The photograph captioned “Pandora in Blue Jeans” is one of the most widely circulated portraits of a woman in history. Like most people, I first saw it on the back of a pulpy paperback book. A black-and-white fifties author photo that seems like a snapshot, it is a side view of a solidly built young woman in a prehipster buffalo plaid shirt and men’s jeans, sitting at a table with a typewriter on it in what looks like a kitchen. She’s not wearing makeup, her hair is pulled back in a lumpy ponytail, and she’s leaning forward with her hands folded anxiously or pensively in front of her face, so we can’t really see what she looks like. There’s a half-smoked cigarette in the ashtray next to her typewriter and a messy stack of papers behind it. She is staring at what she’s writing, and she seems not to know or care that the photographer is there.
Some author photos develop a life of their own, and those are often the ones that bend a gender or pose a challenge. Perhaps the first of these was the engraved daguerreotype of Walt Whitman from the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. The book didn’t disclose Whitman’s name on the title page, but it included his full-page frontispiece portrait as a personal welcome, his shirt unbuttoned and his undershirt showing, a hand on his hip, a hand in his pocket, his gaze direct, his head cocked. “I look so damned flamboyant,” he later said about this image, “as if I was hurling bolts at somebody—full of mad oaths—saying defiantly, to hell with you!” Flamboyant, yes, without a doubt, but the direction of the defiance is harder to read. Is he really saying to hell with us, or is he defying us to look away? Does he want his lightning bolt to fatally pierce us, or does he just want to electrify us?
For his authorial debut almost a hundred years later, on the dust jacket of the 1947 first edition of Other Voices, Other Rooms, Truman Capote went Whitman one better by draping himself on his back on a couch, one hand on his stomach and one on his crotch, and looking up at the viewer with a knowing gaze. Hilton Als reads this author photograph as both a metamorphosis and an expression of desire. The image turned Capote into “an American woman of style,” Als writes in White Girls, and “the woman he became in this photograph—itself better written than Other Voices, Other Rooms—wanted to be fucked by you and by any idea of femininity that had fucked you up.”
The woman at the kitchen table in “Pandora in Blue Jeans” has undoubtedly been fucked up by femininity, as all women have, but she does not appear to want to be fucked by it or by us. Indeed, she doesn’t seem to want anything from us at all. If Capote’s photo is famously seductive and come-hither, “Pandora in Blue Jeans” is famously unsexy, telling us to go away. Circulating on the back of one of the most sexual and successful books of the decade, Grace Metalious’s scandalous 1956 mega–best seller Peyton Place, “Pandora in Blue Jeans” represents a white girl’s rejection of white-girl conventions, an unprecedented opting out of mainstream commercial feminine iconography that still managed to be wildly popular (if rarely imitated) and made an unlikely icon of a woman whose life seemed to consist of unglamorous obliviousness, unremarkable domesticity, and totally depraved thoughts. Read More