Gavin Polone On Lena Dunham, Anna Wintour and Female Executives (Guest Column)

Lena Dunham Vogue Cover - P 2014
Illustration by: R. Kikuo Johnson

Lena Dunham Vogue Cover - P 2014

As a website places a bounty on Dunham’s unretouched Vogue photos, the top producer points a finger at who has helped create a "toxic" body image environment and "a plague of dieting and plastic surgery" among actresses.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Lena Dunham is no more a villain for allowing photos of herself to be retouched in the pages of Vogue magazine than she is a hero in the cause of changing the destructive way that women's bodies are portrayed in the media. Recently, the website Jezebel got a lot of attention for placing a $10,000 bounty on unretouched photos of the Girls star from her Vogue cover shoot. Sure, I and many other fans of Girls would have loved it had Dunham, when asked to be on the cover, said, "No, Anna Wintour, you put out a magazine that inculcates a false ideal that women must be tall and unnaturally thin to be accepted; and that happiness and value are connected to the acquisition of expensive clothes; and that it is not only OK but admirable to support the excruciating killing of animals for the ornamental use of their pelts." But she is 27 years old and an artist, and I don't know why anyone would think that Dunham would put a political agenda ahead of promoting her HBO show or just doing what she may find satisfying to her ego. Women who appear onscreen are not the ones who make the decisions that promote body dissatisfaction in the minds of the viewers.

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During the course of my 18-year producing career, I've been told by a female executive that her female boss "would never cast anyone who wasn't really, really thin." I've been told by a female executive to have an actress' bra padded. And on multiple occasions, I've heard female producers and executives ask to have an image digitally stretched in a scene to make a particular woman look thinner. I don't remember a male executive or producer ever saying anything remotely similar about altering a woman's appearance to make her look thinner or busty-er. This isn't to say that men are less superficial than women -- the contrary is most certainly true -- it is just that, in my experience, men in the entertainment industry are less picky about women's bodies than women are. That's probably because they don't read destructive women's magazines and never played with impossibly shaped Barbie dolls. At the same time, most men tend to be unaware of how the representation of body image relates to the dangerous prevalence of eating disorders among adolescent girls and the overall discontent most women under 40 have with their physiognomies, which has resulted in a plague of dieting and plastic surgery. Few men have that personal frame of reference. There should be change in how women are portrayed in the media, and that change has to come from the female executives and producers who are the ultimate deciders about onscreen content.

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Dr. Gregory Fouts, who has written extensively about the effects of media images on adolescents, found in one study that 75 percent of actresses on sitcoms are under the average weight of the general female population, and only 5 percent are overweight. He also found that the heavier female characters tend to receive negative comments about their looks from the male characters. Fortunately, the remedy to this problem is easy: Put more actresses who look more like regular women onscreen, and don't use them as props. Though women make up too few of the small group of CEOs of media companies, they hold a very large share of the positions where development and casting decisions are made -- it is far more likely for me to be begging a woman, rather than a man, to buy a project from me or to greenlight that project once it has been bought -- and they can easily steer future projects away from representing that a tall, skinny woman with large breasts is the cultural ideal. But first they need to understand that they themselves have been influenced, from the time they were girls, by the same toxic images they now promote and how those images should be culled from the product they help create.

Gavin Polone is a film and television producer and frequent contributor to The Hollywood Reporter.