Are we too hard on women's magazines?

Jennifer Lawrence on the cover of Flare magazine.

Jennifer Lawrence on the cover of Flare magazine.

As someone who works in magazines and, outside of work, devours them, I’m no stranger to the criticisms levelled at the mag industry. For instance: the images used are unrealistic, of impossibly beautiful women who appear to be flawless thanks to the magic of Photoshop. Also: they perpetuate a Western beauty ideal that at best, sees women solely as consumers and at worst, commodifies and demeans them.

I understand these criticisms. I get that some people might look at the needlessly photoshopped picture of Jennifer Lawrence on a recent cover of Canadian magazine Flare and roll their eyes. But my question is: where do most of these beauty ideals come from? Hollywood.

I’m all for diversifying the range of images we see in mags – it’s crazy to think that Australian magazines are overwhelmingly filled with images of white women, when our population is so much more diverse than that. But the root of the problem, I believe, really lies with the American film industry, which supplies magazines with their cover stars every month.

Magazines have a very small pool from which to choose their cover stars each month. The celeb (and these days, it’s almost always a celebrity, except for some high fashion mags which still use models occasionally) has to have something to publicise (film, fragrance, album etc), they have to fit the brand (Jennifer Aniston is an ideal Marie Claire cover girl but would be too old for Cosmo, for instance) and they need to be identifiable to the readers (Julia Stone can cover Yen, for example, but CLEO readers wouldn’t necessarily know who she is).

When editors have selected their small pool, based on this criteria, they then search for recent images of the celebs they’ve chosen. And yep, usually the best looking images win the coveted cover spot. And before you say, “Well, just put someone who’s not a celebrity on the cover,” sorry, but that’s not an option for mainstream mags. They simply will not sell without a bankable cover star.

But while people have no problem petitioning magazines for more images of “real women” (like the change.org petition that asked CLEO and Cosmopolitan to end their use of Photoshop last year), I’d like to see more of us sitting out of Hollywood films that promote unrealistic standards of beauty, too. After all, this is where our cover models come from. Why aren’t we banging on to movie producers and TV execs about the need for more normal-looking men and women in their casts? Why is it necessary that our actors be really, really ridiculously good-looking?

Chloe Grace Moretz in Carrie.

This is even more salient when you think of characters in film and TV who are actually meant to be average-looking. Carrie, recently given a reboot by director Kimberley Pierce, stars the gorgeous, cherub-faced Chloe Grace Moretz. Not exactly the plain, mousy girl with greasy hair and spotted skin described in Stephen King’s book. Did the casting director feel that we’d have greater empathy for Carrie if she were pretty? Or would it mean that more people bought tickets to see the film in the first place?

Detractors of mags demand that they better reflect real life, but why not TV and film? For every normal-looking Lena Dunham, replete with average boobs and tummy rolls and blotchy skin, there’s a thousand rom-coms where the lead actress has to look like Katherine Heigl in order to land Seth Rogen.

This, to me, is a much bigger problem than a retouched image on a mag cover. When even plain-looking characters who come from books originally are given Hollywood makeovers, the people we see become so homogenised (slim, blonde, pretty) that it’s hard to tell them apart. Indeed, Tina Fey wrote, “I have never seen a picture of Sienna Miller where I didn’t say, ‘That girl is pretty. Who is that?’” It leads to flatter, less nuanced storytelling, because we all know that we’re meant to feel empathy for the pretty girl (not to be confused with the beautiful-but-bitchy girl; we hate her).

I hope we do see a bigger range of women in the media – women of different ethnic backgrounds, like Mindy Kaling. Women who are better known for their comic prowess than their good looks, like Amy Poehler. Women who have bad hair days and pimples and cellulite, like all of us do. And I hope to see them on the covers of mainstream magazines.

But the only way that’s going to happen is if these women are given the same amount of airtime and attention as the Jessicas (Alba, Aniston, Chastain), and therefore become as bankable as them. If you want mags to change, stop seeing the Judd Apatow movies that pair insanely hot women with hairy, overweight dudes. Stop watching TV shows starring seven guys and one incredibly beautiful woman. Start demanding the stars you want to see on mag covers by watching them do their thing on screen.

 

5 comments

  • Bit pathetic to blame Hollywood for these 'beauty ideals'.

    Women's magazines do not last long unless they provide what women want.

    Women will only spend their hard-earned money on those magazines which they value.

    Commenter
    Robyn
    Location
    Brisbane
    Date and time
    December 19, 2013, 8:58AM
    • I agree with you 100% - what always makes me laugh is how, when an "unattractive" or "old" character is required for a film, more and more, rather than casting an "unattractive" or "old" actor, we are relying on prosthetics and CGI to "uglify" or "make older" a beautiful actor to fit the role.

      Isn't "casting" about finding the "right person" for the role and not making the actor right for the role?

      It also sends a message that average or plain or unattractive people cannot be actors or dancers or singers. HELLO?! Susan Boyle ain't the prettiest spring chicken but god she has a voice that can shatter mountains.

      Magazines reflect on and provide coverage of a much larger celebrity culture which is the direct child of Hollywood and the pop music scene. They also do contribute to the problem, I don't deny that... but we are seeing more and more of the Justin Biebers and the Miley Cyruses who (bad behaviour aside) are pretty perfect in terms of their body/face etc and less of the Silverchair's and Nirvana and Kate Bushes or Tori Amoses of the world.

      It seems like every new artist lives to a new, even more impossible beauty standard. However, on the flipside, is this really Hollywood's fault? They are merely providing a supply for what is clearly in demand by the masses. So its a chicken and the egg thing. Do we WANT to see unattractive people in our movies and/or music videos?

      I don't have an answer, only more questions.

      Commenter
      Adrian
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      December 19, 2013, 11:00AM
      • I read the recipes at the doctor's or waiting to pick up food. NEVER buy them - full of cr-p. Who would BUY these pulications .... I mean, seriously.

        Commenter
        auntypizza
        Date and time
        December 19, 2013, 1:13PM
        • Look - the editors of magazines can take a moral stand against the problem, use ordinary people on the cover and lose sales. Or they can make money using photoshopped stars and be complicit in the problem.

          What they can't do is cowardly pass the buck as Lauren says they can, while bringing in lots of money. What kind of sophistry is it to ask people to act indirectly by demanding changes in Hollywood? Perhaps we should ask them to buy magazines which promote healthy images of women...

          Commenter
          JordanJ
          Date and time
          December 19, 2013, 4:18PM
          • This is a bit of an odd article. No one is laying sole blame on women's mags - there is a lot of criticism of Hollywood on and offline. From body image and objectification of women, to racism, there is a huge discussion of Hollywood's work in these areas in many feminist spaces.
            That doesn't mean mags get a free pass - co opting and being a part of this awful process is still bad. Just cause Hollywood is doing it doesn't mean the mags have to - take a bit of responsibility for your actions.

            Commenter
            Lauren
            Date and time
            December 19, 2013, 4:41PM
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