Cover Art Ethics: Sexism, “Rape Culture” or Just Marketing

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.


Sources: Gold Digest, New York Times, CBR

34 thoughts on “Cover Art Ethics: Sexism, “Rape Culture” or Just Marketing

  1. There you go again! Now I’m thinking of Sydney Spies again! I couldn’t hold out for ONE DAY past Easter, no thanks to you, Jack. (Oh well, I didn’t observe Lent, either.) I forgive you, though.

    PS I think Sydney – CLOTHED – looks better than Paulina Gretzky bared.

  2. I’ll take a little bit of the bait, though I am busy right now.

    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.

    I think a lot of the frustration comes from the fact that *women* are not considered the audience or the consumer, that women are always viewed solely from the male point of view. Females make up more than half of the audience for Teen Titans, yet Wonder Girl is still seen in these overly sexualized poses that cater to less than half the audience, and give the other half an unattainable idea of what their breasts should look like in their natural state (not to mention causing problems with suspension of disbelief).

    If it were more balanced, and women had a broad palette of choices it would be one thing, but that isn’t the current state of things. There is a website called which highlights the silly poses, and general uncomfortableness of most women superhero costumes by subbing in famous male superheroes for the female ones. It will you laugh, if nothing else.

    • Good and helpful observations, though I would have to think unrealistic breasts are the least of the obstacles “causing problems with suspension of disbelief” i any superhero comic, no?

      • Good and helpful observations, though I would have to think unrealistic breasts are the least of the obstacles “causing problems with suspension of disbelief” i any superhero comic, no?

        I think it has been noted that audiences can accept the impossible. But asking them to accept the merely improbable causes a lot of resistance. For example in Kill Bill The Bride dispatches almost a hundred trained men by herself. No Problem, in fact enjoyable to watch. But in the next scene, she’s on a commercial flight, with a very long, and very sharp sword in her hands. The improbability of that completely threw me out of the movie for a few minutes.

        Or in The Watchmen, two superheroes go out and totally kick bad guy butt. Great, that’s what I came to see. Then they go back to the lair, and spontaneously make love. The problem is that the woman is wearing a skintight suit and knee high boots. The next scene, she’s naked…except for the boots. The women in the crowd at the movie theater I was in began to laugh at the scene. The thinking was, “Did she, in the middle of getting busy, strip down, take off her clothes, and then put the boots back on after…or did he insist she put the boots back on…or did she somehow take the suit off with the boots still on?” But either which way, instead of thinking sexy, you are thinking logistics, which then renders the scene ridiculous, which I’m not sure was the director’s intent (it may have been, the movie was kind of a mess tone-wise).

        I think ridiculous breasts work that way for a lot women. It’s obvious that a lot of men don’t put a lot of thought into the mechanics of how having huge knockers would work. And if they are that huge, they probably won’t be that gravity defying without a lot of underwire, or breast implants. So it throws them out of the world that the artists is trying lure the audience into. And it becomes sadly obvious that any consideration of women as flesh and blood people rather than mannequins is sadly lacking from most comics’ sensibilities.

        • It’s a great observation. My pet peeve in action/science fiction/horror movies is when there is a rescue and the romantic interests, or sometimes parent and child, indulge in long, wordy embraces while the clock ticks down to oblivion, the monsters rush toward them, the super villain’s hoards are nearing or the zombie army closes in. Loses me for good.

          • Yes! Like the Walking Dead when Andrea stops to give a monologue as the guy is about to become a zombie right in front of her, and she has yet to free herself from the chair. She deserved to get eaten. Bleh.

            • A perfect and infuriating example that will live in infamy. Though nothing can beat the tender, endless dialogues among Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck and Ms. Tyler as the world is about to end since it will be too late to blow up the asteroid in Armageddon.

        • First, thanks for the Hawkeye Initiative link; I had forgotten about that page. And it is quite hilarious.

          I think you are onto something with your comment about women being thrown out a visual medium (movie or comic or whatever) by something improbable they have direct experience about (boob size and body mechanics, in the case of Wonder Girl). I still recall my first experience of being completely jarred out of a movie and being unable to take it seriously after that: in the movie Excaliber, when Uther comes to visit Ygraine in the guise of her husband and makes love to her in full plate armor. I couldn’t stop snickering. My boyfriend (now my husband) looked at me like I was crazy, but all I could think about was “That poor woman.”

    • I’m not going to fault hetero male artists for drawing comics that appeal to their own interests, but I’ll agree that the publishers should be held accountable for constantly assigning such artists to comics (like Teen Titans) with massive female readership. That’s just blockheaded.

      I’m less enthusiastic about the point made by The Hawkeye Initiative. Superhero poses are categorically silly. Feminists have already noted that you can’t just swap gender pronouns in a story and call it a day; is it any surprise that swapping poses doesn’t work? Nor would I expect women, in male poses accepted as sexy by women, to work that well either. The absurdity of those superhero contortions was already unappealing to me, but I’m not convinced there’s any harm beyond the usual setting of unrealistic expectations we see everywhere else in the media.

      • Yes, I was wondering about that too. Are there sufficient numbers of female comic book artists? I would think that they would be most valuable talents indeed.

        Question: aren’t young women as enthralled by voluptuous, goddess-like women in fantasy as young men, or close to it? That normal-proportioned Barbie’s not going to sell, after all. Few movies have featured as much flashy bustlines as “Mean Girls,” and that was a women’s flick (and talk about post-teens playing teens.)

        • Potential female comic book artists do exist in sufficient numbers, but you don’t typically find them drawing superheroes. Is that a problem? Don’t know. What matters is that they draw what they like and find a suitable outlet for their work; I’m certain there are hurdles.

          The negative effects of popular women’s culture on women is a touchy subject. I’m not ready to go there, myself. Dangerous territory.

        • Question: aren’t young women as enthralled by voluptuous, goddess-like women in fantasy as young men, or close to it? That normal-proportioned Barbie’s not going to sell, after all.

          I don’t think the fantasy ideal figure for women is voluptuous, no. Barbie has been déclassé for decades now. Among that age group, it’s all about American Girl dolls, and you probably won’t find any cleavage between the lot of them. Also take a look at the Disney princesses. None of them are breast-y either. Disney’s highest grossing animated film, Frozen features two princesses, both of whom are post-adolescent, but not very exaggerated in the hips or bust.

          Among the older tween/teen crowd, for years it’s been all about Bella, Katniss, and Tris ( Twilight, Hunger Games, and Divergent respectively) who are neither described, nor portrayed as particularly voluptuous. They tend to be skinny and athletic. Unless they are heavily secured and strapped down, big breasts would get in the way of a lot of adventures. You aren’t dodging a lot of arrows or vampires with them bouncing around.

          A quick google perusal shows that even most romance novel covers don’t have women on them with huge boobs (all the guys have six packs though, but interestingly enough, are usually not as huge and muscular as modern day superheroes are usually drawn).

      • Actually, I’m trying to think of a traditional male superhero pose that *wouldn’t* work for women in the same pose. I’m sure it exists, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

        I think the Hawkeye Initiative just makes the point that a lot of what we consider to be “traditional woman superhero pose” are really just a bunch of highly contorted come-hither poses. Poses that are utterly ridiculous for anyone to be in. Most men superhero poses are “power” poses, that show dominance and control, usually not in a sexual context.

        • Spiderman poses might be more than a bit unacceptable. Also, Rob Liefeld poses (and anatomy) are rather bizarre in all cases. Even where the females in male superhero poses do work, the costumes would still leave the focus on cleavage most of the time.

          I was never into superhero comics, so I assumed ridiculous cheesecake and power poses were the point. Why was there any debate? Female sexual fantasies seem to be quite ridiculous as well. Those fantasies tend to have far less mainstream exposure, and that material which does see daylight is quickly slapped down as ridiculous by male culture.

          • Spiderman can’t even pull off most Spiderman poses. Substitute any other male superhero, and it would still be pretty silly.

            I think there is room for male fantasies of women. But I believe the problem is that pretty much all substantive portrayals of women in the common culture tend to be of the “male fantasy of women” type, rather than the variety of roles that men are allowed to occupy. Women who don’t occupy that position are marketed as a “niche”, rather than just normal.

            • Nearly choked to death on reading that Spiderman comment. Hah.

              You do have to admit: men are reeeally good at fantasizing about women. If popular culture shifts, we might be left with the same objectification hidden behind a wide selection of new coats of paint. A normal women for every man’s fetishized version of normal. With the internet, we may be closer to such an end than you’d think. I do wish there were more acknowledgement of how damned complicated this business can get.

    • Are you sure females make up over half the audience? It certainly was not true when I was collecting comics as a youngster. It doesn’t seem true when I observe the current customer base at comic book shops. A quarter of the customer base seems more accurate. I haven’t exactly stood at the door of my local shop counting customers though.

      • I just noticed that you were referring to Teen Titans in particular, so general customer base may not be the best fit. I’m still curious as to actual demographics though.

      • I’d have to defer to deery for sources, but for Teen Titans specifically, a 50% or higher female demographic doesn’t surprise me. This would have began with the 2003 cartoon, which skewed toward younger audiences and avoided any “boys only” qualities that might deter younger female viewers. There were broadly appealing comic book, video game, and toy tie-ins as well. It was a gateway drug for women who’d probably now be 20 years old or so on average.

        None of this means they’d necessarily be integrating with the rest of comic book culture, but if you’re observing a 25% female customer base in the shops, that alone represents an insane level of growth since the 90’s.

        • I think you’re all just making up numbers based loosely on your own experiences and biases. If females actually made up 50% or even 25% of comic book consumers, the publishers would know, and adjust their product to suit their consumer’s tastes. Because that hasn’t happened, I can logically assume that publishers don’t believe that women of any age consume their product in large numbers, and they don’t see much opportunity to break through without alienating their base.

        • In hindsight, the fact that any given time I went to the shop, the female employee was one of 4-5 people in the store including me probably skewed it.

    • It’s a man/woman brain chemistry paradigm. There have been studies where male children as young as two days have been observed to be more likely to look at moving machinery than a face, while female children were more likely to look at a face than the machine. We’re just wired differently, and while that doesn’t preclude a female that wants to look at the machine, it does make it less likely.

      Similarly, the way men and women process sex is different. Men are visual, we like to see it, women have a more ‘in-skull’ experience, they like to read it and imagine it. Think “50 Shades of Grey” or the Harlequin Romance section at your local Supermarket. You think Wonder Girl is catering to men? I agree! That’s the main demographic that buys comic books. That’s the male sexual fantasy. And so bouncy boobs, blissfully buoyant abound…. Ahem. I think Edward from Twilight caters to women. Men don’t think or act like that. Not even lobotomized ones. And Harlequin Romance novels? Not every man is a pseudo-rapist that never gets charged because by the end of the chapter she ends up liking it. But that’s the female sexual fantasy. Disagree with me? Fine. You’re able. But Harlequin uses a lot of pulp and makes a lot of money on that premise.

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