Sisterhood Of The Traveling Underpants

“It was always my dream to be Miss November,” said no woman connected to this latest Pirelli calendar. Released earlier this week, it’s already kicked up much social media fuss.

That’s because, this year’s Pirelli photo offering, shot by Annie Leibovitz, is supposed to modernize the previous arty/nudey/girlie imagery that made the Italian tire company’s lavish promotional calendar, now in its 51st year, famous.  

After all, it’s the year of marketing “fempowerment.”  And though it’s been done to death already in the U.S., the idea of empowering women for what they do as human beings — rather than as sex objects in visual communication — might seem revolutionary to the powers at Pirelli.

With that intention, Leibovitz was given carte blanche to pick models who are "women of outstanding professional, social, cultural, sporting and artistic accomplishments," according to the press release.



Leibovitz does get points for diversity: among the models, there’s a range of talents, careers, races, ethnicities, sexual identities and especially ages, going from 0-82.

But unlike, say, Playboy’s “The Girls of the Big 10” there’s no conceptual through-line here, no way to connect everyone other than that these women and girls are Annie’s friends. Some are recognizable. Most are not. Many are clothed. A few are not.

Call it feminist intellectual cheesecake? Cheesecake with active culture?  

Where it’s cheesy is that the women are actually linked to calendar months, although they don’t wear sashes or seasonal identifiers.

At 82 (though she looks decades younger), Yoko Ono (October) poses in a Marlene Dietrich-like sexy ringleader get-up, complete with exposed legs, cleavage, top hat, and her trademark dark glasses. I’ve seen Yoko in person, and she’s a tiny bundle of energy. Sadly, this portrait seems  forced and drained.

The youngest poser is the adorable naked baby who cleaves to the body of “model and philanthropist” Natalia Vodianova (January.) Mom looks more like your standard gorgeous fashion mannequin, posed as she is in a sensuous satin robe exposing her long stems.

Champion tennis player Serena Williams is clearly a star. She’s shot naked from the back, in the most striking portrait of them all: the only one that hits the mark as an unconflicted vision radiating discipline, self-awareness and power.

Less-familiar figures are art philanthropist Agnes Gund, hugging her granddaughter, Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, film producer Kathleen Kennedy,  “Selma” director Ava DuVernay, teenaged fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson, and UN Refugee Agency goodwill ambassador Yao Chen. I wish the calendar provided more information on these people.

Rocker and memoirist Patti Smith looks good in a signature outfit, but the shot looks like every other one we’ve seen in the past decade or so.  

The oddest person to be included in this group of “sheros” is the famously blocked writer Fran Lebowitz. Is she there to give hope to other stymied writers? She shows up in her signature bespoke men’s wear and Levis. Lebowitz’ portrait (all were shot in Leibovitz’ New York City studio) is very static and curiously old-fashioned; she stands at a distance, almost like a Matthew Brady Civil War veteran.

While she lights up the place and I love her, comedian/TV star Amy Schumer is really overexposed, as in literally showing lots of skin here. But I also have to give her props for acting as the lone, subversive, dissonant presence (the “Luuu-cy” ) in this sometimes-ponderous — and frankly, humorless — bunch of portraits.

On the one hand, wearing only a pair of sexy undies, high-heeled shoes, and her bitchy resting face, Schumer’s the one who connects, in that her portrait winks at the spirit of Pirelli calendars past. On the other, isn’t this supposed to be about accomplishment, and not a collection of body parts? Isn’t the point supposed to be that we don’t have to take off our clothes to get attention?

There’s something anxious-making and slightly embarrassing about the shot, like a takeoff on one of those Maidenform ads of the 1950s: “I dreamed I was booked to pose for an international calendar of powerful women, but I forgot to bring my wardrobe!”

It’s an interesting shot: “Pinup with a coffee cup.” Schumer looks great, and she’s not in the least overweight; it’s just that it appears that Leibovitz used some kind of  “doughy flesh” filter.  

One of my friends accused Schumer of sporting a “spare tire” (pun intended.) Another reproduced her picture on Facebook with the headline, “Hello, Adele!”

