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The New Pornography: Women's Magazines


pile of women's magazines

Women's magazines are one of my biggest pet peeves. And I find it ironic that, decade after decade, "modern women" rail against titles like Playboy and Penthouse, yet fail to see that the glossies on their own nightstands are as degrading as these men's mags. It's time to see them for what they really are.

The traditional definition of pornography (according to my 1981 Webster’s Dictionary) is “writings, pictures, etc. intended primarily to arouse sexual desire.” Under this heading, however, one might include anything from teen pin-ups to Byron’s poetry. Hardly scandalous stuff. The modern connotation of the word implies a bit more – that the material be dehumanizing in some way, usually by treating women as soulless sex objects. This is the definition of pornography that has feminists and fourth grade Catholic school teachers in a tizzy.

Well, while seeing a pair of whipped-creamed nipples may not ring my bells, it certainly does not offend me (I somehow managed to escape the Puritan doctrine that nakedness is shameful). Even things like porno films – where hairy, pot-bellied men are doted on by a few barely-legal vixens – don’t send me over the top. When did sex, even kinky sex, become synonymous with female degradation? Role playing and fantasy are part of many people's everyday lives.

Now that we’re finally beginning to move beyond the Madonna / whore era, now that women can be seen as sexual and smart, we should be able to appreciate sex and beauty as two of many aspects of both men and women. Most of the Western world has seen Madonna’s tits; we have seen her gyrate, crawl, and coo. She is a sex object, a sex subject, a mother, an entertainer and a business tycoon. This month’s playmate may be more than a pretty face as well. Don’t hate her because she’s beautiful.

Magazines like Playboy do not imply that I am inadequate by suggesting I get this hair style or that body or these jeans. Nor do they suggest to me that women are nothing more than props or Barbie dolls. They do not reduce me to a two-dimensional, interchangeable being -- the sexiness they express are a valid part of women's personalities and men's fantasies. But there are several publications out there – right in your supermarket, out on your coffee table – that do promote these harmful ideas. Magazines like Mademoiselle, Cosmopolitan and Jane, Marie Claire, Vogue and In Style.

Print this essay out and take it to your local grocery store. Go to the magazine rack or check-out stand and have a look. What are the important issues of the day, according to these titles? See if you can find a mag that does not have four of these five subjects on the cover: better sex (or a “what men really want” exposé), how to lose weight, beauty tips, fashion tips, and a horoscope or quiz. Maybe the actress on the cover will reveal how she brightened up her living room with silk flowers and some strategically-placed throw pillows. Maybe there will be a 15-page spread of 18-year-olds in $2,000 outfits and another spread of stars in $9,000 ensembles (“but you can get the bourgeois version for only $599.95!!”). And in between all these articles on ass fat, tube top trends, scientific advances in lash-curling mascara and celebrity boob job horror stories, there’s one or two paragraphs on how important it is to just be yourself.

Which is more dehumanizing – a photograph of a topless girl pinching her own nipple or a photograph of a blank-faced model in heavy eye-liner and a Gucci tee, with the caption, “How to get this look…” (read: why don’t you have this look, you frump)?

Which is more condescending – a woman bending over provocatively in a French maid’s uniform, or a woman puckering up to coyly kiss a bottle of Revlon nail polish that she holds in her perfectly-manicured fingers? Is that what we should worship?

Which is more unnatural – two girls playfully kissing on a man’s lap, or two that, together, weigh 205 pounds?

Why do women sneer at a Maxim article on Rose MacGowan or Pamela Anderson, yet scan a piece on how to “truss up your tresses” or “snare a millionaire” without the slightest bit of ire? Which reinforce the backwards idea of women as brainless beauties? As gold-digging trophies?

The most troubling thing about these magazines is that they pretend to encompass everything it is to be a woman. This explains the token articles on the Taliban in Afghanistan or working women’s wages (important issues that receive a fraction of the space allotted to the year’s latest hairbrushes). Feminists criticize men’s mags for simplifying and objectifying women, but it is the ladies' rags that paint females as primping, empty-headed dolls. These titles suggest that happiness could be yours if only you had shinier hair, hipper shoes, a better butt. Their pages are nothing more than a blue-print for crafting the flawless, mindless female that most modern women detest. It is women's magazines – not men's – that promote this ideal.

Hustler and Penthouse are actually less condescending toward women and less exploitive of their bodies. They show asses, breasts and legs not as things that should be improved or things that make a woman a complete being, but merely as things that are sexy. They do not pretend to represent every facet of a female. Sure, their models are not the average woman, but neither are Cosmo’s. Cosmo's are actually more likely to be the emaciated kind of woman that is distorting women's body image. The difference is that men’s monthlies are about men’s fantasy; they thrive on fulfilling an innate desire. Women’s monthlies are supposedly about women’s reality. But they are not. They thrive on manufacturing false desires – ones that cannot possibly be fulfilled.