Title: Buy baby, buy
Author: Sarah Mansell (London)
Sarah Mansell in conversation with Rick Poynor, 1999

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Buy baby, buy

Sarah Mansell



"Loaded's priorities reflected those of a younger generation of men cowering in the shadow of a female liberation they were unable or unwilling to understand. The concerns of the new lads were beer, football, drugs and, with a dashing touch of whimsy, biscuits. And women, or at least birds."
Caroline Roux, Eye, n.24

British lifestyle magazines for men, such as Arena, GQ, Loaded and FHM, are using images of female flesh to sell. The new social reality? Revenge of the lads? Or just a good joke?

Sarah Mansell: You come from the position of journalist, with knowledge gained through working for a number of years in the field of design and the visual arts. As a writer and an editor, can you give a description of British magazines aimed at the male market in the early to mid-1980s?

Rick Poynor: in the early to mid-1980s in England, there were no general interest newsstand magazines aimed at men, apart from the established "top-shelf" pin-up titles such as Mayfair or Playboy - an American import - and the more provocative semi-porn publications such as Whitehouse. With so many men's magazines selling so well in the 1990s, it's easy to forget what a breakthrough it was when the publishers of The Face launched Arena, aimed especially at young men, in 1986. They took an educated guess and discovered there was a readership for the male equivalent of a women's magazine. A British edition of the American title GQ, published by Conde Nast, soon followed in 1988. But in the late 1980s both magazines shied away from showing female flesh. They tended to put inspirational males - architects, actors, sportsmen - on the covers.

S.M.: I know that a backlash against feminism and the representation of women occured in the late 1980s, but I wonder where this stemmed from and also how it translated into creating a space for the birth of a new breed of men's magazines?

R.P.: I'm not sure that this "backlash" was quite as emphatic at that stage as you make it sound. As I say these magazines were actually quit ecautious at first. When Arena ran its first "Girls!" cover story about its "100 favourite women" in the Winter 90/91 issue, it took regular readers by surprise, restrained as it now looks in comparison of what followed. It simply wasn't done to drool over pictures of semi-naked women at that point - not publicly anyway. That was something for the top-shelf brigade, and no one would readily admit to belong to that group, even if they were one-handed readers in private. The phenomenon we're actually talking about dates from the arrival of Loaded in 1994. Loaded dared to say: yes we are like this in private, actually. We're tired of having to put on a front and pretend we're not. We like it this way, so get used to it. They did this with tremendous journalistic invention and wit, and made it hard to object - or you would look like a stuffed shirt, a bore, a prude. Before long Loaded was being celebrated everywhere as the magazine of the moment, everyone was reading it, and other publishers quickly followed suit. As the nipple count rose the sales ensued.

S.M.: Magazines such as Loaded, GQ, FHM and Maxim although supposedly appealing to different audiences, whether uppermarket or lads, all sell themselves on a commodification of flesh, female flesh. The agenda to present women as passive objects or highly charged sexual in their stance seems dedicated to the pleasure of men. What concerns and interests me is that these creations were, I presume, created by men for men. How do you think this would have been different if the industry were run by more women, especially women working as editors or designers, or possibly both?

R.P.: Arena was edited by a woman in the 1990s - Kathryn Flett - and the swimwear imagery significantly increased during her editorship, though Arena was a model of taste and restraint compared to some other titles. Maxim one of the crassest, was also edited by a woman, Gill Hudson. In the Eye article, when asked about her responsibility, as a female editor towards the role of women in society, she says: "I'm not trying to benefit mankind. I'm trying to sell a magazine." You could say these women are actually giving a male industry what they perceive it wants, but that still doesn't explain why they have chosen to put themselves in that role.

S.M.: There is no law stating that as a professional woman must deal with feminist issues in your work. Yet if you are a woman, that fact is inescapable. I think that in an environment dominated by men, and by predominantly male attitudes, there can be a pressure, accepted by many women, to either play therole of the sexually desirable object, or "if I can't beat them, join them" and behave like a lad or "man" in a man's world. This is where the premise of the "ladette" seems to stem from. You see it in everything from late-night Channel 4 series The Girlie Show to ITVs Babes in the Wood - the female equivalent of Men Behaving Badly, a British TV series about two men who are undoubtedly lads - and in the love/hate relationship that media has with stars such as ex-TV weather girl and now presenter Ulrika Jonsson. She's a Guiness-drinking babe who appears to have it all: blonde hair, bubbly, beautiful and with no strings attached. Some women are trying to emulate a very male set of characteristics rather than resist them. Can they not be both at the same time? Or do you think that this is also a media falsification?

