Men’s magazines are dubious during the best of times, but so far 2013 is bringing out their worst. Last week, eyebrows were raised by this flimsy GQ profile of Beyoncé Knowles, where author Amy Wallace says Bey’s “as hot as fish grease.” This week, the same eyebrows are hitting the ceiling over Esquire’s bizarre, condescending profile of Megan Fox, in which Stephen “Victim of Feminine Contempt” Marche simultaneously exalts and pities Fox for her “bombshell” good looks.
Both pieces masquerade as profiles of interesting, famous women, yet both are mostly about what it’s like to be HOT. How do you organize your life when you have an “unabashedly curvaceous body”? Whom do you choose to marry when you’re “a sexual prop used to sell movies and jeans”? (Answers: You keep a record of every photo of yourself ever taken, and Brian Austin Green, respectively.) Not surprisingly, both pieces also include cheesecake photos of Knowles and Fox writhing around in their underwear, looking like the hot pieces of ass the editors of these magazines think they are.
Both pieces say one thing and do the opposite. In GQ, Beyoncé is said to be in total control of her image, yet those words appear under a spread of photos of her that couldn’t evoke the male gaze more if they were taken by Terry Richardson himself (surprise! They were). In Esquire, Megan Fox is painted as a confused, dejected sex object who needs a break–yet the laboriously creepy descriptions of her body parts, and the photos illustrating them, serve to objectify her all the more.
Of course, given our culture’s general sexism and lack of nuance (and love of the J. Geils Band), these women are being blamed for their own objectification. How could they say they want to be seen as more than pieces of meat, and then turn around and pose for these magazines? Why don’t they just put a shirt on and get some self-respect already?! “I never fail to be amazed at the high profile, often A-list women who celebrate their professional success by posing near naked on the covers of allegedly classy men’s magazines, such as Esquire and GQ,” says Hadley Freeman in the Guardian, comparing the photo shoots to porn. Well, I don’t know Megan Fox at all (and I’m only best friends with Beyoncé in my diary), so I can’t speak to their motivations, but I’d bet my stack of celebrity magazines Fox and Knowles didn’t style these covers themselves. And they likely don’t have much of a choice when it comes to interviews, either. Not if they want to remain successful. As Marche says of Fox in Esquire, “Her body, her perfectly symmetrical bombshell body, is what makes money and pays her bills.” (Ew.) A-list female celebrities know that photo shoots like these are what keep them on the A-list. Do you think Beyoncé or Megan Fox (or Lana Del Rey, or Cameron Diaz, or Rihanna, or Mila Kunis) would make the covers of these magazines if they asked to wear a turtleneck over that push-up bra?
I’m not saying they’re hapless victims (though Marche does pretty much say that about Fox), but to say that Beyoncé’s profile is to blame for the problems with western feminism, or that Megan Fox must want to be objectified or else she wouldn’t be, is to miss the bigger picture. It would be great if Beyoncé insisted on wearing a “This is what a feminist looks like” shirt on the cover of GQ instead of a thong, but it would be even better if GQ never asked her to wear a thong on the cover in the first place. It would be great if Megan Fox didn’t feel the need to traffic in her looks, but it would be even better if Esquire didn’t name other celebrities like Adele, Lena Dunham, and Amy Adams in her profile to prove a point about how ugly they are—and how hot Fox is by comparison.
We want our celebrities to be everything to us at once. We want someone like Beyoncé, or Megan Fox, or: [insert your favorite famous person here] to be both powerful and vulnerable, secretive and revealing, in our bedrooms and on a pedestal—to look sexy in lingerie while telling the editor of GQ to shove it up his ass. We put these unrealistic expectations on women especially, because even non-famous women are expected to be all things to all people. But those of us who are paying attention—and I do not count Esquire and GQ among us—realize how unfair that is, and how complicated these images really are. We can’t ask famous women to comment on their looks and then commodify those looks and call it a “serious profile.” We can’t accept magazines that objectify famous women on their covers and then trash the famous women who appear there. (Not if we want them to stay famous, anyway.) And until we can look at the bigger picture that is our sexist celebrity culture—one that tells women their value comes from their bodies and then criticizes them for those bodies—and hold ourselves and our media to a higher standard, until we can create a space where Beyoncé actually could wear her own t-shirt on a magazine cover, or Megan Fox could be known for something other than her looks, we’re in for more of the same.