Naked or Not, the Pirelli Calendar Is Just a Promotional Calendar

Hold your applause: Sex still sells, and half-naked photos aren't going anywhere. Not that there's anything wrong with that.


From left: Yao Chen, Patti Smith, Mellody Hobson and Serena Williams. Photos | Annie Liebowitz, Pirelli 2016 calendar

The Pirelli calendar never debuts without a fuss. It is, perhaps, the only promotional calendar that arrives in the mail with some swagger, that doesn’t risk a trip to the recycling bin if your insurance company pulls through with puppies in hats or kittens on windmills.

Usually, that’s because the Italian tire manufacturer casts barely dressed supermodels to ring in each month. This year it’s because … I’m not quite sure yet. But according to yesterday’s New York Times headline, “The 2016 Pirelli Calendar May Signal A Cultural Shift.”

To which I have to say: Really?

To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with the photos. In true Annie Leibovitz style, they are very nice photos. And the subjects — including Yoko Ono, philanthropist Agnes Gund and author Fran Lebowitz — are accomplished, interesting women. For what it’s worth, those who did show a little skin look great: Serena Williams’ body is a work of art, and Amy Schumer, for all her joking otherwise, looks more Hollywood bombshell than schlubby comedian while posing for December.

Leibovitz’s photographs, accompanied by the stories behind them, would make a lovely Vogue feature. A beautiful exhibit. An inspiring coffee table book. But to offer stark black-and-white portraits in place of a pin-up calendar is patronizing. It’s an interesting idea, sure, but it’s also a fairy tale. And it’s not only a boring one — it’s a dangerous one to believe.

Because no, the 2016 Pirelli calendar doesn’t shake up the status quo, and neither do the cheerleader headlines that herald its arrival. It does continue in the time-honored tradition of commercializing the female body, and it doesn’t change the fact that the old standards of beauty still exist, that sexuality is a commodity, that for every Annie Leibovitz who wants to see into your soul there is a Terry Richardson who wants you to spread your legs [NSFW!]. To pretend otherwise occupies that maddening space between smug and naïve that seems to exist only in certain corners of the Internet and college campuses. To assume that the marketing execs at Pirelli won’t go right back to leather thongs if those sell more tires than this year’s stunt is adorable.

And really, I’m not sure that anything would be wrong with a return to form next year. The 2015 Pirelli calendar was beautiful and fun and, yes, sexy. While the 2016 models seem to be worthy subjects and are being applauded as “real women,” Adriana Lima is a real woman, too. Gigi Hadid is a real woman. Gisele Bundchen is, somehow, a mortal being who walks this Earth and has done pretty well for herself. In a battle of realness, I’m inclined to believe the photographer who hands me a photo of a nearly naked woman and says, “I’m selling sex” as opposed to the one who says, “I’m replacing sex with [insert anything here].”

I want my niece to grow up in a world where her ideas are valued, yes. I hope that she will pursue a fulfilling career on her own boss-lady terms, of course. At the rate she’s going, I wouldn’t be surprised if she, like Pirelli’s June model Mellody Hobson, grows up to run a $10 billion management firm. (And/or single-handedly starts World War III. She’s 2 — her power, while formidable, is still untamed.) But at the same time, I’d rather shelook at the world with clear, open eyes than try to understand it through the muddle of PC earmuffs.

Hear it now, kiddo: The pin-up calendar and all that it stands for isn’t dead, not by a long shot, no matter what the New York Times tells you. Don’t even think about appearing in one — but don’t make the costly mistake of ignoring its existence, either.

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