The 2016 Pirelli Calendar: Progress or Exploitation? What the Pictures Say


By Margaret Gardiner

The 2016 Pirelli Calendar is here, and while a nod has to be given for the variation in this year's focus, (THE WOMEN WEAR CLOTHING!*), one does wonder why is the fact that there are fewer naked women featured, heralded as 'progress'? Based on their achievements,13 women were chosen to be highlighted in the calendar shot by famous photographer, Annie Leibovitz.  Bazaar's Online's article: 'The 2016 Pirelli Calendar is Here', by Chrissy Rutherford (11/30/2015), highlights the photographs and the 'behind-the-scenes shots', that include commentary. While those, like Yao Chen, the first Chinese Goodwill Ambassador to the United Nations, are shot as one would expect, one has to question some of the choices, pictures, and comments as highlighted in the Bazaar piece. 

Serena Williams is called, 'the most recognizable face in the game' of tennis. Winning 21 Grand Slams and being the first African American woman to be ranked number one, qualifies her worthiness, yet Pirelli seems to be highlighting a different part of Serena's anatomy, photographed as she appears to be, in panties alone.

Amy Schumer, too, appears in her underpants only - because I'm sure if she was a male comedian, that's how he would be photographed too?  What irks, however, is the quote Bazaar provides from Leibovitz as to why she chose to photograph Schumer naked, but for panties. 'She got that it was a concept. It was going to be an important aspect of the pictures....' 'I was worried about her, I asked, 'are you self conscious?' And she said, 'are you kidding? I love my body!'

The question to ponder is, was Leibovitz concerned merely because of Schumer's lack of clothing, or for other reasons? One wonders if she asked Serena the same question, or Natalia Vodianova? Of the four comments posted beneath Bazaar's piece, at the time I read it, two people focused on the women's looks, not their accomplishments. 'Kathy Ella Ross: What do I think? I think I want a body like Serena Williams!', and Frantz Take Over commented - in caps - SHOULD BE PHOTOSHOPPED AMY'S BELLY.

Was the fact that Amy has a belly, like most of us, the reason Annie asked that question of her? Because if that is why Amy was photographed as she was, its disingenuous, but highlights an on-going issue in how women and minorities are portrayed in media.  

While I am loathe to ever bring a minor into this discussion, (no age is given for Sadie, grand-daughter of Agnes), lets look at the choice to include Sadie in her grandmother's picture. I love the fact that a woman is president emerita and chairperson of MoMA's international council, as well as chairperson of MoMA PS1. Let's ignore the fact that Bazaar uses the word, 'chairman', clearly disregarding the fact that the more gender neutral term, 'chairperson', may, given the sex of the person in power, have been a better choice; the more neutral label propagated to denude our language of outdated gender bias terms that still exist. Let's ignore that, and ask why, of all the pictures shown, did they include Agnes Gund's granddaughter? And why was Natalia Vodianova philanthropist and model, photographed almost naked but for a voluminous, slipping-off robe, with one of her children, apparently also naked, clutched in her arms? Look at the pictures. Draw your own conclusions.

Data shows that when women's physicality is highlighted, they are deemed less capable. If, as purported, these women were chosen for their accomplishments, which are indeed attention worthy, why the particular choices to shoot these four women in this manner? 

Vanessa Friedman, in The New York Times (11/30/2015) on-line article, 'The 2016 Pirelli Calendar May Signal a Cultural Shift', quotes Jennifer Zimmerman, the Global Chief Strategy Officer for the McGarryBowen advertising agency, as referencing the Pirelli calendar, as 'a recording of a macro trend' and the 'rise of the shero.' Later the article quotes McGarryBown as saying, 'We are in the midst of a perfect storm of cultural icons and politics and Hollywood,' which she goes on to link to the quest for pay parity and, 'the impossibility to ignore the empowerment of women.' Friedman justifiably asks if the calendar is an example of calculated exploitation of a social trend, a clever attempt to profit from the spirit of the age, or a more permanent commitment to change?

Another justifiable question, if you have reviewed the articles, or seen any of the pictures from Pirelli's calendar, and found yourself pausing at a particular picture, is to ask yourself why did you pause? What is the message, and how does it challenge the cues we use to view our world? 

Personally, I have no objection to the body being depicted in it's natural form.  Most importantly, our outsides have little to do with our capabilities across spectrums. However, the manner in which age, race, and gender are depicted in the media affects our bias subliminally. It is time to question the images that we take in millions of times a day. Question why it impacts us, how it affects what we expect of the people depicted in images, as well as their associated groups. It's important to understand how media shapes who we are, what we believe, and the abilities we attribute to others. If Pirelli's calendar has done nothing else, it has provoked debate about how we see ourselves and others, which may ultimately lead to real change.

We know change has occurred when it is no longer noteworthy that a minority or woman, has reached any milestone previously bestowed exclusively on other groups. So too the welcome idea that it is not revolutionary to feature women of accomplishment clothed - instead of half clad.

By Margaret Gardiner

*There have been other occasions (2013 for example) that Pirelli calendars featured women clothed, but not quite as it did this year.