R.P.: For a while it seemed so as if some young women wanted to become lads themselves - dizzy blonde TV presenter Zoe Ball bragging about her drinking exploits etc. it's sad to see an audience of young women fall into line with these images, which do them no favour. As role models these people seem so vacuous and uninteresting - so unimaginative. But it's your generation, how do you explain it?

S.M.: I think that these women's behaviour (as it is presented in the media) is also connected to the notion of "cool" or being "cool". Tabloid column inches are continually devoted to the party details of celebrity couples. This is the information deemed important for the nation to digest. Yet these people are followers of fashion, who don't seem too concerned about the effect of their behaviour on impressionable teenagers. They choose to live in a cocoon rather than to be individuals and stand apart and face the possibility of not being cool, for what they believe.

This is where the fantasy begins to shape our social behaviour, as it filters into society through every level - music, television - and eventually becomes the norm. Today we are supposed to be beautiful, wear the right clothes. The media also sugests that we must be willing to take them off when required. What concerns me even more is the conformity of opinion, that this is all acceptable. The popularity of such series as Baywatch has added to the standardisation of such depictions, but I wonder if we could have predicted the revival of the "Miss World Contest"? These examples are both about viewing beautiful women with few clothes on. What are the social implications of the popularity of a media-created celebrity such as Melinda Messenger, the English equivalent of Pamela Anderson? Both of them are the epitome of a specifically male Barbie doll sexual fantasy, with large silicone implants, a pretty face and big blonde hair. We see them both as images that don't answer back. These are the sweetwomen who make money by keeping their mouth shut. This is not even about the idea of a life based on nothing more than simply looking good. Melinda became a television presenter through her presence in mainstream media. How many other young women will feel that the only way to become a celebrity is to have implants and make sure that they are seen with the right set of people? Of course, certain imagery within magazines will be approved of, or disapproved of, by some, but when you are expected to take your clothes of to become a celebrity surely something is wrong?

R.P.: The way you put it seems to imply that it's a natural point for all young women to want to become famous, in the celebrity sense. But the pervasive desire for media celebrities is a symptom of precisely the kind of distorted expectations we are accusing Loaded and these other magazines of. The tabloid media are perfectly aware of the exploitation and self-referentiality, they can even turn the hunger for stardom into a "story". Recently we've started to see items on TV and in the press about media fixated women desperate to become celebrities at all costs. Taking your clothes off for the camera is the very essence of this form of celebrity. If you want it thats the name of the game and some women would say they have benefitted from the transaction. So what we'r asking for is not other ways of becoming a celebrity - a contradiction in terms - but other ways of realising and validating yourself as an achieving individual woman.

S.M.: Loaded has claimed that its stance is post-modern and that it delivers an ironic view of contemporary culture. However it seems to lack a critique of that "culture" it is representing. As readers we are offered no alternative to the idea that sex sells. Designer clothes will offer the opportunity for sex and everyone involved in that scenario is beautiful, and of course rich. The representation of men and women in such publications is false in my opinion.

R.P.: There are inherent problems in such magazines, as editorial creations, that precede the question of sexist imagery. They are consumer titles which exist to sell advertising. Their editorial embodies the same values and their advertising and supports that end. So its no surprise that they are prepared to commodify images of women if these will sell magazines. Magazines like this are no place for critical discussion. That's why the notion that women managers and editors might serve here as a support of women seems to me unlikely. If a group of women felt strongly about it there is nothing from stopping them to launch a female-directed title aimed at men, apart from market realities. I can't see it happen can you?

S.M.: No, I can't, but what is interesting for me is that you see beyond this imagery as illustration. This is not about being simply sexist. It is about selling material objects through the device of a magazine. The crux is that whoever is in control, advertisers or editors, is prepared to use whatever means are required to sell their products. This currently takes the form of using sex, but who knows what might be exploited in the future. Loaded seems carefully constructed by its use of images. Their styling, clothes featured, the fantastic make-up and even the models way of addressing the camera. The layout of these masquerades supported by tabloid style headlines produces a single layer of meaning in the publication. I feel that I am offered only one view of the best way to live my life, and more importantly, that as consumers we should all be something aspiring to. Real women who are strong, confident high achievers are excluded from these magazines. Loaded portrays a James Bond lifestyle for men, which includes tacky erotic encounters, expensive travel and designer clothing and accessories, without a worry of any kind. I wonder what an average sixteen-year-old gains from this representation of women.

R.P.: I agree with you on the narrowness of these magazines' worldview. They treat life in the most materialist terms. They seem unaware of - or openly mock - other possibilities. They reinforce a myopic conformity under the guise of a hedonistic consumer freedom as the path of self-fullfillment. But what is about these magazines in your view that readers find so irresistable?