In fairness, the rolls around Schumer’s stomach occur for even the skinniest (non-six pack, steroidal) people who are photographed sitting down at that angle. Normally, they’d be airbrushed. Here, it’s almost as if they were magnified.

I get what Schumer’s trying to do here, and it works, sort of. Her lowest point, though, comes on the “making of” video, when she says of her appearance, “I have never felt more beautiful.” Dramatic music swells in the background as she stares ahead blankly, like a Stepford Wife. I don’t think Schumer meant it ironically, but still there’s a dissonance that’s upsetting. It’s just the sort of hypocrisy that she would savage on “Inside Amy Schumer,” her very funny and knowing Comedy Central show.

About the calendar as a whole, there is no point in asking “Will it sell?” It’s not intended for sale, but rather produced in a limited run of 20,000, sent to “celebrities, royalty” — and, you’d think, some favored Pirelli clients who actually own auto garages.

The calendar certainly did what it set out to do: attract a ton of instant Internet buzz, making the brand more top-of-mind in the U.S.

But I have a feeling that, having tried the “empowered woman” bit, the powers at Pirelli will feel justified in returning to business as usual.

Actually, all along, the Pirelli calendar has reflected a European sensibility about nudity — which is where, uh, the rubber meets the road. Some years are more arty and elevated than others, depending on the photographer.  But it’s always more interesting than the Victoria’s Secret catalogue or a magazine like Maxim.

Still, the work that Leibovitz did for the Pirelli 2000 calendar — in which she photographed the Mark Morris dance troupe naked — was far more visually astounding than this.

This year’s calendar is very muddled. The point is that sisterhood is powerful, but women aren’t in lockstep. And far from revolutionary, the theme of  “powerful women” is a silly, reductive, almost patronizing way to organize anything in the year 2016.  No matter how natural or elegant the individual portraits attempt to be, there’s no internal logic or flow to the thing. 

As a result, whether showing Miss January or December, it’s a calendar that feels dated.

16 comments about "Sisterhood Of The Traveling Underpants".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Cynthia Amorese from JAL Enterprises NY, December 3, 2015 at 7:18 p.m.

    I think I've been off Leibovitz since seeing her, on video, urge the Queen of England to take off her crown for a photo shoot (HRH stiffly refused). I love Leibovitz's early work, but there's nothing very new or striking about the Pirelli images. And there's certainly nothing there that makes me think good things about women. I'm sick to death of sourpuss faces and static go-to-hell poses -- show me women laughing, being angry, instucting a child, comforting an old person, looking determined, or (as in the famous Helmut Newton shot of Jerry Hall) spitting water on somebody. But please don't show me some blank-faced fashion model holding an infant or Yoko Ono dressed up for Cabaret. Why does the world suddenly seem so confused about women and the real sources of our strength and power?  

  2. Dean Fox from ScreenTwo LLC, December 3, 2015 at 7:41 p.m.

    Thank you once again, Barbara, for deflating this inanity with such sharp and accurately placed pinpricks.  I can't really blame Annie Leibovitz for taking what was probably a very well compensated assignment, but I can only hope that the Pirelli marketing folks have now realized the folly of their strategy. It won't sell a single additional tire, but maybe some women will be sufficiently offended by this pretentiousness to choose another brand. 

  3. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, December 3, 2015 at 8:02 p.m.

    Great analysis. It's a calendar, and not very engaging (I'm beginning to hate that word). I agree wholeheartedly that Serena's portrait is awesome. I happen to like the contrast between her and Amy Schumer. I saw Amy's as, "this is what I look like. if you don't like it fuck you." While Serena's said, "this is what I look like. If you don't like it I'll kick your ass."

  4. Claudia Caplan from MDC Partners, December 3, 2015 at 8:37 p.m.

    Shameless plug here.  If you want to see that sort of thing done well, look at the campaign Laird & Partners did for Lane Bryant/Cacique with the theme #imnoangel. These women don't just have a bit extra around the middle and they are so fabulously sexy that any Victoria's Secret "angel" should die of jealousy and give up on cigarettes and celery as a diet.

