Monday, March 24, 2008

Maxim (and its readers) can BITE ME!

So...unless you keep your news reading to high-brow or none at all (and even that's not info-blank safe these days) you probably heard that Max!m released its Unsexiest Woman Alive winner a few months ago and she's Sarah Jessica Parker.

(So I'm late to the discussion party. It's still a relevant issue to discuss.)

It's deconstruction time.

First, let's put this magazine in its place.

When I Googled Max!m, this is what I got: Crappy Soft-Porn Lad Mag that, if a man was known to read this frequently and be a big fan and believer of it, should be a real turn-off to everyone carrying double Xs (and by that I mean chromosomes, not porn rating or some other sort of size).

Okay okay that's not what Google really said. It really said (and this part is actual for real true):
Hot Girls, Sex, Photos, Hot Videos, Sports, Movies and Music, Celebrities
Girls, Sex, Sexy, Hotties, Women, Babes, Chicks, Technology, Gear, Video Games, Hotties, Magazine, Maxim Magazine, christina aguilera, Hot Women, Hot Girls, ...

Wow.

Really?

Men, to get your attention, a magazine needs to scream that?

I'm ashamed. For you. On behalf of you. Because I know a lot of you, and you are so much better than that.

Let's be honest, as humans, we like sexy. Don't we? How many other animals consider sex recreational? There's a point here, right? So let's not make this about prudery. It's not.

This is about R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Second, let's talk about this vote. Unsexiest Woman Alive.

I can't even bring myself to link to the story or articles about it. The commentary is so, so unsexy. It really is. Let's just say it's nasty and subjective, based on looks. Solely. (Until you get to Sandra Oh, where apparently her fake television character's ambition is a real turn-off. Oy.)

Can we talk about more than looks? Can a smart, successful, solid woman be sexy because of her merits, not just her attributes?

Take the allegedly unsexy Parker.

Sarah Jessica Parker seems like a classy and intelligent person. She dedicates a fair amount of time to worthy causes, such as to UNICEF as an ambassador, to DKMS Americas, and to the Pediatric Epilepsy Project. She's successful in her career, and continues to be a sought after actress and spokeswoman. She seems to prioritize her marriage and family.

Dear Maxim...that? Is sexy.

I am pretty sure the average man who has a mental and emotional age above 20 knows that, too. I know a lot of men and they seem to value these sorts of things. I know their wives, too, and thus know their actions back their words.

Listen, Christina Aguilera and Charlize Theron (often listed as sexiest women) are probably fine people. But I don't think their merits are being evaluated at all. I think their looks are, exclusively. And what message does that send?

It does send one; it's not all just fun.

Thanks to easier digital image altering software, it's barely a second to alter a perfectly naturally lovely woman such as Kate Winslet into a barely recognizable Barbie-like sylph. Our media calls women such as Tyra Banks fat.

What does this do to us, the reader, the consumer, the person living in a society with the readers and consumers?
How do people come to understand themselves? A response to this age-old question involves what has been labeled everyone's "second favorite theory" (Goethals 1986): social comparison. The original formulation of social comparison theory (Festinger 1954) demonstrated how, in the absence of objective standards, individuals use other people to fulfill their informational needs to evaluate their own opinions and abilities.
Source: Social Comparison Processes

Although social comparison theory has been refined since its introduction in 1954, in short, it claims that, "People look to the images portrayed by others to be obtainable and realistic, and subsequently, make comparisons among themselves, others and the idealized images."

It's clear that even though comparison of self to ideal isn't that simplistic, it does affect how we view ourselves and others, affects our self-esteem, and I think it also can strongly affect our expectations.

Magazine and celebrity images aren't real. They are enhanced ideals. Like art, it's a manufactured personal view of how something could look from an individual's eye. Even the famous "sexy" people can't maintain that level of perfection. It's not real, even for them. But it's the image we are subjected to again and again: frozen moments of very young people at the height of their physical game.

A barrage of fakely perfect is bad enough. We don't need an unsexy category. It's just the uglier twist on negative social comparison. That's what's ugly.

I'm disgusted.

But considering Max!m readers put Lindsay Lohan at the top of the sexy list in 2007, I shouldn't be surprised. She's 21.

Askmen.com selected Elisha Cuthbert, who cashes in at a more "mature" 25.

Both have sex scandals behind them.

I suppose young girls who are scandalous are what these 2.5 million men* find sexy.

