Updated Thursday, July 26 2018 at 3:30 p.m. EDT:
This story has been updated to include a statement from Pirelli regarding their 2019 calendar.
For fashion photography lovers, the annual Pirelli calendar has become a highly anticipated release, attracting some of the world’s most beautiful faces and most renowned photographers. Formerly best known as a contemporary pinup calendar, in recent years, the project has evolved beyond predictably provocative imagery to elegantly evolved fantasy.
For instance, take the 2018 calendar, in which photographer Tim Walker brilliantly staged an all-black retelling of Alice in Wonderland, starring Duckie Thot, Lupita Nyong’o, Whoopi Goldberg, RuPaul, Lil’ Yachty and more, styled by Edward Enninful. It was a groundbreaking moment; for both Pirelli and the almost overwhelming amount of black beauty and talent it celebrated.
But for the 2019 calendar, legendary photographer Albert Watson is behind the lens with a significantly smaller cast than in previous years. Instead of a full cast of faces to span the year, this year’s calendar focuses on narrating the stories of four women played by models Gigi Hadid and Laetitia Casta, actress Julia Garner and ballet star Misty Copeland—who is notably the sole black woman (and only obvious woman of color) in the cast. As Vogue reports:
Hadid plays the woman who seemingly has it all, but her success is steeped in sadness. Her only haven is her plush New York apartment in the company of her confidant, who is played by Alexander Wang. Garner moonlights as a photographer, whose portfolio so far only contains pictures of plants, and not the portraits she desires. Her model, Astrid Eika, patiently sits for the aspiring auteur. Casta adopts the role of painter, who spends her days in a down-town loft with her dancer boyfriend, who is acted out by Sergei Polunin. Copeland, likewise, is a dancer, who supports her dream of stardom by working the stages in a local strip club.
As expressed in the title of this article, we can’t help but feel a way that the sole black woman in Pirelli’s 2019 cast—currently the world’s best-known black dancer of any genre—moonlights as a stripper in Watson’s narrative. Frankly, it feels reductive as hell; even Vogue’s description of Copeland’s role seems oversimplified next to those of her co-stars (whose roles as seemingly unfulfilled women feel equally reductive, tbh).
But to be clear, our issue isn’t with the concept of stripping or even Copeland’s Flashdance-style narrative; it’s admittedly an interesting character arc for the accomplished ballerina. Instead, what’s striking is that a year after being lauded for debunking traditional narratives with perhaps the most visionary (and frankly, gorgeous) calendar in its history, Pirelli seems to have regressed by only casting a single woman who presents as of color for this edition (designer Alexander Wang also makes an appearance, and Copeland is paired with fellow American Ballet Theatre dancer Calvin Royal III for her plotline).
Furthermore, by portraying the sole black woman in the cast in this context with only white-presenting narratives as counterpoint, Pirelli and Watson are (likely unwittingly) trafficking in age-old stereotypes of the black female body as hypersexualized and the black woman as dependent upon the commodification of her body to get ahead in the world.
It’s disappointing, to say the least.
And are we supposed to believe that the only two options of Copeland’s character are prima ballerina or the pole? That juxtaposition alone feels like a highly polished and unasked-for repackaging of the madonna-whore complex, not to mention ignoring the fact that for a woman as immensely talented as Copeland, perhaps the greatest tragedy might be a desk job (though we’re guessing that doesn’t photograph as well).
In a release, Pirelli says:
“Albert Watson seeks to narrate [each woman’s] journey, to understand the emotive power of their dreams, the turning points, the moments of victory and defeat, and how they faced each in turn.”
With that in mind, Watson’s portrayal may be sensitive—we’re assuming so, since Copeland was clearly on board with this role and deserves her agency in doing so. But as we well know, the breadth of black womanhood is immense and varied; while we love us some Cardi B, we are so much more nuanced than the “pole-to-riches” plotline we’re being presented here. It’s disappointing that Watson and his team didn’t work harder to explore that, even if just by more diverse casting.
Because with only 12 months in the year, it’s hard to imagine much room for nuance in this narrative and we can’t help but feel some kind of way about that.