society, Baudrillard affirms that only one sort of woman (i.e., skinny women who wear trendy clothes and accessories) corresponds to today’s rigid criteria or the commercial signs that portray beautiful women. As Andrew Root’s aforementioned analysis confirms, this idealistic vision of femininity is an unattainable pipe dream for the majority of women from a biological standpoint. Nevertheless, despite the psychological and physical trauma that this grandiose realm of fantasy has induced upon millions of women, this unhealthy, hyper-real image of femininity is more deeply entrenched than ever in consumer society.
In his later works such as The Transparency of Evil and The Intelligence of Evil, Baudrillard explains how modern technology has exacerbated this ongoing problem. In particular, the philosopher investigates the ideological force of Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) rendered possible by software programs like Photoshop. Given that we are constantly exposed to digitally enhanced images on a regular basis through a myriad of different screens, Baudrillard asserts that the modern subject no longer knows the difference between "virtual reality" created by simulations and phenomena which are naturally occurring in the real world. Defenseless against this calculated onslaught that sustains the supremacy of the integrated political and social elite, Baudrillard posits that the "reality principle" itself has now collapsed entirely buried under an avalanche of commercial signs or a “world of images that have lost their referents” to cite Lee Barron’s article “Living with the Virtual: Baudrillard, Integral Reality, and Second Life.”
Near the end of his career, Baudrillard theorizes that the previously mentioned crisis of simulation, which had already begun to take shape decades earlier, has further degenerated into what he terms “integral reality.” As Lisa Penaloza and Linda Price underscore in their article “Consumer Resistance: A Conceptual Overview” from Advances in Consumer Research, the philosopher describes integral reality as “the final stage of simulation” in which any trace of meaning has been rather intentionally removed from the human experience. Furthermore, Baudrillard contends that our tenuous grasp of reality has been hollowed out by technology that embellishes or distorts the original image to the point at which it ceases to represent anything real at all. Hence, the philosopher argues that inauthentic simulations now concretize the totality of our quotidian existence.
Lashing out at the hegemonic role of CGI related to the inception of integral reality, Baudrillard states in The Intelligence of Evil, “The computer-generated image is like this too, a digital image which is entirely fabricated, has no real referent.” The philosopher further clarifies, “The ultimate violence done to the image is the violence of the computer-generated image...in the process of computer-generation the referent no longer exists and the real itself no longer has cause to come to pass, being produced immediately as Virtual Reality.” Baudrillard’s mistrust of CGI technology adds another important nuance to his ideas concerning simulated femininity. If the final product of the enhancement process bears as little resemblance to the original image as Baudrillard claims, then the situation of the female subject is even more dire than it was when he published La Société de consommation in 1970. The philosopher poses the disconcerting question whether the ideal feminine body is nothing more than a hyper-real fiction that no longer exists anywhere with the exception of the virtual space where these enticing images are fabricated for mass consumption.
III. Brief Contextualization of the Lena Dunham Scandal
Before delving into a Baudrillardian interpretation of the Lena Dunham controversy, it would be useful to place this scandal into its proper context. First of all, for those who are unfamiliar with the actress, Dunham is the writer and star of HBO’s Girls. This popular star appeared on the front cover of the magazine Vogue in February 2014. However, certain pictures from this photo shoot ignited rather polemical debates both on the Internet and in mainstream media circles. Many people wondered if these images were too greatly distorted by Photoshop. The influential blog Jezebal was at the center of the controversy. This website has the unsavory reputation of adding proverbial fuel to the fire to increase readership. In keeping with its tradition, an unidentified journalist from The Cut in a piece entitled “What Can We Learn from Lena Dunham’s Unretouched Vogue Photos?” explains that “Jezebel offered a $10,000 (reward) for an unretouched photo of Lena Dunham’s Vogue shoot. It was a remake of the 2007 stunt that put the site on the map...they got the pictures within two hours.”
In addition to the many other voices that chimed in representing an array of divergent perspectives, the actress herself would react rather swiftly to Jezebel’s provocation. Dunham dismissed the accusations that the original images were drastically manipulated in Photoshop. According to Margaret Eby from The New York Daily News, “Dunham herself played it cool” asserting that “some s--t is just too ridiculous to engage.” Although the female celebrity tried not to get terribly upset about an incident that she considered to be ludicrous, she did state, according to Rayman, that “(the situation) confuses me a little.” Lena Dunham defended herself and her intentions by suggesting that the digital modifications to her actual body were rather minor in nature.
Many individuals appeared to agree with the star including Aly Weisman, Caitlin Dewey, and Alyssa Rosenberg. For instance, Weisman affirms in an article “Jezebal Publishes Before-And-After GIFS of Lena Dunham’s Photoshopped Vogue Cover” from Business Insider, “Turns out, the images aren’t even that manipulated. But like all Vogue cover girls before her, certain liberties have been taken with Dunham’s waistline, jawline, neckline, and other tweaks.” In a passionate piece entitled “Jezebal falls into feminist self-parody in Lena Dunham Photoshop ‘Controversy,’” Dewey concludes, “Jezebel’s critique of the pictures comes close to feminist self-parody.” Weisman, Dewey, and Rosenberg ultimately expressed their solidarity in support of the celebrity because they seemed to concur that the images in question do not differ that much from the unembellished originals.
