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editor of sexist magazine says sexist thing – the issue of the ‘male gaze’

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In breaking news last week, an editor of a men’s magazine said something sexist about women. In other news, the sky continues to be blue and grass remains green.

Speaking on a panel about feminism at the Advertising Week Europe conference, Alex Bilmes, editor of Esquire said that in his magazine, women are purely ‘ornamental’. He went on to say, ‘I could lie and say we are interested in their brains as well but on the whole we’re not, they are there to be a beautiful object, they’re objectified.’

Naturally these comments caused somewhat of a media furor, and elicited angry reactions from the crowd at the conference (probably because they were attending a panel about feminism, so they weren’t Bilmes’ natural target audience).

Now, maybe three or four years ago, before I was completely embroiled in the worlds of media, publishing and magazines, I would also have been outraged by what Bilmes said – after reading his comments though, at best I could say that I was disinterested; at worst that I was bored.

I mean, we’re all aware that men’s magazines are filled with superficial drivel, and are even more obviously driven by the self-improvement myth and advertising incentives than even the worst women’s mags. Magazines like FMH and Zoo Weekly have been capitalising off shock-factor and blatant sexism for quite some time, and are unlikely to change anytime soon. I wish something could be done about it, but the only thing that would have any impact would be a lack of financial security if advertisers were to pull out, or if sales dropped suddenly in response to their content – neither of which is likely to happen, regardless of how hard we campaign.

What I did find interesting, though, was that Bilmes mentioned that the magazine is a men’s magazine – and is therefore subject to a ‘male gaze’. He also pointed out that what he does is no worse than what women’s magazines do in terms of objectifying women.

This idea of a ‘male gaze’ in contrast to a ‘female gaze’ is what interests me. Is there a difference in the impact of objectification when it is aimed at the male as opposed to female gaze? Is the impact on women’s empowerment more significant when the objectification is occurring in a sexualized manner in the pages of a men’s magazine, as opposed to in a women’s magazine where the objectification is more focused on aspirational images (as problematic as that is)?

To me, Bilmes’ comparison between women’s magazines and men’s magazines doesn’t ring true, because the objectification of women in Esquire is designed to produce images of sexual objects for the pleasure of the male gaze. The women are reduced to the sum of their parts, with little effort made to construct a broader narrative or story around them.

Yes, women are objectified in women’s magazines too – but the nature of the objectification is different. It is not just women’s bodies being objectified, but a broader notion of the woman as a ‘character’ within the narrative of the magazine’s story. Models in women’s magazines are photoshopped, are touched up and are made to look unearthly – the impact of these presentations of ‘perfection’ are far-reaching and often negative, especially in terms of body diversity and healthy body image in readers. But the lack of sexualisation means that there is more than the body being objectified – the presumed character of the model pictured, her assumed life with its fun, romance and excitement are also being packaged here. The model (and her looks) become symbolic of a broader culture – a lifestyle that appeals to the reader and that spurs a desire to follow the often vapid advice featured alongside the images in order to attain that lifestyle for themselves.

I do think that the objectification of women in women’s magazines is deeply problematic, but to me, the notion of women being sexual ‘ornaments’, in the same way that a sleek car might be featured as a luxury item in Esquire, is far more disturbing.

Why? Well, because the sexual objectification of women has impact well beyond the pages of a magazine – just look at the recent Steubenville rape incident. Encouraging a culture of viewing women as objects for the male gaze leads to a disconnect between the idea of ‘woman as sex’ versus ‘woman as human’. That disconnect is necessary for sexual assault, for sexism in the workplace, and for general gender based discrimination to occur.

The idea of the ‘male gaze’ being inherently geared towards viewing women as sexual objects is also very problematic. Putting aside the obvious issue of heternormatism (gay men are also men), this idea is overly simplified, and in no way caters to the diversity of the male gender – it also means that magazines like Esquire end up catering to their assumed notion of the ‘male gaze’ which in turn perpetuates a culture that might not be representative of actual men and their actual gaze.

And yeah, we can argue about the objectification of men in women’s magazines, and I think that’s  a fair argument. But the culture of sexualisation in most Western countries is biased towards men’s sexuality – the slut vs stud argument lives on, and as such, I don’t think there is a fair comparison between the objectification of women and that of men.

Bilmes’ magazine is not one I will ever read, nor one that will ever change. But the culture of objectification and the idea of the ‘male gaze’ being inherently sexual is one that needs to be addressed more broadly.

What do you think, Lipsters? Is this just an overreaction, or do magazines like Esquire represent a bigger issue?

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