You see this picture on Pinterest and what’s the first thing you think of?
Another “get the body you want” workout series? A “here is a ripped girl you want to look like, but let’s be honest…”? Sports brand ad? Maybe even lingerie–I don’t know you! Well, take another look because this is no other than American professional ballerina, Misty Copeland; not a random fit girl or an athletic ad. Unlike most visual media of bodies we view on social media created by produsers (a new term media scholar Axel Bruns uses to describe modern audiences which participate as both producers and consumers of media¹), Copeland’s shot is not a communication of vanity but artistic grit.
As a semiotic analysis of her photograph, Copeland’s muscular body and attractive pose and ensemble serve as signifiers to consumers. Photographer Henry Leutwyler uses these visual forms, or signifiers, to encode a message to us via Stuart Hall’s Transmission Model of communication, a.k.a. encoding and decoding. But what do we decode? What do these symbols say to us, and what is signified? The clue is subtle. The contrast, or what our eyes notice at first glance, of Copeland’s black ensemble against the highlights of her brown skin in studio lights, transmits to our minds that we are seeing a lot of skin and not many clothes. The sharp silhouette of the two-piece communicates tight shapes or tight garments, while the background and vignette suggest a close an intimate encounter. The lines of her upper body might allude to a light femininity, but the harsh square of her lower body announces impeccable precision and strength. The dancer’s bare inner thighs may divert your attention momentarily, but once you notice the ballerina shoes camouflaged against Copeland’s vibrant skin, this becomes a whole different image.
The forms signified and decoded suddenly transform into a message of artistic intensity and physical rigor–this woman is now a somebody, her body has a story. That story is this: Misty Copeland broke history as the first African American Female Principal Dancer with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. A short bio on her website shares:
“When she discovered ballet, however, Misty was living in a shabby motel room, struggling with her five siblings for a place to sleep on the floor. A true prodigy, she was dancing en pointe within three months of taking her first dance class and performing professionally in just over a year: a feat unheard of for any classical dancer.”
click here to find out more about Misty’s story.
Copeland’s face says it all. Her expression shares her grounded feelings of silent dedication and humble pride. In reality, the meaning of Leutwyler’s photograph is subtle on purpose, and communicates a quiet strength and underestimated power. The illusion happening here is a satire–a visual trick where you first think it’s one thing, and then realize it’s another. This image is not like the Instagram posts of millennial girl’s workout routines and athletic clothes sponsorships clogging your feed, and this picture is not just of a ballerina. Instead, this is a photograph that tells the public that true and tough work is sexy, that art is power, and most of all, that Misty Copeland is a bad a** professional ballerina.
Through media, the public is exposed to all kinds of physical boundaries which will always be out of our reach. Look for what’s good. Look for what is truly inspiring, not just whimsical. Become media literate now.
¹Pavlik, John V., and Shawn McIntosh. CONVERGING MEDIA. 5TH ed. S.l.: Oxford University Press, 2018