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© Lauren Greenfield

Risk taker

Lauren Greenfield’s alluring, disturbing exploration of American girlhood

By Katie Booth on January 21, 2016

When the advertisement Like A Girl premiered in 2014, the video and its message caught on like wildfire. The ad’s viewers ballooned in its first months from 3 million, to 30 million, then 85 million. It was so huge that Always, who commissioned the ad, purchased a spot during the largest TV broadcast of the year, the Super Bowl, making it the first feminine product brand ad to run during the game.

Behind the viral ad was director, award winning filmmaker and photographer Lauren Greenfield (The Queen of Versailles, THIN, Girl Culture, Kids + Money)  who was honored in New York on Tuesday with the International Center of Photography (ICP)’s Spotlights Award for her contributions to the fields of photography and film. In the ad, it is Greenfield we hear prompt people with the question, “Show me what it looks like to run like a girl?” before scenes of men and women alike flailing their arms and legs helplessly. In echoing a saying we’ve all heard but rarely give a second thought, Greenfield proved how powerful and damaging language can be in our perception of gender.

The video’s reach had a tangible impact: a case study conducted afterwards showed that 19 percent of young women felt positively about the phrase “like a girl.” After watching the video, that number rose to 76 percent.  “There was a real turning point moment when I did Like a Girl,” Greenfield told Women in the World. “I feel like I was able to bring all my years in the trenches on body image to this spot that got blown out to 250 million people. It really made a difference in terms of measurable social change.”

Like A Girl’s success is one of many accolades that make up Greenfield’s remarkable career. She’s renowned for her ability to expose truths about American culture that are both commonplace and concerning. Early on, she became the first person ever to be funded by National Geographic’s Development Grant, to fund her debut monograph Fast Forward: Growing Up in the Shadow of Hollywood. From there, she began a succession of groundbreaking documentary photography and film projects, among them the Emmy-nominated film THIN, Girl Culture, and the 2012 documentary sensation, The Queen of Versailles, which premiered at Sundance and earned her the prestigious Sundance Film Festival Directing Award.

Each year since the Spotlights Award was created in 2011, ICP has honored a woman whose work has made a lasting impact on the visual arts. Past recipients include Carrie Mae Weems and Shirin Neshat. “If you look at Lauren’s career, and how she’s looked at gender and women’s issues, I think it’s completely relevent to today,” ICP Executive Director Mark Lubell told Women in the World. “At ICP, as we continue to look at social issues, and whether or not photography can bring about social change, I think her work fits perfectly.” In an on stage conversation with New York Times writer Jessica Bennett, Greenfield reflected on some of her most impactful projects .

Lauren Greenfield and Jessica Bennett in conversation.
Lauren Greenfield and Jessica Bennett in conversation at ICP’s Spotlights Awards ceremony on Tuesday January 19, 2016. (Elena Olivo for ICP)

Greenfield has committed much of her career to an unflinching exploration of consumerism and celebrity, and their implications on young women and girls. Though she began her career with a goal of photographing foreign lands, she soon recognized a need to investigate her own culture, and returned to where she grew up. Fast Forward examined how kids were affected by materialism and the cult of celebrity in Beverly Hills, California, where she was raised. Then came Girl Culture, which focused on girls’ relationships to their bodies, and the unrealistic ideals set forth by the beauty industry.

“I went back and looked at the world that I had grown up in, and I think that helped me kind of find my own voice in photography,” she told Women in the World. She said it required risk-taking to establish herself as a photographer and branch out as a filmmaker. “As women, we’re not really taught to put ourselves on the line in that way, and take big risks and bold steps,” she said. “It’s like a muscle that I feel like I’ve built over the years, to push myself to do new things, and not be afraid to try commercials, or to try movies.”

Part of Greenfield’s “So You Want to be a Princess” photographs for Cosmopolitan magazine, exploring princess-themed weddings. Lauren was commissioned to take photos for the piece. (© Lauren Greenfield)

One of the most striking aspects of Greenfield’s work is her ability to match the comic with the tragic and the beautiful with the grotesque. A photo of a girl playing dress up, for example, seems entirely sweet and innocent, if not for the girl’s hip jutting out and her lips painted red, emulating the provocative pose of a showgirl. “What I saw in the game of dress up was this early evidence of girls understanding the importance of their outsides,” she told Bennett. Greenfield’s film THIN goes a step further, portraying women undergoing treatment for eating disorders. One patient, a former model, came to resent the modeling industry and resorted to cutting her body, in attempt to “damage the property.”

“When she referred to her body as property, that really spoke to me about the commodification of girls’ bodies,” Greenfield told Bennett.

How does Greenfield gain such access to the inner lives of women and girls? She said it’s often her greatest, most paramount challenge. “I think the biggest challenge I’ve had with access was working on the movie THIN. At an eating disorder clinic, trust is a huge deal, and it was a long extended project,” she told Women in the World. “I think it’s kind of like telling your child how to make a friend. There’s no formula, but being yourself and letting people know what you’re doing and why is a huge part of it.”

Former beauty queen and wife of billionaire David Siegel, Jackie, 43, is surrounded by her children in the living room of their Orlando, Florida mansion. She and her husband, the owner of the largest timeshare business in the world, were in progress toward building the biggest house in America, a 90,000 square foot home inspired by the Palace of Versailles, when the financial crisis hit.
Former beauty queen and wife of billionaire David Siegel, Jackie, 43, is surrounded by her children in the living room of their Orlando, Florida mansion. She and her husband were in progress toward building the biggest house in America, a 90,000 square foot home inspired by the Palace of Versailles, when the financial crisis hit. (© Lauren Greenfield)

One of Greenfield’s best-known projects, The Queen of Versailles, also demanded a great deal of access. The film closely follows billionaire wife Jackie Siegel and her husband as they build the largest home in the country (a mind-blowing 90,000 square feet), only to be sidelined by the financial crisis of 2008. Greenfield didn’t foresee the film’s tragic conclusion when she set out to follow the Siegels, but stuck with the project regardless as the family fell from grace. The result is a powerful allegory about the limits of the American Dream.

Greenfield’s Spotlights Award is a testament to a growing space for exceptional women in the fields of photography and film — an industry, she observed, that has changed remarkably in the years since she started out. Then, she had only had a handful of women to look up to (nominating the late Mary Ellen Mark as one of her mentors). Now, she’s one of many women excelling and being recognized. “Photography is a very competitive field, and the best, most innovative voices are what rise,” she said. “I feel like there’s a huge amount of support in the industry for women today.”

© Lauren Greenfield
© Lauren Greenfield

Looking back on her recent work, Greenfield noted that a disparity remains in the commercial world. “Where I see women really in the minority are in commercials. This year, with Like A Girl, I got this award from Advertising Age for the most awarded director of 2015, and it’s the first time a woman’s gotten that award.”

But Like a Girl is also proof of Greenfield’s ability to turn the tables on gender inequality, and inspire her viewers to do the same. “It showed how a movement can just begin, and have momentum, and that regular girls, regular moms, regular dads can be the drivers of social change,” she said. “It was like, we’re ready to change the language, we’re tired of this. In a way, for me, it also showed the power of what was hiding in plain sight.”

Greenfield’s forthcoming retrospective, titled Wealth: The Influence of Affluence, will be published as a photobook and coincide with exhibitions at the International Center of Photography in New York, and the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles.