What does it say about a culture when it’s considered “daring” to put a woman on a magazine cover without the pretense of sex?
What does it say about a culture when it’s considered “daring” to put a woman on a magazine cover without the pretense of sex? Adele’s new Rolling Stone cover, a tangent to her breathlessly anticipated reemergence, does just that, and it’s striking. Since the birth of art criticism, images of women have been read largely as subject to the male gaze, and it’s rare, even in this fourth wave of feminism, to see an image of a woman rejecting that gaze. She’s either languishing in it, or watching herself being watched. But Adele and Rolling Stone renounce this.
Adele’s expression wears none of the self-consciousnesses that comes with being watched. She’s defiant, if a little perturbed. It’s as though we’re door-to-door-marketers who've caught her just as she was about to recline with her morning coffee and paper, her one moment of solitude before she starts her busy, important day. There’s nothing lustful in the way she stares out of the image at us. She’s not asking for anything, either. With one look, she’s telling us more about herself, and her expectations of us, than a woman on the cover of a magazine usually does.
The image bears a single, simple caption—“Adele: A Private Life.” Which serves to further the intention in her eyes. Her persona won't be sullied, and she stands out against the usual din of competing headlines, completely autonomous. Adele is not public property, and that’s not up for debate. When a woman puts herself in the public eye, there’s an immediate sense of entitlement to her body and her life. The most pertinent example is still Amy Winehouse. She played the game and in some instances courted the controversy, but she was also relentlessly hounded by the media and pulled, limb from limb, until there was nothing left of her, just to satiate a hungry, perverse audience. We still see it, most recently this week, in the way baby North West, a two year old, is forced to fend off cameras, simply because her mother appears naked in photos. There’s a general consensus that once a woman allows herself to be revealed, she is owned by those she reveals herself to.
Adele is refusing to play into this. While I’m not, by any means, saying that the exposed woman deserves what she gets (of course she doesn't, but that’s another issue for another day), there's also a sense that the successful woman must rely on exposing herself in order to stay relevant or find success in the entertainment industry. It's a modern Catch-22, but Adele bucks that trend too. After completely disappearing from the charts and tabloids for three years, she reemerged with little ceremony to completely disrupt those charts, debuting at number one with “Hello," and earning herself a record breaking 1.11 million downloads her first week back. This 27 year old completely obliterates the idea that women must be “seen” in order to be desired. Her whole comeback rests squarely on her merits as a singer/songwriter, rather than her visibility.
It's also worth noting that Adele’s Rolling Stone image is reminiscent of Taylor Swift’s 2014 Time Magazine cover. This now iconic image focuses on just her face as she pierces the lense of the camera with a purposeful gaze, a slight smirk curling the corners of her mouth as she surveys her kingdom, similar to many of Time’s male featuring covers (Steve Jobs, Putin, Obama). Like the Adele cover, Swift’s image is simply captioned with “The Power of Taylor Swift,” which suggests, in no uncertain terms, that her body is not up for grabs, and that she’s most certainly a woman upending norms in a male driven industry. Here, Taylor Swift is like Tiepolo’s Cleopatra. She’s not a Renaissance nude vainly staring at her own reflection, nor is she coyly averting her gaze from the male spectator. She’s staring straight at her paramour, about to dissolve an expensive pearl in her wine and drink it, proving that she’s a woman who won the bet against patriarchy, claimed ownership of an empire, and did so completely of her own agency.
Rihanna’s recent i-D cover tells a similar story: star is defiant, warrior-like stare underscored by the words "Play Loud.” Unlike Taylor Swift and Adele, however, imagery of Rihanna is usually associated with brazen nudity, so the emphasis on her face alone has an even deeper impact. The cover bridges the gap between body and power, suggesting Rihanna is still commanding regardless of her frequently displayed sexuality. The caption further encourages activity over passivity in the visible woman, as both words “play” and “loud” denote agency, which is sometimes rarely gifted to women who submit to the status quo.
Scrolling through the vast archives on Google images of the past few years’ reveals a shocking disparity between these cover images and the way female cover stars are traditionally "art" directed. The image of a woman subverting the male gaze, even in women’s magazines, is a rare sight. Adele’s arresting, unapologetic face stands out in a sea of hyper-sexualized bodies, come-hither eyes, and clamoring headlines. And so Adele’s cover, like Taylor’s and Rihanna’s, is a revolution, but not one that’s likely to leave a lasting impression on the music or magazine industry (unlike Adele, whose legacy is already assured). As long as sex sells, and as long as women continue to use that to their advantage, we will continue to be surprised by magazine covers like Adele’s.
So we must now ask ourselves, why is it so unexpected to see a woman defined first and foremost by her formidability, and not her sexuality? We believe that women have reclaimed their bodies, that they’re displaying them in small acts of empowerment, and yet those small acts seem simply to be a way of exploiting a system, rather than rallying against it. While women can knowingly sell their bodies to take advantage of male dictated economies, there’s little rivalry against this antiquated idea that female attractiveness equals female success. And that’s not to say Adele isn’t attractive: she’s stunning. But she’s changing the way we see her power. It doesn’t emanate from her body and how she can manipulate sexual emotion in the spectator owner. Her power comes from an expression that tells us she’s here, that she’s independently capable, and she will not be moved by our expectations of how she should and should not be.
Kat George is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter.