Monday, May 12, 2008

One for the "Protest Too Much" file

The female ideal pushed by laddie magazines has become as smooth and lifeless as an iPhone
May 03, 2008 04:30 AM
Stephen Marche
Special to the Star

Megan Fox is the sexiest woman alive. Last year she wasn't sexy at all. In 2007, the 21-year-old starlet didn't even make the top 100 in FHM's annual ranking of the world's women. In 2008, she's number one. The obvious reason for her sudden rise up the charts is the popularity of Transformers and its key scene in which she appears in a short skirt bent over a 1976 Camaro. But she couldn't have entered the list at all if she hadn't made the wise career decision to change her last name from "Foxx" to "Fox." One more x and she's a porn star; one less and she's an object of aspiration – perfect for FHM.

For Him Magazine, and the other lad mags like Maxim and Umm, occupy a strange, liminal place in the territory of contemporary male desire. They exist to allow men to look at women's bodies sexually but not pornographically. With the emphasis on suggestion rather than revelation, the women in their pages are slick materialistic ideals, as current in their smooth plastic forms as the Prius or iPhone.

The downside to such manufactured people is that they're all the same. If you were mugged by any one of the women in the top 10, you couldn't pick the perpetrator out of a lineup. They're all white. They all have long hair and they're almost all blonde. They all have the same high cheekbones. They all have the same nose. Each woman is allowed exactly one deviation from the norm, and the deviation is immediately remarked on – her tattoos or her extra-dark eye makeup or her curves. The girls of FHM are obviously products of a fundamentally icky consumerist objectification, but their engineered homogeneity also reveals an incredibly limited imagination.

In some ways, it's a surprising development. If the lad mag is the latest chapter in the long, toxic and ancient book called "Men Staring at Women," it's very different than anything that's come before. The nude throughout the history of art offered a social expression for forbidden sensuality, which is why the women, sprawled on exotic beds or on picnic lawns, emerging from the bath or from the sea foam, are always sexually available. In FHM, the women are totally unattainable – "too good for you, buddy" – and their way of dressing, in the context of a world in which seemingly every celebrity has a home sex video on the market, is comparatively modest. The subjects of nudes were womanly – whether the plump nymphs cavorting in pastoral scenes of Rubens or the cubistic chest-thrusting models in Picasso's Demoiselles D'Avignon. Their womanliness reminded male audiences of their manliness. The women in FHM's top 100 are almost all rail thin, with whittled down bodies and faces. Every year there is less and less to them.

Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth complained that women in the media were "mock-ups of living mannequins, made to contort and grimace, immobilized and uncomfortable under hot lights, professional set-pieces that reveal little about female sexuality." She was right and she's still right. But the women in FHM are an equally false representation of male desire. FHM is not a men's magazine like GQ or Esquire. It's a magazine for lads – for 15-year-olds. It serves adolescent boys with the fantasy that there is something or someone out there who is the "sexiest," a comforting norm of male desire which does not exist and has never existed.

If only it were so simple. Men (as opposed to boys) know that male desire doesn't fit any pattern; it changes unpredictably, sometimes over years, sometimes over an afternoon. Male desire is particular – some men like women in tutus, others like women who are morbidly obese. Who can say what men are attracted to? It could be the second joint of the middle toe, or green eyes, or a certain ineffable way of walking.

Shakespeare found the world's sexiest woman in Cleopatra, but her sexiness was a shifting bizarre mass of contradictions and complications: "She makes hungry where most she satisfies; for vilest things become themselves in her." The appeal of FHM's list of sexy women isn't the women so much as the list: It imposes order on what is inherently chaotic. It's a false order of course, but the lads reading FHM can pretend for a while.

How this ranking of the parade of gleaming pneumatic women will affect young men isn't clear. Will it terminally limit their budding libidos or only provide a kind of temporary simple-minded refuge from the gathering deluge of sexual complications they're about to face? As with everything when it comes to male desire, nobody knows.

The great Victorian art critic John Ruskin, a man who spent half his life among pictures and sculptures of naked women, was nonetheless shocked to discover on his wedding night that his bride Effie had pubic hair. On coming into contact with a real woman, the poor man actually went into spasms. We can only hope there's a better fate for the lads whose first image of womanhood is Megan Fox with one x.

Come again?

This kind of overwrought, hyperverbalized denial might be understandable coming from a woman, but come on, Stephen! Noone's buying the act. You're obviously trying to make it with a feminist chick.


Blogger Hey Skipper said...

In the Deutsche Museum I saw a contemporary bust of either Cleopatra, or Nefertiti; can't remember which.

She must have been a dead ringer for Ms. Fox.

I'm not sure what that does for Marche's vaporous thesis, but it probably isn't good.

He needs to spend some time looking at women's magazines ...

May 13, 2008 10:51 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

That's what I call a "Will This Do?" Article.

It's a fine journalistic tradition whereby the features writer scrambles in a few seconds before the deadline, hands it to the editor, and utters the immortal words.

May 15, 2008 8:50 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Good point, Brit. It seems that the answer will always be "yes" for any opinion piece that goes against the grain of the bleedingly obvious.

May 15, 2008 9:54 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Pity the poor Lifestyle writers at the NY Times who have to discover 365 absolutely new and entrancing trends in Manhattan every year.

One I thought was particularly inventive, especially for Manhattan, was the trend to not own anything.

May 18, 2008 5:22 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

If you are good at ingratiating yourself into "polite" company (not that such a thing exists anymore) you can live very large on other people's stuff. Rich people have all kinds of toys and properties, but they need people to enjoy them with.

I wish I knew how to schmooze.

May 18, 2008 7:20 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

duck wrote: "Rich people have all kinds of toys and properties, but they need people to enjoy them with."

So you think that the rich don't already have other rich (or at least semi-rich) friends?

May 18, 2008 11:23 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

I knew a guy who was into sailing. He knew a rich guy who owned a sailing yacht. The rich guy needed a crew to sail the thing. The guy I knew had a motto - better to use other people's stuff than own your own.

Some rich people are needier than others.

May 19, 2008 7:31 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

True, I knew a homeless woman who promoted herself into a hot-air balloon trip in Normandy with Malcolm Forbes. She brought back a bottle of home-brew wine given to her by a peasant in whose meadow they landed, but when we opened it, it had turned to vinegar.

There's probably a moral in there somewhere.


Idle thought. I wonder what that woman looks like under all that makeup?

May 21, 2008 5:38 AM  

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