There’s a Big Problem With the New Rolling Stone Cover
The shoot used a trope that's gross and played out
Everyone is talking about Sophie Turner’s recent comments in Harper’s Bazaar on the Game Of Thrones gender pay gap (which may not really be a pay gap at all), but TBH, it’s Turner’s other recent cover that’s the problem. For the April 2019 issue of Rolling Stone, the GOT actor is featured alongside her co-star and BFF Maisie Williams and while we love a good girl power moment, what we seriously don’t love? The way Turner and Williams are simultaneously sexualized and infantilized in the magazine’s photos. The actors, who play sisters Sansa and Arya Stark, are featured throughout the shoot in variations of whimsical, gauzy attire, posing alone and alongside each other. And the shots of the duo together are causing us to scratch our heads. The future Mrs. Jonas and Williams are repeatedly posed in close embraces, both on the cover—where Turner cradles Williams from behind—and throughout the magazine.
The story is billed as an insight into “Sisterhood, Sword fights and the Epic Final Season” of GOT, which seems a bit… off because TBH, I have never hugged my sister like that.
— Jerry Portwood (@jerryportwood) March 26, 2019
The stand-out shot (and we mean that in the *worst* way) is an image of Turner and Williams wearing strapless or strappy tops that give the impression of nudity. They’re face-to-face, staring into each others eyes, with their mouths open and lips placed on a blossoming rose. The rose is, of course, a demure and blushing pink colour. Again, not your typical sisterly pose.
The entire shoot feels sensual, with Virgin Suicides meets Heavenly Creatures vibes—and it seriously has to stop.
The images feel wrong and exploitative for so many reasons. First, the semi-incestuous undertones of the whole photoshoot—billing it as a look at sisterhood, then featuring two actors who have called each other their “strong home[s],” staring into each others eyes? Ew. And of course, there’s the not-so-subtle flower imagery. (FYI, roses—and flowers in general—have long been associated with female sexuality, with the former often used to symbolize sexual innocence and virginity.) The photos infantilize the young actors by showing them spinning around in a ring-around-the-rosie style play, then (double ew) eroticizes their play. This is especially problematic considering both women are still relatively young; Williams is 21 and Turner is 23.
It’s important to note that while the photos were shot by female photographer Nicole Nodland (which, amazing), it *definitely* doesn’t feel like they prioritize the female gaze. In many ways, the framing of the photos—the actors stand lips parted and facing each other, almost as if they might kiss if not for the flower—feels like something plucked out of a male fantasy about two women being intimate, not for their own pleasure but for that of the men viewing them. The shots don’t even seem to be about the close relationship between Turner and Williams, but rather the goal is to exploit and sexualize that relationship, and tease the possibility of a different type of intimacy. It’s a set-up that honestly takes away from the beauty and celebration of their friendship.
And the thing is, this sexualization of young women goes *way* beyond Turner, Williams and Rolling Stone. It’s a classic move, especially when it comes to portraying young women in the media—because let’s be honest: sex sells, even when female accomplishments don’t. It’s become almost a rite of passage for young women to pose in a sexual way on some sort of magazine cover, from Cosmopolitan to Vanity Fair, and it’s a rite of passage that seems to be held exclusively for women in Hollywood.
In May 2018, actor Jessica Biel opened up about her own experience posing for a sexualized shoot when she was just starting out. (The then-17-year-old posed topless for the cover of Gear Magazine.) Speaking about her experience, Biel, now 37, said, “It definitely never was meant to be some shocking, exposing situation and whether it was my own sort of… ability to try to be my own person by myself, ya know, confident woman. I said yes to things that probably I should’ve said no to. It was just one of those things that got out of hand.”
More recently, in 2010, Glee stars Cory Monteith, Lea Michele and Diana Agron posed in a *very* sexualized photo shoot for GQ (shot by the super controversial Terry Richardson). Sold as “Glee Gone Wild” by the mag, the shoot featured images of Agron and Michele in provocative poses wearing super short skirts and bras, while Monteith—the only man in the shoot—posed fully dressed (overcoat and all) with a baseball bat and his drum kit. There was a noticeable difference in how the costars were portrayed, with the women overtly sexualized while Monteith was pretty much a prop around and on which they performed.
We’re all for women embracing and celebrating their sexuality, but it should be on their own terms and not just exploited for page views. And like Biel, and now Turner and Williams, it’s not that Michele and Agron didn’t have autonomy over their bodies, sexuality or the shoot itself. It’s more that they weren’t—and maybe couldn’t have been been—clear about how this shoot would be perceived. Though, to be honest, we’re not sure how much their autonomy really counted, anyway. After all, these young actors were all working within an already-existing framework that sexualizes women.
So while this type of portrayal seems to be a rite of passage, it’s one that needs to stay firmly in the past, because it’s seriously gross and played out. We’ve seen from experience that it’s completely possible to portray both men *and* women in a strong, non-exploitively sexual way. Rolling Stone recently did just that with their seriously gorgeous photos of congresswomen—but it would be nice to see “starlets,” those oft-sexualized, rarely-respected demo of young women, get treated with the same respect.