That's too bad. Lohan seems to be a troubled young woman. I wonder how much of these dysfunctional messages are at the heart of that.

Overtouting the ideal isn't good. Focusing on girls as sexy and sex objects isn't good. (And trust me, I did a little experiment a while back and discovered that according to the online world, boys have lives and girls are bodies. I don't think that's too disparate from other forms of media...or life.)

But rating women according to how far they are from this ideal?

That's so much worse.

Note: For Wednesday's Hump Day Hmm, take this issue---this idea of rating people according to how they fit or don't fit some arbitrary ideal---and debate/discuss some angle of it. Make it general or make it personal---how it affects you, our culture, your kids, your morals...however you want to approach it. Next week we'll discuss atonement. (That will make more sense when I share the story behind it.)


* Max!m has a circulation of about 2.5 million readers, although newsstand sales have dropped slightly more than 12%.

Copyright 2008 Julie Pippert
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22 comments:

thailandchani said...

I am probably just too old to really notice this stuff. I'm indifferent to "norms" of appearance. We all have our preferences but when it gets to a point where the population as a whole is pressured to keep up with it, it's just absurd.

But, you know, people go along with it. Otherwise it wouldn't be that way. If people sigh and say "ain't it a shame" but perpetuate it by following its dictates - well - they have some stock in it.

I, for one, just have to call BS on the whole thing. When we get a little older (like me), our concerns change. We're concerned about stability, intellect, honesty, kindness - those things that make sitting on the porch with some old coot worth it. It's what makes it possible to think about feeding someone after a stroke or holding their hand through a cancer scare. It makes it possible to love unconditionally.

Everything else is transient and meaningless.

The magazines.. as long as people continue buying them, the myths will go on and on and bloody on.

Sorry to sound so old.. but, hell, I guess I am!

anne said...

I worked a temporary job last summer where I was the only woman in a power plant employing all men. Maxim was a regular thing I would find on the table with the daily newspapers. Out of boredom I usually read it. Here is my interesting observation: EVERY young lady featured in a Maxim interview LOVES to have LOTS of KINKY sex.

Every. Single. One.

I think it's like a fairy tale book or something.

On the bright side, there was not one guy at the plant that treated me as anything less than ... one of the guys.

But shame on Maxim for such poor judgement in what matters.

jennifer h said...

Yes, yes to everything you said. I was mulling over this earlier today.

Maybe we can make reading Maxim unsexy. Oh. I think you just did.

jeanie said...

What I don't get is how others don't get that the objectification that goes on in such magazines does affect - both the casual observer and the women who are then affected by the portrayal.

SciFi Dad said...

It's stupid shit like this that makes me embarrassed to be a man.

The sad truth is, when I read this post, I totally knew why the readers voted the way they did for SJP and Oh. Most "men" who read Maxim are one of two ilks: too young or too ashamed to buy Playboy.

They objectify women as things for their satisfaction. That's why Lohan is more appealing than SJP. LL appears vapid and willing to "party" with just about anyone. SJP's image threatens rejection.

And that's the core of the matter. A woman who appears to have a mind, who is capable of making a choice, will likely not choose these men with low self-esteem, and therefore they reject them first (in a childishly humiliating manner).

Robert said...

There's a great article on atonement available online which I gave a talk on Sunday. I'd be glad to post the link if you want.

Gwen said...

It starts, I suppose, with what one's definition of sexy is. If it means, narrowly, "person I'd like to sex repeatedly" then I can see how SJP is near the bottom of the list. Not that I'd want to do Ms. Lohan either, since she doesn't seem exactly clean.

But as Chani pointed out above, definitions of sexy change over time.

And I wonder, too, if men are just as uncomfortable with the pressure to fit a stereotype--guy who enjoys Maxim--as women are to be the woman a Maxim guy wants.

It all comes back to how inarticulate we are about our true needs: for human touch, for vulnerability, for connection. The rest of it is twisted out of that, I think sometimes.

Julie Pippert said...

Chani, I think your point that "people go along with it," combined with Gwen's point that we have difficulty articulating our true needs plus Sci Fi Dad's point about fear of rejection all spell a real relational problem.

Add to that Anne's point about the magazine missing what matters and Jeanie's point about how this influences us and you've got a cultural problem.

And that's my point.

I think media like this "normalizes" and "validates" and "okays" this dysfunctional relating and priorities.

