Take a look at this:
What are your reactions?
Excitement? Fear? Attraction? Embarrassment? Anger? Several of the above? None of the above?
We live in a visual civilization. From the earliest moment, when humans first banded together in caves or on the savannahs and plains, we have been visual. We created images to serve as symbols, transmit information, and communicate. In modern times imagery is perhaps most used in advertising. Everywhere, all the time. Images that sell. Images that attempt to motivate us to open our wallets and spend money.
Not surprisingly, body images are some of the best tools in the advertising toolbox. It’s clinically proven that images of bodies — especially bodies that are slim, shapely, and fit — are physically stimulating to certain centers of our brains. Include a lot of skin in that body imagery, and the effect is increased several fold.
One might argue this is an artifact of evolution: our drive to mate and have sex, therefore when we see nice bodies that are showing a lot of skin, it taps into our instincts for procreation.
One might also argue that this is an artifact of socialization: for the bulk of the 20th century we saw a gradual increase in how much skin could be shown, and where, and for what kinds of products. Are any of you old enough to remember how much of a shocker it was when Victoria’s Secret began doing television commercials? I am. These days, that’s tame. But back when they were first running them, it was new territory. Imagery of beautiful female bodies in lingerie being beamed into every living room and den in the world.
At what point does the use of body imagery — especially female body imagery — become exploitative? At what point does that exploitation become truly demeaning or otherwise degrading to the focus of the image? Ergo, women and their bodies?
The above image is from Shape magazine, which sells in just about every supermarket and on every magazine rack in the United States, and which is specifically targeted at women shoppers. Originally borne of the Joe Weider fitness publication empire, Shape is not a body-building magazine as much as it’s a general fitness and lifestyle magazine, aimed at women and “selling” the concept of better living — better health, better spirit, better relationships — through healthy diet and exercise.
I’ve heard serious women athletes describe Shape as light-weight material for people who are light-weight when it comes to exercise and diet. I’ve also heard other women describe Shape as simply a tits and ass magazine — akin to the explicit T’n'A publications such as Stuff and Maxim — without carrying around the overt publication stigma of what the Brits call a, “Lad mag.” Which are magazines designed specifically for consumption by young males seeking visual sexual gratification — unsaid: masturbatory fantasy — through a printed medium.
However one feels about Shape, as a valuable product for women seeking to better their lives through diet and fitness, Shape has become like Cosmopolitan and Women’s Day and other long-time stalwarts of the grocery checkout racks. Obviously, it’s attracting enough women buyers to make it profitable, otherwise the publisher would can the magazine and stop losing money. So whatever offensive or otherwise degrading qualities Shape might have — because it consistently publishes photos of fit young women in bikinis on the covers — there are enough women buyers out there who aren’t offended, and who have subscriptions and keep taking the magazines off the racks.
Now, consider this image:
Still a woman in a bikini. What’s your reaction to this image? Any different from your reaction to the Shape magazine cover? What if we removed MAXIM from the title, as well as the sexually suggestive cover text, and put SHAPE over the image? Does the image remain as sexually suggestive as before? Is it because of the way the woman is posed, versus the model on the cover of Shape?
Now, consider this image:
Like Shape, Men’s Health is a magazine often seen in supermarkets and on magazine racks across the country. Like Shape, Men’s Health “sells” the idea of better living through diet and exercise: feel better, look better, have better sex, etc.
How do you feel about the Men’s Health cover, versus the Shape cover? Is there equivalency? Is there difference? What are the differences, and why do you think they are? More importantly, what makes the historical subtext of the Shape magazine cover different from the historical context of the Men’s Health cover? And how are both covers different from, say, Stuff Magazine:
In terms of progressive gender study, many people take issue with the cover photography of Maxim, Stuff, and Shape too. Because historically, imagery of women — more specifically, their bodies — has been used by men to make money. The argument being that the humanity of the female in the photography is ignore or stripped out, and her body simply becomes a vehicle for visual sexual stimulation, twined with profit motive on the part of male ad executives and male product managers. Therefore it is degrading when products are sold in this manner, even today, because whenever a female body is shown — with skin — for the purpose of advertising or selling product, it’s just more of the same old exploitation which has been with us for quite awhile now.
But is that all there is to it? Womens bodies = skin = sales = exploitation = degradation? Is there nothing to be said for the objective of the publication in question? The kind of product being sold? What about imagery that promotes and “sells” yearly breast exams at the local hospital or clinic? Or, as in the case of many fitness and exercise magazines, promotes nominally good and nominally positive concepts, like eating properly and exercising? And how is it degrading for the female body to be used in advertising, but not also degrading for male bodies to be used similarly? Is it simply a question of power dynamics? Ergo, since men still have most of the money and control over government and business in our world, they can never be “exploited” in the same way women are exploited when their bodies are used for selling product?
And how does this affect art? What of drawn or painted imagery that is conceptual? Such as the Realms of Fantasy cover which has been at the center of so much controversy lately. Long has there been contention in our society over what is art, what is smut, and how do we tell the difference between the two. Invariably such discussion boils down to the Eye Of The Beholder conundrum. Whatever is taken away — from the imagery by the viewer — is very often determined by the viewer’s preconceptions, existing emotional and ethical state, past traumas or other experiential formation, and so forth. Ergo, if someone looks at a painting like that on the cover of the re-launched Realms of Fantasy, they’re liable to see smut, or art, or something else entirely, based mostly on what they themselves bring to the table, as human beings.
