A friend of mine started an impromptu book club by asking on Facebook if any of her friends wanted to read Tina Fey’s Bossypants with her. A bunch of us all chimed in that we’ve been wanting to read it too and ran out and got our hands on some copies. I’m only about two thirds of the way through, and I’m really enjoying it. It is very funny.
But I have to admit that I was really pretty disappointed with the couple pages that she decided to devote to Photoshop. In a chapter where she explains the craziness and the absurdity and emotional roller coaster that is being photographed for a magazine spread, she eventually gets to the issue of Photoshop . . . which she calls “America’s most serious and pressing issue” (157). Read that however you want.
Her blanket reaction to the photoshop debate is: “I feel about Photoshop the way some people feel about abortion. It is appalling and a tragic reflection on the moral decay of our society . . . unless I need it, in which case, everybody be cool.” (157)
She does say that she is worried about its excessive use and the affects “overly retouched photos” might have on women/girls’ health and body image. But she also goes on to sort of jokingly claim that only old people are really ever fooled by photoshop because “people have learned how to spot it . . . As long as we all know it’s fake, it’s no more dangerous to society than a radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds.” (158)
But the question is: do people know it is fake? I don’t really think people are suddenly becoming experts at spotting overly retouched photos. I struggle with trying to see the differences in finished products even when I watch time lapses of the edits. I have definitely become better at spotting photoshop alterations but only because of (1) practice, (2) a conscious effort on my part to try to remind myself that these bodies are not real and I should not feel bad that I don’t measure up and (3) the assumption I now have that almost everything has been photoshopped. These things were taught to me and taught to me as valuable things to be conscious of. I don’t think most people have that same experience.
On page 158 she goes on to say:
Photoshop is just like makeup. When it’s done well it looks great, and when it’s overdone you look like a crazy asshole. Unfortunately, most people don’t do it well. I find, the fancier the fashion magazine is, the worse the Photoshop. It’s as if they are already so disgusted that a human has to be in the clothes, they can’t stop erasing human features.
I think here she gets at the foundation of the issue. The debate about photoshop is not that we should never alter photos to soften an oily patch of skin or remove an unflattering wrinkle that catches the light badly. But rather the widescale rejection of the diversity of human forms and human beauties in favor of some predetermined, arbitrary, seasonal standard (that usually has very little to do with biology or evolution) that people in power have decided is better than the individual being photographed— so much better that the individual needs to be hidden, corrected, and often rendered unrecognizable when made in the image of this secret standard that the elite have decided Society should idolize. It is really disturbing! In this our prejudices and bias become amplified, solidified and transmitted to others.
Fey does point out a case where Photoshop is not used in this way, when she was being photographed by feminists for Bust:
Feminists do the best Photoshop because they leave the meat on your bones. They don’t change your size or your skin color. They leave in your disgusting knuckles, but they may take out armpit stubble. Not because they’re denying it’s existence, but because they understand that it’s okay to make a photo look as if you were caught on your best day in the best light. (160)
Here she makes that important distinction where the artists are not “disgusted” with the human form and are not “denying it’s existence,” but rather making an image that could realistically be you “on your best day.” I think it is ok to ask that this tool be used in this way, and not in an oppressive way and I think Fey on some level is advocating this. For some reason she decides not to be clear or to take a serious stand on the issue. Perhaps because she doesn’t want to lose the benefits she feels she gets from it.
But are these real benefits? In this video some women get the opportunity to get their photos Photoshopped by professionals, but are left disenchanted and uncomfortable with the results. This was a really powerful video for me because it really showcased how Photoshop is used a tool to judge and exterminate difference in favor of a predetermined ideal over which these women had no control. It left them feeling rejected, unloved, and branded ugly or in possession of undesirable features and traits. I don’t think we need to take that sort of behavior or attitude lying down.
But in the end Fey concludes “Give it up. Retouching is here to stay . . . At least with Photoshop you don’t really have to alter your body.” This again is a sad statement because it implies that women under so much pressure to modify their literal physical bodies, that alterations of their projected, disseminated media images— the image that makes it into the collective conscious of the Society— seems like some sort of fair compromise.
To be fair to Fey, as she herself says: “I can’t be expected to lead the charge on everything. Let me have my Photoshop.” I do think it is fair to cut Fey some slack because she is doing so much other feminist work. I don’t think she needs to be fighting every battle and it’s ok for her not to have the answer to every feminist problem. But I think it still says a lot that a women as smart, respected, successful and fearless as Fey (she’s not afraid to stand up to Taylor Swift and her hoards) still struggles with how she feels about this issue and how she articulates that.
P.S. Although the stakes are much higher, this remind me a lot of this account of Olivia Munn trying to stand up for her contractual agreement when she agreed to do a shoot for Playboy. Even though the woman feels confused and upset, she attempts to make light of the situation to help herself (and others) make peace with the experience.