The Five Strangest Columnist Avatars
Lotta weird choices these days
A columnist’s avatar — the tiny headshot at the top of the column — tells us who’s speaking. It makes opinion journalism less anonymous, giving it a more personal feel than, say, the Faceless Liberalism Borg of The Economist. It also serves as a reminder that Dana Milbank is a dude.
What should an avatar “say”? I picked one that says “comedian”, because: 1) It’s a check against getting too self-serious, and 2) Whenever I try to smile in a photo, it creates a vibe that I would describe as “Me Too’d Remax agent”. I even tried turning one of those photos into a Wall Street Journal-style stipple portrait and it only made things worse. Look:
I have to think that both the columnist and the publication put some thought into choosing an avatar. Which is why I’m baffled by a few of the choices that have been made. With the disclaimer that none of what follows is a judgement of these columnists’ physical appearance or their work (some of which is very good!), but merely a commentary on the image that they’ve chosen to capture their persona, here are my top-five strangest columnist avatars:
5. Elizabeth Bruenig in The Atlantic
Sometimes, a photo can be too good. She doesn’t just look nice; she looks like the hippest poet of the beat generation. She looks like she penned a seminal book of poetry that NYU students read to each other in Washington Square Park and briefly turned Allen Ginsberg straight. Every time I see this photo I think “Carrie Mulligan in Inside Llewyn Davis”.
I have a theory that 20 percent of Elizabeth Bruenig hate — and there is a lot of Elizabeth Bruenig hate out there! — is avatar-induced jealousy. When you combine her Atlantic avatar with her New York Times avatar, in which she looks like your Mom’s friend’s annoyingly-successful daughter, she’s projecting: “Smart, successful, attractive young woman”. And that’s going to make a lot of people think “fuck you”.
4. Zeynep Tufekci in The New York Times
I have googled Zeynep Tufekci; she is a completely normal-looking adult woman. But every time this photo pops up on my phone, I think “Whoa — a little kid penned an op-ed in The New York Times!” I expect the headline to be “I Can Do a Flip Off The Diving Board!” or “Why Won’t Mom Let Me Get My Ears Pierced When ALL MY FRIENDS HAVE THEM!?!?!?” But then the column is about Covid, and it feels like the Times is trying to pull some real-life Doogie Howser shit.
Again: Actual Zeynep Tufekci does not look like a kid. She has a slight Maybe Funke-esque vibe, in which she could pass for different ages in different contexts, but I’m sure she gets into R-rated movies without showing ID. Which makes it slightly strange that the Times chose this photo, which — especially when it’s tiny — seems like it would only run in a newspaper next to the headline: “Local Girl Makes Spelling Bee Finals”.
3. Roxane Gay in The New York Times
This one makes me think that the problem is the New York Times’ photographer. Photographers hate anything ordinary; they’re always trying to get you to pose in unusual ways. That’s doubly-true if you’re a comedian — they try to put you in wacky situations that say “It’s a zany world out there!” It’s what 30 Rock was making fun of in this scene:
For some reason, the Times gave Roxanne Gay a headshot that makes it look like she’s headlining Chuckle Hut in Omaha. Based on the avatar alone, you’d guess that her column would be a cross between Dave Barry and Andy Rooney, with maybe a dash of Weird Al thrown in. But it’s actually a gravely-serious column about intersectionality. It’s like if Anne Applebaum columns ran next to a picture of her wearing Groucho Marx glasses and an arrow through her head.
2. Max Boot in The Washington Post
Oh dear. Max…friend. I know you were born in Russia, so there might be something lost in cultural translation here, kind of like when the Polish kid at my school showed up for the first day of eighth grade decked out in FUBU gear. But here is an exhaustive list of the situations in which it’s socially acceptable to wear a fedora in America:
You’re a private eye in a 1940s comic book
You’re Frank Sinatra
End of list.
This is another one where the type of column he writes really matters. Boot recognizes that the United States faces a threat from an increasingly-authoritarian Republican Party. And that’s why it’s important that when people see his columns, they think “serious commentator” and not “horn player for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones”. It would be fine to look like four-fifths of a Blues Brother if he was a 1950s stringer writing dispatches about petty corruption for the Yorba Linda Gazette, but he’s a think tank-y dude writing about democratic backsliding. So: no ballcaps, no berets, no fezzes, no sombreros, no propeller beanies, no Jamiroquai hats, and definitely no fedoras.
1. Kara Swisher in The New York Times
You have got to be fucking kidding me. Jesus — why not just wear a t-shirt that says “IMPORTANT, SERIOUS JOURNALIST!!!”? Again, I think the problem might be the Times’ photographer; I can imagine them yelling “Now one where you take yourself way too seriously!” And if that was the instruction, she fucking nailed it.
But this is also on Kara Swisher. The second you see that, you have to run into your editor’s office saying “Oh Christ not that one! I look like the uptight Dean in a Revenge of the Nerds movie!” I have to think this was intentional; I have to think she wanted to project “Play-time’s over, fuckwads. This is hard-hitting journalism for big boys and girls. If you can’t handle that, then I suggest you take your blankie and your ba-ba and your soaking-wet diaper over to Ezra Klein’s column. Because this is SWAY, motherfuckers!”
Or maybe she just has as much trouble taking a photo as I do.