S.M.: I think that they allow "men to be boys" in an adult world. In an environment where we are encouraged to be titillated by the equivalent of the lingerie pages in a catalogue and aspire owning the latest designer toys. Who would want to argue with a publication that simply encourages us to want, want, want. However I don't think that the average readers see the actual message: buy, buy, buy. In patronizing a publication such as Loaded you made the first step of owning the objects presented within it. This mythical lifetsyle is not limited to the magazine culture. The British pop star and celebrity Robbie Williams has suffered both drug and alcohol abuse along with making highly publicised comments about the sexuality of other people in media yet he sells millions of records and is celebrated as the man that any woman would be glad to present to her mother. The popularity of the series Men Behaving Badly encourages prejudices and shallow thinking, especially about women and sexual encounters, while also swearing and promoting beer drinking.

R.P.: Well again general reaction to Men Behaving Badly (which admittedly is at times very funny) seemed to be: ah! what a relief, at last a TV sitcom that dares to tell the truth about men. As with Loaded we were invited to see the male psyche and behaviour revealed by the programme as deeply flawed, but all the more loveable for that. Why don't these two women leave this pair of idiots? In the programmes warped universe we are made to believe that this is as good as it can get.

S.M.: The exploitation of flesh and the stereotypical representation with which we are presented have become normalised in the race to sell magazines. In doing so a social model has also been changed. These images are not questioned but simply laughed at. Their general acceptance has allowed the advertising industry to adopt a similar attitude. If the widespread reality that "women's breasts sell copies", as Caroline Roux puts it, how will we ever move to a new agenda? Doesn't this immediately make it more difficult to change the visual culture of these magazines?

R.P.: Yes, there is a real problem. The visual culture of these magazines is an expression of social forces and in turn - a kind of feedback loop - helps to reinforce those trends. The restrain that previously existed in British publishing which some people would now ridicule as political correctness, was the result of intense campaining and a huge amount of media discussion by the 1960s/70s generation of feminists. By the early '80s when I started to work in magazines a non-sexist attitude had been internalised by British journalists. Whatever the private views of individuals, this was the collectively agreed, official view of the National Union of Journalists. I remember seeing a male editor reject an advert intended to support hardware, because it made useof a scantily dressed woman. The advertising people had to go back and tell the advertisers that we wouldn't run the ad in that form. This kind of self-policing was still around when Arena was launched. And that is why they were even wary putting clothed woman on the cover. I don't think we will see any more careful aproach to imagery unless very strong campaigning women (like the earlier feminists) force this issue to the top of the agenda again.

S.M.: We are talking about mainstream publishing and magazine design, but in my opinion the use of highly stylised, sophisticated and constructed imagery containing a specific attitude towards the depiction of women can be seen as the accepted form of pornography. These women, specifically chosen for their limited talents, are shown in a variety of scantily clad poses. However these features are legitimised by the supporting presence of a supposedly more serious interview or article in which the starlet or singer talks about her work or lifestyle. Both are achieved through humour and the endorsement of well-known brandnames and advertising. We are presented with a set of familiar faces associated with television or radio, rather than pornography, but the message (continually reiterated in every issue) is that these women are willing to remove their clothing for a photograph or two. As though this was natural and inevitable for them to do so. By presenting a sexual content through the use of one-liners such as "pure sex" and "she rocks", we are reminded that as with pornography, sex sells. In this case designer clothings and luxurious lifestyle. I find this controlled and systematic approach less honest than that of actual pornographic magazines. This subterfuge allows Loaded to be not only seen as acceptable but also as cool purchase. While pornography is something "other" that is still not considered acceptable.The implications of this hypocrisy for contemporary culture are disturbing.

R.P.: Pornography is, of course, one of the regular inspirations for these men's magazines. As we showed in Eye, their reportoire of model poses is borrowed from the softer end of porn publishing. A favourite men's mag ploy is to send a journalist to the US porn industry awards, to get the "story". This allows the magazines to sample and appropriate porn's atmosphere and sense a forbidden excitement. The effect of this to normalize porn itself. I share your feeling that there is something more "honest" about pure porn without this second mediating layer, though the issue is incredibly complex, with the porn libertarians, many of them academics at permanent loggerheads with anti-porn campaigners like Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon who find all pornography abusive and unacceptable.

S.M.: To end with a rhetorical question: can design be ever harmless fun?

R.P.: Of course. But in this very knowing and sometimes cynical age, highly skilled at concealing its real purposes below engaging, attractive, seductive surfaces. The critical challenge is discovering when "harmless fun" masks something in realty far from amusing.

Rick Poynor: (rpoynor@dircon.co.uk) Based in London, Rick writes for design magazines all over the world. He is currently a visiting professor at the Royal College of Art in London.

Sarah Mansell, based in London, is interested in a critique of visual culture and continuosly questions the stereotypes embedded in contemporary design.

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