Moreover, many people immediately came to Dunham’s defense because the star’s body type does not really correspond to the aforementioned skeletal ideal of feminine beauty outlined by Baudrillard in La Société de consommation. Dunham herself appeared to be surprised by Jezebel’s outrage because she thought that having a different kind of cover girl on an edition of Vogue should be celebrated rather than scrutinized. As the actress explains, “I don’t understand why, photoshop or no, having a woman who is different than the typical Vogue cover girl, could be a bad thing.” For Dunham and her supporters, this incident was blown out of proportion by a sensational media outlet and unnecessarily framed in a very negative way.
IV. Analysis of the Scandal from a Baudrillardian Perspective
Although it is difficult to deny Dunham’s assertion that young women desperately need more realistic role models and feminine archetypes to imitate, her logic quickly collapses when examined critically from a Baudrillardian perspective. First, even a cursory glance at the enhanced images in question dismisses the notion that they were not significantly altered in Photoshop. In addition to the fact that it is extremely debatable whether the so-called "minor" tweaks mentioned by Weisman should actually be considered to be emblematic of major digital retouching, Dunham is clearly missing an arm in one particular picture. This rather irrefutable detail is quite ironic given Alyssa Rosenberg’s affirmation in her article entitled “Lena Dunham’s Vogue Shoot is a Reminder that Photoshop and Feminism Don’t Have to be Mortal Enemies” from Think Progress that “to Photoshop a woman means to make her look thinner, slimming her neck and sharpening her cheekbones, whittling her waist, smoothing her skin...When things get sloppy, it can mean removing her bones or making her limbs invisible.” Rosenberg’s comments are befuddling and disturbing on multiple levels. After carefully examining the original images, the reader wonders whether Rosenberg rushed to judgment without even looking at all of the originals.
However, Baudrillard’s philosophy offers another explanation for Rosenberg’s baffling conclusion. Perhaps, the modern subject is so conditioned to accept computer-generated images as reality without any reflection that the hyper-real truly has substituted itself entirely for the real. From an objective standpoint, the more logical theory related to the Dunham Photoshop scandal is that the star’s entire body was taken apart one section at a time before being reconstructed piecemeal. For this reason, the final product could be described as Dunham’s simulated CGI double or a hyper-real fiction that only exists in the virtual realm. The violence perpetrated against the reality principle highlighted by Baudrillard appears to have reached its zenith in consumer society since most people seem to have agreed with Rosenberg. Is the seductive force of the virtual image simply too great? Has the perfect crime or the "murder of the real" been committed by those who have erased Lena Dunham’s actual body? Even with an arm that has mysteriously vanished, very few people seem to have noticed that these idealistic images do not reflect the real Dunham.
Additionally, even if the actress had all of her appendages intact, a critical analysis of these Photoshopped pictures should still be deeply troubling. In stark contrast to Weisman, Dewey, and Rosenberg, many individuals might argue that these digitally manipulated photos bare a vague resemblance to what this female celebrity looks like in real life. In Baudrillardian terms, if one compares other images of the actress to the ones that were published in the magazine Vogue, the gap between the hyper-real Photoshop creations and less airbrushed and distorted visual representations of the star is striking. If the pictures in Vogue were not appropriately labeled, the public might not even be aware that this is supposedly Lena Dunham. The distance between what the star normally looks like when her image is not drastically transformed in a virtual space and these extremely embellished representations has eroded our appreciation of the real Dunham.
From an ethical perspective, the celebrity’s decision to allow Vogue to release these utopian images is also problematic. Although the majority of journalists hastily came to Dunham’s defense, perhaps without even glancing at the pictures themselves, this hyper-real artifice does not correspond to the values that the actress allegedly wants to instill in young women. As the unnamed author of the aforementioned article “What Can We Learn From Dunham’s Unretouched Vogue Photos?” muses, “Dunham’s persona and ideas ARE at odds with Vogue’s images.” The star is indeed correct that "normal" women who do not reflect the skeletal feminine ideal outlined by Baudrillard rarely get a chance to be depicted on the front cover of a popular fashion magazine. Yet, Dunham’s assertion that this improbable distinction is a positive thing quickly falls apart under any kind of objective scrutiny.
