Real message of topless Amy Schumer

Did you see the headlines today? Mostly naked women making questionably feminist statements using — what else? — their bodies.

First up: The 2016 Pirelli calendar. Since the mid-1960s, tire maker Pirelli has produced an annual calendar featuring mostly models, mostly nude. This year’s calendar, images from which were released this week, was a certain departure, however. Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, it features a number of nonmodels, fully clothed (for the most part), ditching, as Today put it, “sexy for strong.”

Among the participants attracting the most attention are comedian and actress Amy Schumer, who poses — topless, with her arm covering her breasts — wearing her underpants and a shocked expression; tennis superstar Serena Williams, who poses— apparently topless, too — with back to camera; and writer Fran Lebowitz, who told The New York Times she thought the call to join the calendar was, frankly, a joke.

The 77-year-old former MoMA president Agnes Gund told the Times she had a similar reaction. “That’s odd,” she thought, when she was invited to participate. “What’s that got to do with someone like me?”

In response, the Internet has gone buck wild with praise, declaring feminist victories all over the place:

Septuagenarians, ornery authors, and actresses a good 15 pounds (or more) above the Hollywood ideal, given the honor of appearing in a traditionally sexist calendar? Certainly, we have won! “The 2016 Pirelli Calendar is a New Dawn for Feminism,” announced Bustle. “Pirelli Calendar Wins Praise for Feminist Makeover,” said Yahoo. According to British GQ, the calendar is about “Brains over Boobs.” Hurray! The collective cheer seems to go. Sexism is solved!

But is it?

It’s true that this year’s Pirelli calendar is a departure from calendars of the past. And yes: That the women featured in it are notable for accomplishments that do not include their waist size or faces. And yet, it’s hard to deny that the focus — of the calendar, and of the reaction to it — remains squarely placed on how these women look.

Even if the intent is to applaud Pirelli for picking women who aren’t traditionally beautiful, by describing them as such we’re still calling attention to their looks (possibly insulting them while we’re at it). Leibovitz said Pirelli came to her with the mandate of “doing something different.” But it’s hard to say that generating attention for how women look is any different at all.

Maybe there are more brains than boobs, but there are still plenty of boobs. Butts, too.

And, of course, the mandate worked, didn’t it? More than 50 years after its inception, the Pirelli calendar is commanding some of the biggest headlines for doing little more than what it’s always done: calling attention to the physical appearance of women.

This is evolution?

It’s hardly surprising. The fact is that we don’t know how to react to women’s bodies anymore. To wit: Also making headlines is Christie Brinkley, who recently posted to Instagram photos of herself in a bikini (not to go unnoted: She has a book to sell.) Predictably, nearly all headlines — of the “Bikini-Clad Christie Brinkley Takes Internet by Storm at 61” sort — mention her age. Which, of course, makes all the fuss seem less a celebration than a concession: She looks good, for a 61-year-old.

If feminism were really having a moment, would this be a judgment we’d still be making?

You could say standards and expectations are changing, and that the Pirelli calendar is evidence of that. That may be. But you could also question whether our reaction to the calendar proves this is true — or, in fact, quite the opposite.

Pirelli has done what it’s always known how to do: court controversy for press. By championing the brand’s latest choices to that end, we’re not really evolved, are we? More like willing victims of great marketing?

If feminism were enjoying any sort of real victory, would we be reading images of Amy Schumer’s nonflat belly as permission to condone what’s still a girly calendar, by the way? Would we be so quick to buy the images we’re being sold?

Or would we, instead, be taking the calendar in stride?

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