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Patti Smith by Annie Leibovitz for Pirelli’s 2016 calendar, Raquel Zimmermann by Steven Meisel for Pirelli’s 2015 calendar

Why can’t women be inspirational and naked?

Pirelli’s 2016 calendar buttons up – but why is depicting female sexuality seen as at the cost of dignity?

Don't you know, talkin ‘bout a revolution sounds like a whisper?

So echoed Tracy Chapman’s 90s hit over the speakers at the press conference for the 2016 Pirelli Calendar, a black and white affair shot by Annie Leibovitz and featuring 13 mostly clothed women – including Patti Smith, Yoko Ono, Tavi Gevinson and Serena Williams – chosen for their achievements rather than how they look naked. But with hundreds of journalists from across the world (iPhones in hands, laptops on knees) crammed under the glittering chandeliers of the Grosvenor Hotel on London's Park Lane, this was about as far away from a whisper as you could get. As the song choice made clear, Pirelli were staging their own revolution, and they wanted to make sure everyone paid attention.

A collector’s item, the tyre company have been putting out their mostly-nude calendar since the 1960s, when the newfound optimism and liberated sexuality of Swinging London inspired its first iteration. It is, as Taschen’s recent 570+ page tribute attests, ‘a prodigious document of cultural anthropology’ – capturing the the zeitgeist with every passing year. The special edition items have real weight – the list of photographers who have lent their cameras over the years reads like a who’s who of the world’s most celebrated talents: Avedon, Newton, Lindbergh, Ritts, Weber, Testino, Meisel. The models, too, are renowned, and showcase fashion’s passing epochs – the pretty, anonymous girls of the 60s and 70s give way to the Supers, the waifs, the muses and finally Instagram it-girls like Gigi Hadid. There has been a collaboration with pop artist Allen Jones, and calendars lensed by designer Karl Lagerfeld and photojournalist Steve McCurry.  

But with its focus away from breasts and towards brains, 2016’s calendar was a real statement of intent – to celebrate diverse women of “outstanding professional, social, cultural, sporting and artistic accomplishment”. Alongside more household names were business leader Mellody Hobson, Hollywood producer Kathleen Kennedy and Iranian artist Shirin Neshat. MoMa President Emerita Agnes Gund was photographed with her granddaughter, and Chinese actress and UN Goodwill Ambassador Yao Chen was also featured.

According to CEO Marco Tronchetti Provera, the time was right for this shift. Pirelli seem pretty spot on on that front – as recently as the last few months, men’s interest magazines including FHM and Zoo have closed, taking their ‘sexiest woman of the year’ awards, soft porn and agenda of tits, football and beer with them. Back in October, Playboy announced its decision to ditch nudity in an attempt to reposition away from the top shelf. Probably about a decade too late, they are adjusting from their hallowed status as a rare gem to be hidden beneath a mattress, to the pressure of a world where all the nudity you could want is just a few clicks away, free.

Of course, these changes are indicative of a wider cultural movement. The last few years have seen feminism pushed to the fore, with conversations around reproductive rights, rape, sexism and gender identity dominating international stages. And on the cusp of 2016, forty years on from Laura Mulvey’s pioneering essay on The Male Gaze, the idea of a preemed, waxed woman woman to ogle every month does feel increasingly passé. This year’s calendar presents another option: with biographies accompanying every portrait, it’s a tribute to what Leibovitz called “the roles that women play”, as well as their strength and their dignity. Diversity is at the fore, whether in terms of age (see Yoko Ono in her fishnets) or race, which is not shied away from – in a behind the scenes video, Mellody Hobson speaks of the “double jeopardy” of being both black and female, and Selma director Ava DuVernay discusses the importance of telling stories of people of colour in her work.

“According to Pirelli, the time was right for this shift. They seem pretty spot on on that front – in the last few months, men’s interest magazines including FHM and Zoo have closed, taking their ‘sexiest woman of the year’ awards with them”

It should be noted that the element of nudity isn’t eradicated entirely, however. Comedian Amy Schumer appears for December in a pair of underwear, the concept being that she’s the only one who didn’t get the memo that it wasn’t a nude shoot. Slouched with a cup of coffee in her hand, her body is deliberately unposed, her stomach falling in rolls. Serena Williams' image is, as Leibovitz explained, a body study – although without the dehumanising associations often notable when it comes to white photographers capturing the black body (see: the fetishising work of Robert Mapplethorpe or Jean-Paul Goude). One thing’s for sure: these portraits do not invite objectification. As Leibovitz said, “No one was supposed to look like they’d tried.”

However, in the deliberate turn away from nudity and the subsequent media explosion that has followed, has something been missed? It seems that a false dichotomy is being perpetuated – that women can either be inspirational, or they can be sexualised. As a woman, physical beauty is both esteemed and derided: social stigma against those who profit from their bodies remains, and perhaps is even reinforced with this repositioning. The implicit assumption seems to be that a girl who gets naked must not have much else going on behind her body; a woman can’t both be overtly sexual and a philanthropist, or a mother, or an artist – forever objectified, she cannot ever really own her sexuality. It’s largely the fault of history: women’s bodies have been co-opted to sell everything from cars to, well, calendars.

“I think the message is still the same; sexy women take their clothes off and influential women keep their clothes on. My view is more nuanced: it doesn’t have to be an ‘either/or’ decision” – Artist Andrea Mary Marshall

Many of Pirelli’s images from decades past are beautiful; the bombshell blondes by Brian Duffy, the romantic, impressionistic portraits by Sarah Moon. They spark questions: does depicting female sexuality always have to be seen as at the cost of dignity? Is a naked woman always objectified, or can an image be both sexual and respectful? How can women navigate this unfair minefield? Artist Andrea Mary Marshall had one idea – creating her own version of the calendar, she produced diptychs that combined two contrasting self portraits – juxtaposing the overtly sexual with the everyday. “It's two sides of womenhood that are rarely seen together – though both are accurate,” wrote Dominique Sisely on the project.  “I think the message is still the same; sexy women take their clothes off and influential women keep their clothes on,” Marshall told us of the 2016 calendar. “My view is more nuanced: it doesn’t have to be an ‘either/or’ decision. For me, being a woman is a much less binary experience.”