There is no real way to abstractly separate out the viewer, their reaction, and the image. Judgment as to the image’s purpose and value — as an image — is an entirely subjective matter. There is no way to really objectively declare that a given image — or a given image used for a given purpose — is bad or good, wrong or right. Especially images such as the Shape cover, which while being sexually exciting in American society — where fit female bodies in bikinis is generally considered to be visually sexually gratifying — are not overtly sexual, as with the Stuff cover.
More to the point, when must the economic demands of the publisher or producer of product yield to the sensibilities of the consumer? We’ve seen this happen before, when a publisher or producer has overreached the boundaries of what is generally considered socially decent. Remember the nipple ring controversy from a few Superbowls ago? That was a good example. But still, in and of itself, was the flash of breast — with ornamentation — vulgar, exploitative, obscene, or just a matter of marketing and sales chutzpah?
It’s been said that Realms of Fantasy is a magazine primarily read by women, and that many ROF readers are tired of seeing “exploitative” female imagery on the covers. Some might even argue that this is true of women et al, that they’re tired of seeing the female body stripped of its human qualities and used simply as a lust object for the purpose of bringing in dollars from male pockets.
But how does this perspective mesh with the obvious fact that magazines like Shape are thriving, and largely because of female consumers? What makes the imagery on the cover of ROF “bad” and the imagery on the cover of Shape “not bad,” or is it simply a matter of which kinds of women are buying which kinds of publications? Perhaps the kind of woman who buys and reads ROF has no use for Shape, and vice versa. Perhaps this is a matter of subculture defying the norm? Who knows.
I do know that anyone who has a problem with the ROF cover would probably do well to self-check, where their other consumer purchases are concerned. What kind of publications and what kinds of products do you have in your home that are sold, either in part or in full, using female body imagery? Could be soap. Could be shampoo. Could be something else altogether. Female body imagery is replete across the consumer spectrum, and if we’re going to poo-poo Realms for simply doing what marketed product elsewhere does, how come Realms gets singled out and there is not a larger, more general outcry against the many other forms of female body marketing?
Science Fiction and Fantasy are, above all else, businesses. They exist because, far back in the past century, writers and editors and publishers discovered that there was a market for these emerging genres. Over time these genres have evolved, going from a primarily male-consumed, white-consumed product to something that is now consumed by women — to a great degree — and to a lesser extent by ethnicities other than white. With that diversification has come a different sensibility that is not always consonant with the older White Male sensibility, towards which much of the cover art of the past — which often used female body imagery — was aimed.
But does this mean that female body imagery should be banished from the genre? Who decides what kinds of cover art — using various kinds of body imagery, either male or female — is degrading, exploitative, or otherwise demeaning to the female consumers of Science Fiction and Fantasy? Can we have a woman in a bikini on the cover of a genre novel? Does it make any difference if she’s holding a weapon, as in some military and fantasy genre fiction, or clinging to a shirtless, hunky male, as is often seen on the covers of much romance fiction?
I think that there can be no single authoritative point of view on this issue. There are going to be many perspectives and each of them is going to be correct in their own way. Because what we’re talking about is taste, and as mentioned earlier, taste is in the Eye Of The Beholder. You can’t criticize taste. It just is.
But on that note I also don’t think you can criticize marketing decisions made on long-standing, verifiable marketing data that tells a marketing or art department what kind of covers sell best to the target audience in question. There is also the matter of publisher taste — which is a whole other Oprah from consumer taste — and the sort of magazine or publication the publisher him/herself wants to operate. There will be times the publisher will want to be daring. Shocking. Disturbing. Depending on possible content and depending on how the editor is feeling about things on any given month.
Should the publisher live in fear of offending part or all of the readership? Should the publisher flat-out ignore the feelings and sensibilities of part or all of the readership? At what point does a publisher seeking to abide by reader pique simply become a matter of the publisher allowing a vocal segment of the readership to dictate how they want the publication to operate? What does the publisher owe the reader, and what does the reader owe the publisher, beyond the expense of purchasing the publication?
When considering the Realms of Fantasy cover, it’s not as cut and dried as, “This cover sucks and is offensive.” The art director has to consider what he or she has on hand in inventory, how much it will cost to scuttle existing inventory and bring in new art for the sake of forging ahead in a new editorial direction, how this might affect the existing customers versus gaining new customers, and so forth.
If we assume that the bottom-line goal of any magazine or publication is to simply survive and print another day, then it’s a bit difficult to pin sociological or progressive moral tails on a given biblio donkey. The objective of the publication — unless it’s a non-profit or subsidy publication — is to get as many people as it can to buy the product. No more. No less. The editor and art director can decide to explore outside that narrow telos, but if they spend too much time on such experimentation they may risk losing the very audience they seek to hold. And while this might cheer some who stick up their noses at the common reader, I think deep down most commercial editors and publishers have to be concerned about losing the common reader, where the bulk of the profit is liable to be made.
My personal opinion is that Realms of Fantasy is its own ship with its own captain. We as consumers, readers, writers, editors, other genre folk, can comment all we want about what Realms of Fantasy ought to do. That doesn’t mean we automatically know better than those who are in charge, nor does it grant us a special position from which to criticize or lecture the producers of Realms about how we think they can do their jobs better than those jobs are already being done.
The market is the ultimate leveler. Wallets speak louder than words.
I for one put my wallet where my opinion is.
Others will do likewise.