08/21/2013 03:44 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2013

'CEOs Gone Wild': What We Talk About When We Talk About Marissa Mayer's Vogue Shoot

This is an article about the coverage of the coverage. Are you still with me? In an era of whiplash information sharing and a fascination for the meta in everything, it feels only natural to want to probe the probing, to analyze the analysis, to squint into the spin in order to see the other patterns forming. Vogue recently released a 3,000-word article and photo spread featuring Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. Mayer's comments about how she seemingly stumbled her way to the top, downplaying her hard work and business savvy as the "aw, shucks" byproducts of a natural inclination toward geekiness and an interest in the tech sector, drew criticism as did, more overtly, the image of Mayer that accompanied the article.

Decked out in a blue Michael Kors dress and matching stilettos, Mayer languishes on a brilliant, paper-white chaise lounge. Her head is angled at the foot of the lounge in a pose suggestive of the kind that only 8-year-old girls find comfortable. Her blonde hair splays about her head, one arm arched uncomfortably akimbo behind her head, eyes staring up at the camera, the other hand clutching a white iPad bearing, presumably, her own image, though it could easily be Kim Basinger or the Calvin Klein model du-moment. The image is sex. It is a nod to Lolita, to American Beauty, to the thousand-and-one images of women handed down through film, television and advertising that proves Laura Mulvey's male gaze theory fifteen times over. It fetishizes Mayer, transforms her into an object to-be-looked-at and visually consumed, detached from her context as a smart, accomplished businesswoman. It was a logical companion to Kelly Wallace's piece on CNN, "Sexed up and smart: Women debate Marissa Mayer's Vogue photo."

Wallace's article is a straightforward piece that attempts to tease out the varied perspectives on Mayer's photograph: Is it good for women in business? Does it undermine women in power? Why does this double standard about women and their appearance persist? Unfortunately, those questions lose their urgency when framed by a slide show of other CEOs who "just wanna have fun" in front of the camera. The slides consist of six male CEOs who "let their hair down" in photo shoots: the CEO of Cirque du Soleil wears a clown nose in a shot of him landing on the International Space Station; Scotts Miracle-Grow CEO Jim Hagedom poses in flight fatigues next to his P-51 Mustang plane; Bill Ford Jr. of Ford Motor Company stands with handlers dressed up in sun costumes at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. No one is sprawled out on a bearskin rug, their Armani shirts unbuttoned just so. There are no men leaning against hay bales in white shirts and jeans, chawing on a sprig of hay, sending a smoldering glance over the top of a MacBook.

In adding this layer of presentation and meaning, CNN editors offer additional statements about how to read (in the meaning-making sense of the term) this issue. Maybe Mayer is just a new kind of woman CEO, one who is kicky and fun and not afraid to let the media play up her attractiveness and femininity. Maybe male CEOs are losing out by downplaying their sex appeal and that will be the new competitive arena in the twenty-first century boardroom. Maybe it's about "having fun" and critics (i.e. lady types) should save their handwringing for "real" issues. Because maybe this conversation that Wallace (and others) encourages us to have is too polarizing, too messy, too difficult and instead we can talk about how sex sells and this is simply what fashion magazines "do." Maybe.

There are three sides to every story (minimum). Media outlets use all tools and resources at their disposal to make their stories provocative, to drive traffic and revenue, to increase their market share and stay competitive in a glutted, global digital market of 24-hour, 365-day chatter. Fair enough. But that means that we, as consumers, thinkers, engaged citizens (i.e. concerned lady-type citizens) have the power to probe the probing, to analyze the analysis, to squint into the spin and ignore those other patterns forming in order to keep asking the hard questions, to keep having the important conversations, to keep telling the messy, complicated stories.