It's not about which names are on the list; it's about what's behind the list.

My point isn't really at all about "what is sexy." That's so individual. My problem is with creating an unrealistic expectation, overfocusing on looks, and creating an unsexy concept based on "not enough like a Barbie" type thing.

But here's the thing: 2.5 million men aren't the vast majority in this country. (Focusing on the US because I'm egocentric. KIDDING! It's because I live here and know, even though Maxim is out of Europe initially.)

There are about 140 million men in the US.

So the truth is...I think the "not completely engaged in this" outnumber.

So there we have Jennifer's point: let's make this type of thing unsexy.

I think because this can be so front and center and get so much attention, we get a skewed version of reality and how people think...and that's the most dangerous point of all.

thailandchani said...

You're right. It is dangerous. Going one layer deeper, it's all based on a belief that we must be "perfect" - and perfectionism comes from the belief that we are never good enough, just as we are.

But the knight on the white horse, Consumerism, is more than happy to come along and help us. Consumerism commoditizes everyone and every thing.

The best option is to ignore it - in all of its manifestations - and go on about our lives, understanding that there is no such thing as "perfection" and to cull it out of our own attitudes, beliefs and practices. To the best of my knowledge, that is the only way to change culture. There will not be any social engineering campaign along these lines because it won't benefit the powers that be.

So.. perhaps that is where we need to take charge of our own lives and our own beliefs.

I do believe that most people are not engaged in this - at least not so overtly.

Family Adventure said...

Oh Julie, I didn't see that article/vote/whatever-you-want-to-call-it....but! How appallingly, horribly offensive.

It is wrong on so many levels. Honestly, I don't even know where to begin...UGH! This is a new low, truly.

Heidi

Melissa said...

Great to have you back!

I agree, it is so wrong, it is hard to know where to start with it all. But sadly, our society is so based on ratings of all sorts that it shouldn't surprise me.

wheelsonthebus said...

I had not heard that, which says something about how much news I have read lately.

I find it interesting that they chose her, since my husband finds her very sexy, because, he says, "She's got an edge."

That's why I love my husband.

Izzy said...

Ugh...don't even get me started on Maxin and FHM and all the others of that ilk. I have my own gripes with them. You may or not may not have read this post awhile back:

http://tinyurl.com/28ml7j

In any case, I'm with you all the way and I'm glad to see other women calling them out on this.

Christine said...

gross. maxim is and always be gross. i used to look through it at my old work place a million years ago because the men had it lying around.

ranking unsexy (and sexy for that matter) people just annoys me on so many levels. shame on maxim and shame on this society for buying into his crap.

great post, julie.

Running on empty

slouching mom said...

amen to every word. and triply so to the title, m'lady.

Kathryn said...

The fact that magazines even have such a thing as "unsexiest" woman makes me sick. Whatever happened to being kind? Whatever happened to "if you don't have anything nice to say..."? Doesn't anyone care about people's feelings anymore? That is just hurtful. Nevermind the fact that what the mag people think is sexy is ridiculous. What about compassion, people? Ugh.
Great post, Julie!

jen said...

and all of this is why we'll never elect a woman president.

Family Adventure said...

I hope you're wrong Jen. But I understand what you're saying...it sucks.

le35 said...

Julie, you may want to check out www.dadsanddaughters.org. It's an organization that is working to get rid of this idea in our society. I love it.

Cathy said...

YES!!

*fist punching the air*

Excellent post. I was appalled when I heard about this.

NotSoSage said...

Oh, Julie...I'm late to the party, but don't get me started.

I don't know which of those magazines it was, but I remember noticing a few years ago that they'd featured Courtney Love in the midst of her struggles with drugs and the law. I couldn't believe that they were trying to make a sex object out of her, especially at that time. Tasteless and childish.

But, you know, they know their market, go for the jugular in terms of the visceral reaction to salacious imagery. It doesn't surprise me in the least that the women they voted the sexiest weren't there because of their brains or merit.

Gunfighter said...

I was a charter subscriber to Maxim.

Yes, it's true.

For the first three years of the magazine it was funny... I mean laugh out loud funny, and it had lots of interesting, if unusual articles. It was also not so much on the semi-naked skinny chicks that inhabit their pages today... or, at least what I think inhabits the magazine today (I haven't opened a Maxim in years). After all, Maxim is now sold in a plastic wrapper.

I got too old to be bothered with it... but I suppose, that's just how we progress.