If you had asked me thirty-five years ago whether we would still be debating what is the appropriate and ethical use of women as sex symbols—or “objectification,” if you like—in non-sex trade publications today, I would have answered, I think, “Are you kidding? By 2014 we will have hashed all this out. Either the combination of consensus political correctness and the increased influence of women in business in general and publishing in particular will have reformed standards of acceptable practices, manners and taste, or emerging feminism will embrace the power of sexuality as a source of influence and power over the male of the species. The battles over this are too hot now to keep going on indefinitely! Either using sexy women and models in “take me” poses will be considered shameful and unappealing in 2014, or they will be accepted as part of an “anything goes” culture.”
No, I’m not very bright.
Case Study #1: The Golf Digest Cover
The cover of the latest issue of Golf Digest caused a stir by featuring Paulina Gretzky, who plays a little golf but who is primarily a model, and obviously there for other reasons. Until the Gretzky cover, the only woman to appear on the magazine’s cover without having won a pro or major amateur event was Golf Channel personality Holly Sonders, in May 2013. From the New York Times:
“Stacy Lewis, who has won two major titles, has also never appeared on the cover of Golf Digest. Last year she was briefly No. 1 in the world on her way to winning the Vare Trophy for the tour’s lowest scoring average.Asked for her reaction to the magazine’s cover choice, Lewis said: “It’s frustrating for female golfers. It’s kind of the state of where we’ve always been. We don’t get respect for being the golfers that we are. Obviously, Golf Digest is trying to sell magazines. But at the same time you’d like to see a little respect for the women’s game.”
Going further, some critics pronounced the cover another in a long list of cultural markers of a “rape culture” in the U.S. What’s going on here?
A few things are going on, some cynical, some desperate, some non-ethical but not unethical. Print magazines are in trouble, and the trend has been to cross more and more lines of taste and fairness to create buzz, and thus magazine sales. Time Magazine, and before its demise, Newsweek, staged a spirited race to the bottom with weekly dueling outrageous covers. A woman breast-feeding a toddler! Obama is gay! John Boehner is evil! Even though Time found itself apologizing for it and rationalizing all over the place, its Boy-that-Chris-Cristie-is-really-fat “Elephant in the Room” cover last year was a best seller, so its ends (money) justified the means (fat bias, name-calling, and partisanship). Sports magazines know that their readership is largely male, and middle-aged male at that. The most prestigious and popular sports magazine, Sports Illustrated, long ago abandoned any pretext of a legitimate reason (other than money) for turning a mid-February issue every year into a Playboy knock-off. Golf Digest decided to stick its toe in the water; I’m surprised it took this long.
Respect has less to do with it than commerce. “Rape culture” has nothing to do with it. Golf Digest is a product; if its subscribers and readers don’t care about integrity and are more interested in female eye candy than golf, that’s what they’ll get, and that’s what they deserve. Covers are art; attractive covers sell magazines more than less attractive covers. Women attract men; beautiful women attract men, even male golfers, more than female golfers who aren’t so attractive. I read an essay over the weekend by a gay critic who wondered why all the lesbian couples on TV are made up of two gorgeous women, and why there is nary a “butch” lesbian among them, when in reality such lesbians are very common. Yes, she really wondered why that is.
I wish magazines, including sports magazines, ranked integrity higher among their values, but a magazine’s values will never be higher than those of its readers. Just as the History Channel includes fake history, conspiracy theories and aliens in its programming because its audience is made up of too many dolts, Golf Digest is only reflecting the attitudes of its constituency. If the Economist could maintain its readership and reputation while having an annual best-selling issue featuring cheesecake photos of the worlds sexiest economists and economics students, it probably would. Marketing and advertising will forever be an ethical gray area, and often a realm where ethics doesn’t even enter into the decision-making process.
Case Study #2: Teen Titans #1
The comic book world is buzzing over critic Janelle Asselin’s attack on D.C. Comics’ latest cover launching the reboot of its “Teen Titans” title. Among other things, she strenuously objected to the male artist’s portrayal of Wonder Girl:
“Perhaps I’m alone in having an issue with an underaged teen girl being drawn with breasts the size of her head (seriously, line that stuff up, each breast is the same size as her face) popping out of her top. Anatomy-wise, there are other issues — her thigh is bigger around than her waist, for one — but let’s be real. The worst part of this image, by far, are her breasts. The problem is not that she’s a teen girl with large breasts, because those certainly exist. The main problem is that this is not the natural chest of a large-breasted woman. Those are implants. On a teenaged superheroine. Natural breasts don’t have that round shape (sorry, boys)…A secondary problem is that no girl with breasts that large is going to wear a strapless top for anything, much less a career that involves a lot of physical activity. In previous New 52 “Teen Titans” covers and issues, we’ve seen this same costume, but more often than not, WG’s breasts are drawn smaller, or the top is pulled up higher. The way Rocafort has drawn her here, we’re one bounce away from a nipslip. On a teenager. In case you forgot that entirely relevant point. Lest you think I’m singling Rocafort out for doing what, let’s be honest, way too many comics artists do (drawing unrealistic, circle-shaped monster boobs on teen girls), consider the cover’s layout….”
I recall an interview long ago with the late cartoonist Al Capp, the creator of the once influential and popular comic strip “Li’l Abner,” in which he was asked why he drew all his hillbilly women with such large breasts. “I like ’em!” he said happily, which I appreciated as a refreshing example of candor. Are feminists really going to make these kinds of arguments against the traditional portrayals of women in comic books, which have always appealed to the kinds of young men who are far more likely to have a fantasy affair with Wonder Girl than a relationship with a real one? It is scandalous that a cartoon has unrealistic proportions? (“My God, look at the head on that Charlie Brown kid! Brain tumor!”) A super heroine’s costume is impractical? (Surely Janelle saw “The Incredibles” !) Teenage girls are routinely portrayed on TV and in movies by women in their 20’s and even 30’s (Hello, “Grease!”); so what if an over-aged cartoon actress is playing a—wait, what am I talking about? How old is Wonder Girl anyway: she’s been around for decades! Does anyone know? If she’s 18, isn’t she an adult? I mean, an adult drawing? And how can a two-dimensional character have breast implants?
Men, and long before they are men, need to be taught to respect women and regard them as individuals and equals. Women, if they want to be respected, have to display understanding, comprehension and tolerance that at some level they will also be seen as objects of fantasy and desire, that they are not going to change that, and that they should restrain themselves from looking ridiculous trying.