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

What Esquire UK's editor got right—and wrong—about images of women in mainstream media
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One curious thing about popular culture is that men's magazines and women's magazines often follow the same general formula. Men's magazines are mostly based around heavily eroticized images of women. And women's magazines are also based around heavily eroticized images of women.

I'm hardly the first person to point this out. Last week, as just one example, the editor of Esquire UK (disclosure: I wrote an article for the U.S. edition once) made the link. Alex Bilmes admitted that the women in the men's magazine were "objectified." He then added:

We provide pictures of girls in the same way we provide pictures of cool cars. It is ornamental. Women's magazines do the same thing.

That last bit, is, obviously, meant as something of an excuse: Men's magazines objectify women, but women's magazines do it too, so how bad can it be? He went on to argue that women's magazines enforce more rigid and damaging beauty standards than Esquire does.

Amanda Marcotte cheerfully shredded Bilmes's self-serving and unconvincing rationalization, so I don't have to. But while Bilmes's effort to excuse himself is not particularly convincing, his argument still raises an interesting question. Namely, and again—why do women's magazines look so much like men's magazines? 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?

Sharon Marcus's 2007 book Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England provides some possible, and surprising, answers. The basic argument of Marcus's book is that, in Victorian England, intense friendships between women were seen as an essential part of heterosexual female identity. These friendships might be platonic, they could also be sexual, or they could be somewhere in the middle. But sexual or platonic or in the middle, they were perceived as normal. In other words, during this period, an eroticized interest in other women did not mean that a woman was a lesbian. It simply meant that she was a woman. As an example, Marcus quotes from the published memoir of the married Fanny Kemble, in which the actress says that upon seeing one particularly attractive woman, she found herself "wishing it were consistent with her comfort and the general decorum of modern manners that Isabella Forrester's gown could only slip entirely off her exquisite bust."

Again, the point here is not that Kemble was gay, but rather that there was nothing at the time considered odd or unusual about a heterosexual, married woman having this kind of erotic fantasy about another woman. Marcus goes on to connect these heterosexual, eroticized female-female bonds specifically to fashion magazines of the era. Then (as now) these magazines were a venue in which women were encouraged to actively participate in the admiration of other women's bodies.

Marcus suggests that this admiration was explicitly and intentionally erotic and as evidence she points to debates about birching in the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine. These debates were a series of letters in England's leading fashion magazine devoted to the question of whether or not mothers should punish girls (especially those past puberty) with beatings. These letters were explicit, debating how and to what extent girls should be undressed—some arguing, for example, that girls must strip themselves in preparation for punishment, and dwelling on the relative merits of bare bottoms vs. the retention of underwear. Marcus says the letters also frequently picked up on the tropes and style of Victorian pornography, including "teasing delay, first-person testimony, and punning humor." Again, the link to a sex-drenched contemporary woman's magazine like, say, Cosmo, seems fairly obvious.

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.

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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 a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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