Women's Magazines Objectify Women Just as Much as Men's Magazines Do

There are other similarities as well. Marcus points out that many Victorian women's magazines often showed women looking at other women in their images, explicitly inviting the reader to see herself as a woman seeing/appreciating/enjoying other women. This remains a common trope in contemporary fashion magazines as well. Here's an image from the Amazon.com/Fashion ad in April's Vogue.

Vogueimage 650 berlatsky.jpg

Arm on shoulder, knees touching, hand in the pocket pointed down towards the crotch—and that intense look of fascination/desire, suggesting and modeling the reader's fascination/desire.

It's true we're a long way from the Victorian era in many ways. But still, the tropes and ideas Marcus identifies remain quite recognizable. Which means that in many ways Bilmes is more accurate than he suspects when he compares men's magazines to women's magazines. Not only do both kinds of magazines objectify women, but they both present images of women for similar—and similarly erotic—reasons. The reason images in men's magazines often look like images in women's magazines is that, despite the different audiences, they are both doing more or less the same thing. They are making women sexual objects, and serving them up to satisfy, or more likely to provoke, the desires of their readers.

Still, doing the same thing for different audiences ends up not being quite the same thing after all. Esquire is providing female bodies for men. It is telling men (as the editor himself says) that female bodies are objects to be used for their enjoyment. This is a pretty common message; men are in general and in lots of ways are told, day in, day out, that the world is organized for their erotic pleasure.

Women's magazines, on the other hand, are providing female bodies for women, and telling women that (other) female bodies are objects to be used for their enjoyment. This is a much less prevalent message, and it's not hard to figure out why so many women find it so appealing. In most ways, in most of the culture, women are told that their gazes and their pleasures are secondary. In women's magazines, though, those gazes and those pleasures are paramount. Women get to be in the position of power, looking at and consuming bodies displayed expressly for them. Men's and women's magazines, in this sense, really are different. Esquire retails yet another fantasy of mastery for men. Women's magazines, on the other hand, offer a fantasy of mastery for women.

Such a fantasy of empowerment could perhaps be seen as feminist, with a major caveat. Women's magazines do let women take the (usually male) position of master. But they also and insistently want them to continue to occupy the position of mastered object. In women's magazines, women can be the lookers, but only if they also and simultaneously imagine themselves as looked at.

Folks are generally much more comfortable thinking about women as looked at than they are thinking about women as lookers. That's why both men and women tend to assume that women looking at women's magazines identify with the women pictured—that they want to be that pictured her, rather than wanting to be with her. The fact that women are assumed to be the objects not just in men's magazines, but in women's as well, indicates just how prevalent, and how constricting, gender expectations can be. But the fact that women in women's magazines are figured, quietly but definitely, not just as objects, but as objectifiers, suggests that gender expectation can also sometimes be less restrictive than we expect, if we open our eyes.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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