Mindy Kaling’s ‘ELLE’ Cover Controversy: Why Fashion Magazines Will Never Change

This month’s ELLE has four different covers, and one of them is the black-and-white photograph of Mindy Kaling you see above. If you asked me, without context, if the photograph was attractive, I’d say yes. In fact I quite like it, as a photograph of Kaling.

The problem, as the internet has now identified it, is that the three other “women in television” cover pictures don’t look like Kaling’s. They are not in black-and-white, and they are not closeups, meaning specifically that they show the women’s bodies below shoulder level. The internet has — more or less correctly, in my view — inferred that a likely explanation for this “one of these things is not like the other” phenomenon is that Kaling has a body which likely falls outside the narrow fashion-magazine range of acceptability. (People are also suggesting there’s a racial undertone to ELLE‘s choice of black-and-white, and I think that’s possible too.) It’s certainly true, anyway, that she has a different shape than the other women who get the full-color, full-body treatment: Amy Poehler, Alison Williams, and Zooey Deschanel.

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I confess I am growing weary of magazine-cover controversies like these ones, for the simple fact that it’s gotta be weird for Kaling for everyone to emphasize, in the name of defending her, what a “different” body she has from these other women. She, after all, says she is fine with the photograph, as would I probably be, in her place:

(Not that she’d be free to say otherwise if she truly was unhappy, of course.)

I feel this fatigue even as I also am quite certain some kind of conversation was had at ELLE offices — perhaps it was conducted only by way of knowing glances among the editors — about how much more “flattering” this photograph was than whatever full-body shots they probably tried out and rejected. Mostly, I think, I feel weary because it is my perception that fashion magazines are just never going to catch up on this issue. They don’t care to catch up on this issue. Our attempt to hold them “accountable” for the choices they make, magazine cover-wise, has been ongoing for several years now. It has made almost no difference. Celebrities are still routinely photoshopped into unrecognizability, the models are still what they are, and so ELLE, confronted with this new round of complaining, simply responds, “Mindy looks sexy, beautiful and chic. We think it is a striking and sophisticated cover and are thrilled to celebrate her in our Women in TV Issue.”

What I find frankly worse is that there isn’t, in my perception, any real desire for change among the people who consume fashion magazines. I’m talking of the general populace here, rather than fashion bloggers. They like the pretty pictures; they don’t worry too much about how inaccessible — not just body-shape-wise, or in the lily-whiteness of the fashion world overall, but financially too — all of this stuff is. They are producing expensive catalogs, fantasy documents, and people aren’t really that interested in revising their fantasies. And people like Kaling, I suspect, people who don’t slip quite so easily into the fantasy mold, are well aware that compromises are made when they engage with that industry.

I do have another question about these covers, though, one that no one’s asking: why Allison Williams? Both Poehler and Deschanel are power players of a sort, like Kaling, or at least aspiring ones. Meanwhile, Williams, consistently one of Girls‘ most wooden performers, has lately been behaving more or less like an android in interviews too. It appears the same went for this ELLE bit, check out the quote they give with her cover shot:

I want to play a villain. I want to play a romantic heroine. I want to play someone who’s on heroin. There’s nothing I don’t want to do. I want to play a guy at some point. I’ll gain 100 pounds, I’ll cut my hair off, I’ll do whatever. I’m not precious about any of it.

What a rich perspective. In 2014, let’s complain more about the many celebrities with PR strategies designed to keep them devoid of any kind of depth or humor making the covers of magazines. The picture of Mindy might bug us for its individuality. But at least it, like Kaling, has personality.