At last week’s Advertising Week Europe conference, Alex Bilmes explains.
I agree with the feminist buzz: Alex Bilmes is probably a jerk.
The editor of Esquire UK, when asked about the objectification of women in magazines, said bluntly that in his magazine, meant for “the male gaze,” the editors see women as “ornamental” objects of desire, just like the “cool cars” also featured on Esquire‘s pages. (See the banner below, which is what you get when you click on the “WOMEN” tab at the top of Esquire.com.) But I’m more intrigued by one of Bilmes’s follow-up rationalizations, which I’m guessing is far truer than even he realizes.
Slate’s Amanda Marcotte writes that she found Bilmes’s honesty “refreshing,” giving him extra points for “using the word objectified correctly, to mean ‘reducing to an object,’ rather than simply looking at with lust.” And she’s probably right that the editor’s next statement, which I found so important, was just a rationalization. “Bilmes then tried to rationalize it with two of the most illogical sexist excuses in circulation: That’s just how men are and women do it, too! He trotted out the latter when he accused women’s magazines of also objectifying women, as if the practice becomes less, not more, objectionable for being ubiquitous.”
But we miss an opportunity if we don’t take the chance to look critically at the magazines supposedly meant for the female gaze. Bilmes is spot-on, as he might say himself, about the hyper-thin models who populate high-class fashion magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar—magazines that raise their own important question, articulated by Noah Berlatsky at The Atlantic:
Why do Esquire and Vogue often look like they’re selling the same gendered things when, in theory, they’re selling them to different gendered people?” Because women can sort of control the experience of being lusted after, he writes. But, “in women’s magazines, women can be the lookers, but only if they also and simultaneously imagine themselves as looked at.”
Neither Berlatsky nor Bilmes talked about another possibly-more-pernicious trend: unrealistic body shapes in women’s “lifestyle” magazines, from Glamour to Shape to Women’s Health. These magazines can commit us to self-objectification under the guise of empowerment. “Women’s magazines geared toward a healthy lifestyle are almost worse than the Esquires because instead of simply featuring women as eye candy and accessories, they turn the stereotypical pressures of the advertising industry’s image of perfection inward,” says journalist Meg Ryan Heery, who was once copy chief for Women’s Health.
Heery witnessed the 2008-2009 transformation that won new editorial director Dave Zinczenko awards from Advertising Age for shifting the focus of Women’s Health from health, nutrition, and exercise to diets and sex. If Bilmes is serving his advertisers and horny subscribers, Heery adds, lifestyle magazines try to turn all of us into enforcers. “Instead of be sexy for your man, it’s be sexy (and yes, even fit and healthy, as long as that yields a body that looks like the ones our lithe fitness models have) for yourself. The message is of constant self-improvement, whatever that means, and perfectionism. All of it benefits advertisers – instead of Louboutins and Lancôme it’s Chobani yogurt and Aveeno.”
I’ll leave it to Marcotte and others to bat back Bilmes’s boys-will-be-boys argument, imagining men rendered helpless by “sexy babes” even if some of them are also “our daughters, our sisters, our mothers.” And I agree with Alyssa Rosenberg that Bilmes shouldn’t get extra credit for including a more varied selection of women’s bodies, or “make a broad range of women into fetish objects.” But punishing a misogynist for conforming to form feels kind of useless, unless we look at the ways in which so-called “women’s” culture keeps enabling it.