Encouraging women who do not conform to the rigid feminine ideal of beauty in Western society to be comfortable in their own skin is undoubtedly an important message that needs to be promoted. However, the litany of aforementioned digital "improvements" to Dunham’s body itself sends mixed signals to adolescent girls at best. For women who have a body type that differs greatly from the socially accepted erotic archetypes, CGI software seems to only exacerbate the problem as opposed to being part of the solution. The Dunham scandal makes one ponder whether the "average" woman can only be deemed worthy of gracing a front cover of a magazine after every single part of her body has been meticulously resculpted on a computer screen. Should women who have a similar figure to that of Dunham abandon the real in favor of the friendly confines of simulated reality? Dunham’s choice to allow her image to be Photoshopped merely reinforces the idea that "normal" women are not pretty enough to be sex symbols unless their natural appearance is drastically modified. Furthermore, it should be noted that all of the previously mentioned digital enhancements were intentionally designed to make the star look a little more like the hyper-real fantasy girls that fuel erotic reverie and sell magazines. Specifically, a myriad of techniques were used to sustain the illusion that Dunham is considerably thinner than what she actually is. Instead of helping women liberate themselves from unrealistic sexual criteria, the star’s decision serves to solidify what Baudrillard refers to as "the obsession with thinness: the waistline" in modern consumer republics. By granting Vogue permission to disseminate these images, Dunham’s intrinsic worth as a human being has been reduced to an object of consumption or a fetish which has no meaning outside of enticing simulacra.
Even though Dunham’s logic for letting this crime against reality transpire is quite faulty, the staunch defenders of Vogue appear to have fallen in a much greater ideological trap. Emma Bazilian, a reporter for Adweek, echoes Dunham’s sentiments that young women need more attainable models of femininity to emulate according to the piece entitled “Does It Matter That Lena Dunham Was Photoshopped by ‘Vogue’” published by NPR. As Bazilian asserts, “Vogue is supposed to be this sort of fantasy version of a fashion reality, and it’s really nothing that you would expect from them. And plus, they really get kudos for putting such a real girl - who’s not like a size 2 model or actress - on the cover.” In addition to suffering from the same idealism as the actress regarding just how much these utopian images really were distorted, Bazilian’s comments bring to light another issue that warrants further investigation.
As Baudrillard illustrates in La Société de consommation and De la Séduction, the fashion industry is a vital part of a larger hegemonic entity that reinforces the current socioeconomic paradigm. This segment of the economy is quite literally in charge of selling the inaccessible pipe dreams that Baudrillard denounces throughout his career. Should we really trust the intentions of the very same institution that is responsible for the incessant creation and transmission of hyper-real erotic fantasies? Putting someone like Dunham on the front cover of one of the most influential fashion magazines impulsively devoured by women all across the world could simply be a publicity stunt. It could also be an attempt to distract female clients or to prevent them from discovering the dubious nature of marketing strategies.
The content of every fashion advertisement directed at women is always the same: If you purchase this product, you will be more desirable in the eyes of others. Masquerading a woman whose original image has been Photoshopped nearly to death as an example of a beautiful person who exudes sexuality allows advertisers to conceal their genuine motivations. The absurd notion that the feminine ideal is firmly within everyone’s grasp generates colossal profits for transnational corporations. No matter how hard a young girl whose body type just does not fit within the parameters of the feminine ideal tries or regardless of how many consumer goods that she purchases in an illusory effort to realize erotic chimera that have been manufactured for her, most women will never be able to experience firsthand the simulated fantasies that endlessly flash across their screens even for a few fleeting moments. The ephemeral euphoria of the material acquisition will quickly fade, but young girls will continue to seek happiness and fulfillment in the realm of banal signs that represent a world of pure fiction.
Unfortunately, the Dunham controversy lends support to Baudrillard’s assertion that the modern subject is so inundated in the ubiquitous world of simulacra that she/he is no longer able to discern the difference between imaginary paradises conjured by seductive images and concrete reality. In the wake of the disappearance of the real, Baudrillard posits that commercial signs have lost any connection to an external reality that exists independently of the code. As is the case with Lena Dunham’s armless simulated double, consumer society possesses the necessary hegemonic tools to manufacture its own hyper-reality in order to keep the monetary cycle spinning. Given the lack of critical reflection or the near absence of any skepticism whatsoever related to images depicting a woman who has never existed anywhere outside of the virtual realm, perhaps Baudrillard’s concept of integral reality should be taken more seriously.
Moreover, due to the veritable sophistication of computer-generated imagery which is capable of generating stunning visual representations that, in essence, stand in for the real, the lines between reality and fantasy are perhaps more blurry than they have ever been during any other period of human civilization. Although the utopian vision that these images create could only be described as a consumerist hyper-real narrative grounded in fiction, global society is paying the ultimate, real-world cost for the imposition of these enticing simulacra related to femininity. In other words, the symbolic representations that undergird the feminine ideal of beauty in Western society are not indicative of a victimless crime. In addition to obliterating the "reality principle," the Dunham scandal implores us to ponder whether women’s bodies are still their own. Has female corporality itself been appropriated by alluring signs of what it means to be an attractive woman? Additionally, how many young girls suffer and die each year attempting to transform grandiose hyper-real simulations into reality?
From guest contributor Keith Moser