Thursday, May 16, 2013

115 Pounds of Pure Grit

Zoe Saldana plays Uhura in the newer Star Trek film.  She was interviewed on the Today Show, but about something a bit different than her acting:  This cover of the Allure magazine:

The relevant bit on the right says:  Zoe Saldana.  115 Pounds of Grit And Heartache.

I watched the video at the linked site and started feeling the way I always feel when trying to consume popular culture:  As if I had eaten too many Danish pastries on one sitting.  Bloated and weak.  (So I'm a culture snob.  Which you already knew, right?  Though I do love really bad martial arts movies.)*

So why write about any of this?  Because:

Saldana's sexuality might seem to be the most interesting revelation from her Allure coverage, but for many, it was the cover editor's decision to print her weight that caused controversy.
"Every time we seem to be making progress in the way women are portrayed in magazines, somehow we take a step back," wrote Raechal Leone Shewfelt at Yahoo! "Whomever is responsible, the decision to showcase Saldana's digits seems so … unnecessary." Yahoo! was told that Allure would have no comment on the decision.
"Did we really need to know how much she weighs?" wrote Cheryl Phillips at "Would the popular women's magazine put a plus-size model on their cover and headline it "250 pounds and rocking the world"?

And because this offers a wonderful opportunity to talk about the backgrounds of phenomena.  The meaning of all sorts of tiny things depends on that background, the history of a word determines if it can be used, the history of one particular cross (the swastika) makes it impossible to use it for house decoration.  And so on.

This particular case is nowhere near as strong as the history we are talking about is only now being questioned and debated, and that is the history of fat-shaming, I think, or the idea that the value of a woman (and to a lesser extent, of a man)  is inversely correlated with her (or his) weight.

But there's also a longer history at work here.  The idea that one can be small-and-peppery, for example, and that's the way this particular cover seems to be defended.  Saldana herself states in that interview that the point is that someone "so light-weight" could have grit.  That's really close to the old idea of small-but-peppery.

What makes that not work is the fact that Saldana is not short.  She's above the average height of US women.  So the real message seems to be that someone very slender has both grit and heartache.  But did we ever doubt that?  Or would the magazine have done the same with her height?  Zoe Saldana.  5ft 7in of Grit And Heartache?

No.  The reason for putting Saldana's weight on the cover is that it is sorta regarded as the ideal weight for women now, the weight one should strive for, perhaps. 

This is not Saldana's fault, of course.  It's an editorial decision and probably one that increases sales of the magazine.  I write about this because this is one of those tiny, tiny mosquito bites which on its own means nothing but which also, when it is one of millions of such bites, creates the culture about women and weight.
*My dislike of much of popular culture aimed at women probably deserves a post of its own.  But as the shortest summary possible, I dislike it because it is about how well famous women perform as women, not at whatever their job is, and because the rules about how women should perform are not analyzed much.