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Those Marissa Mayer Photos in 'Vogue' Weren't Offensive—They Were Subversive

Why some photos of public figures raise controversy when others don't.

Marissa Mayer in Vogue. Photo: Mikael Jansson
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Marissa Mayer in Vogue. Photo: Mikael Jansson for Vogue
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Gavin Newsom and Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom. Photo: Dewey Nicks for Harper's Bazaar
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Gavin Newsom and Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom. Photo: Dewey Nicks for Harper's Bazaar
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Craig Newmark. Photo: Stephanie Canciello, unali artists for Huffington Post
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Steve Jobs. Photo: Apple
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Jerry Brown and Linda Ronstadt. Photo: Newsweek
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It wasn't the relatively straightforward profile of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer that appeared in Vogue last week that set off a still-roiling Internet debate, but the accompanying photos (numbers one and two in our slideshow) above, in which she appeared lounging, hair splayed behind her, with just the barest hint of a Mona Lisa smile. Kelly Wallace's article for CNN does an admirable job of bringing together the many voices in the debate, from Patrice Grell Yursik of Afrobella.com who denounced the imagery ("I can't think of the last time a men's magazine chose to profile a CEO by asking him to sprawl out on a couch"), to blogger Jen Bosse who was more supportive, arguing that "smart women can be beautiful."

It's an interesting discussion without clear answers, but it got us wondering about another point: Just what is it about these photos that generated such differing responses? After all, magazines run photos of good-looking succesful people every day.

At least part of the answer is that the Mayer photos subverted our expectations of what a big-time CEO is rather than reinforced them. She's not standing over a boardroom table, arms crossed, chin confidently upturned. She's laying upside down on a chaise lounge. The pictures aren't shocking because she is a powerful woman being objectified by a fashion magazine; they are arresting because she is arrayed in a pose that we don't expect. [NOT TOTALLY GETTING THIS THESIS. TRIED SOME NEW LANGUAGE TO CLARIFY THE POINT, BUT STILL NOT SURE IT'S ALL THAT SURPRISING.]

Want proof of the theory? Just remember back to TK YEAR and the controversy over then-Mayor Gavin Newsom's sexy photo shoot with his then-wife Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom for Harper's Bazaar (photos three and four in our slideshow). In one shot, the couple appeared in each other arms draped across a rug in a mansion room that looked like it belonged to Doctor Evil. In another, they were dolled up to play pool as if to correct The Sting's glaring omission of backless ball gowns. In short, they looked like models, not the political power couple they were. They broke out of the public's frame of reference for them, and were taken to task accordingly, especially in the context of Newsom's still recent defeat of Green Party standard bearer Matt Gonzalez.

Contrast those examples to equally stylized photos of Craig Newmark, the man behind Craigslist (photo five) and Steve Jobs (photo six). Newmark is posed behind his laptop with several cups of coffee out in front of him. That shot probably took as much work to set up as the Mayer photo, but because Newmark looks like we expect him to be—the friendly guy down the block who is willing to trade you a set of beer making equipment for your vinyl bootlegs of the Grateful Dead—he doesn't register as odd to the viewer. Same with Jobs, who looks like he's sitting in a Berkeley co-op, and is going to pass you his early Macintosh in exchange for your joint. Equally staged, but not controversial. If either of them had been photographed shirtless on a chaise lounge in the Berkeley Hills, well, that would provoked a much different reaction.

Turns out that when a celebrity appears differently from the role we've constructed around them, it's bound to make our synapses go haywire. Just consider George W. Bush's new vocation as a painter. And—unlike, for example, Francis Ford Coppola making wine or Willie Brown dictating movie reviews—when those code violations tred upon tricky ground, as do Mayer's foray into sex, fashion, feminism, and the corporation, well, look out.

So what's a public figure who'd like to peek outside of box without causing a bit of a meltdown to do? Well, a good example is Jerry Brown, who posed for this Newsweek cover in 1979. He looks just like you'd expect Governor Moonbeam to look. A little rumpled, flying coach, and a little bit bothered that you interrupted him from reading what is either a budget briefing or a new translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. But look a little closer—who's that sitting next to him? Oh, no big deal, just his pop singer girlfriend Linda Rondstadt. No big.

And that is how you break frame.