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Newsweek’s Controversial Cover: Yeah, It’s Creepy

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The beloved Princess Diana would have turned fifty on July 1, and to pay homage, Newsweek put a digitally altered image of an aged Diana walking alongside her would-be daughter-in-law, Kate Middleton, on its cover. The corresponding story by Tina Brown entitled, “Diana at 50,” explores how Lady Di might be navigating the nuances of life in the twenty-first century: yes, she’d have Botox, and, yes, she’d be a Tweeter.

Although it seems clear the magazine meant no ill will toward Diana or her family, public reaction to the image has been overwhelmingly negative. A poll on the L.A. Times website shows that 72 percent of readers find the cover either “horribly” or “somewhat” offensive. The reasons behind the repulsion vary; some feel that tinkering with her likeness and speculating about her life is a sign of disrespect; others feel the rendering wasn’t pretty enough; but the most common complaint filed against it is that it’s just plain creepy.

I, for one, think the premise behind the photo and its accompanying story is cheeky and fun. Brown doesn’t say anything blatantly offensive in the article, and aren’t we all guilty of indulging in a little lighthearted speculation when it comes to our favorite celebrities? But I’ve gotta agree with the faceless majority here: the image of Zombie Diana is unsettling. And I think I speak for many when I say it’s a visceral reaction that evades rational explanations—except for one. The image transports us to a place that graphic designers and artists labor tirelessly to avoid: the uncanny valley of eeriness.

The uncanny valley of eeriness (perhaps the most awesome phrase to exist ever) is a term coined by a Japanese roboticist named Masahiro Mori in 1970 to explain humans’ emotional reaction to robots. Mori’s hypothesis states that as robots (and nowadays, computer-generated images) become more humanlike, humans react to them in an increasingly positive and empathetic way. But when a robot or image hits a certain point of appearing convincingly human but slightly skewed, we are repelled and alienated by its imperfections, which are endemic to reproduction and alteration. It’s for this reason that many CGI films tend toward less realistically human-looking characters, such as Toy Story and Up—this lesson was learned after 2004’s Polar Express and 2007’s Beowulf, which both attempted to cross the uncanny valley but fell short and were a little, well, creepy.

The Diana cover photo doesn’t exactly successfully cross the valley either. Granted, it looks a lot more real than the train conductor in Polar Express, but she definitely looks superimposed, and the coloration and lines on her face appear unnatural. Perhaps Newsweek could have avoided this mess had they taken a page from Pixar’s book and drawn Diana as a fuzzy but lovable monster, cowboy, or fish waddling alongside Kate. But then again, zombies are so hot right now.  

Photo courtesy Wikimedia (cc)

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