  5. George Parker from Parker Consultants, December 3, 2015 at 9:05 p.m.

    Barbara... As an ex neighbour and good friend of Cynthia Lennon (John's first wife) and her son Julian in London, I get very tired of hearing about Yoko and her under talanted son, Braun, or whatever his nozzle name is. Never forget that when the Beatles first hit the US in 1963, Cynthia had to travel on her own in case it spoiled the image of the randy young "Scousers." Yoko has been milking her John connection for years in order to support her so-called art. Arrrgggh. Sorry, I just get pissed when I read this shit. Oh, and has Annie paid of her studio yet... Like I said... Arrrgggh! Time for a Fourth Reich Potato Vodka.
    Cheers/George "AdScam" Parker

  6. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, December 3, 2015 at 9:24 p.m.

    Babara, you said it all when you said that it was only a 20,000 run for the insiders whomever they may be. It is not about selling tires, it is about this.....opinions scattering around the Pirelli calendar. Price ? Price on ebay if it makes it there ?

  7. Ruth Thomas from Second helping, December 3, 2015 at 11:40 p.m.

    I have nothing to add, no clever comment...just well said!

  8. Len Stein from Visibility Public Relations replied, December 4, 2015 at 9:49 a.m.

    right on Cynthia, is time for the Lieb to hang up the Nikon.... and find some new friends

  9. Don Perman from self, December 4, 2015 at 11:02 a.m.

    Fine analysis of a very odd creation. It seems to head in multiple directions, often contradictory. A vague way to score off others' celebrity.  But I think they make good tires.

  10. Mollie Ottenhoff from Demi & Cooper Advertising, December 4, 2015 at 3:21 p.m.

    I am kind of appalled at the 3-paragraph fat shame in the middle of the article. The comments about a "doughy flesh" filter, magnified rolls, and especially the repeating of the horrible comments your friends put on their walls seem totally odd and off topic. You totally distracted from the point you were trying to make by going on a tangent and choosing words that prove you to be an adult mean girl. Cushioning your mean words with the "in fairness" comment doesn't make them any less harsh or body shaming. Maybe next time, less analyzing Amy Shumer's body and how it looked, and more analyzing why you didn't like the shot and why it didn't do what Leibovitz intended. 

  11. Alan Wasserstrom from None, December 5, 2015 at 4:42 p.m.

    I have Pirelli tires on my Mustang and they work just fine far better than I have ever seen what I consider the overrated and chubby Amy Schumer. That being said I did enjoy your perspective on the generally highly regarded Leibovitz. If some of this comes from facebook walls I agree with Ms. Ottenhoff but ,in sum,find it an interesting read for this non advertising aging and retired lawyer. Look forward to your next column and admit to enjoying this one as well.

  12. Alan Wasserstrom from None replied, December 6, 2015 at 11:49 a.m.

    Fabulously funny.

  13. Alan Wasserstrom from None replied, December 6, 2015 at 11:51 a.m.

    Some very astute points about facebook.

  14. Barbara Lippert from, December 6, 2015 at 12:44 p.m.

    Interesting to me that three of the models are phlinathropist hyphenates. 

  15. Barbara Lippert from, December 6, 2015 at 12:51 p.m.

    Mollie-- thanks for your comment. I actually said that Schumer is not the least overweight and perhaps I didn't express clearly enough that she set up the jokey pretext of purposely showing the rolls, even though she's thin and it would happen to anyone sitting like that.. A little hard not to talk about body parts when she puts them out there for our entertainment. Perhaps that's part of the stand up persona she  wants to get away from now: the overserved party girl with no sel-awareness or boundaries. Her TV show is much smarter than that. I think I expressed that she was the one model who lit up the calendar with humor and personality, something it's pretty much lacking otherwise.

  16. Jim English from The Met Museum, December 6, 2015 at 4:14 p.m.

    The calendar perhaps not as good as it could have been, but give Leibovitz and Pirelli credit for breaking the mold. We'll see what they decide to do next year, because as you said,  Barbara,  "Everyone is looking for a fantasy because reality is so cruel."

Next story loading loading..