Thursday, December 3, 2009

Sex Sells? Who Knew?

I now offer some breezy comments on a Matter of Great Importance: that Newsweek cover photograph of Lady Also, a.k.a Caribou Barbie, a.k.a. Dotard McCain's Dotty Girlfriend, the photo that was cribbed from the back pages of Runner's World. Lindsay Beyerstein captures the spirit of the kerfuffle well enough:

There's nothing scandalous about Palin showing some skin, or wearing Spandex. But this cover image is deliberately styled to make the then-governor of Alaska look like a Vargas pinup girl. Unlike the other images in the series, this one references her status as a governor. As she poses like a swimsuit model, she's clutching one icon of political power--the Blackberry--and leaning on another. The theme isn't Sarah Palin, athlete. The theme is Sarah Palin, Sexy Governor. (As in: one of those dime store Halloween costumes: sexy cop, sexy ladybug, sexy sanitation worker...)

Predictably, Palin complained that Newsweek's use of the image was sexist. Yes, the image was plucked from its original context. The whole point was that the picture was appalling it its original context. Newsweek is holding this picture up to the world and asking: Who does this?
Sigh. All that was fine right up until it wasn't.

It may well be that Newsweek was holding this up to make a "who does this?" sort of statement, but I think that gives too much credit to Newsweek, which is to say, this gives any credit at all to Newsweek. Whereas Newsweek is, at best, an unfunny joke -- a weekly vomiting forth of the laziest available conventional thinking.

I can tell you exactly who does this: lots of people, men and women. Each issue of Runner's World closes with the "I'm a Runner" feature, which includes a photograph very much like the one in dispute, in which a notable person is shown as a runner but also alongside accoutrements of whatever has made them notable or recognizable. I take this as Runner's World's attempt to say something far from "appalling," namely, that runners are everywhere, from all walks of life, including even famous people. Others featured have included actor Anthony Edwards, poet Kay Ryan, and scientist Wolfgang Ketterle in photographs roughly as "degrading" or "obectifying" or whatever. If this sort of photo spread offends your idea of human flourishing, be sure not to pick up a copy of Runner's World, and if you do, avoid the last page.

I am not convinced this is an instance of sexism.

First, sexism trivializes and reduces, and there's nothing in Lady Also that is amenable to trivialization or reduction: she is below zero and digging as doggedly as her enthusiasms for war, semi-literacy, and blastocysts will inspire.

Second, sex appeal has never been divorced from charisma, and charisma is a part of politics. Are there male politicians who have appeared on covers of discount newsweeklies baring their legs? I doubt it, but this is a false analogy because that's not the conventional visual for Sexy Man. The visual would be, well, what we see constantly on covers of discount newsweeklies and similar fountains of convention: images of male politicians wearing expensive suits and power ties in a pose that says, basically,
I have weighty and important things on my mind, and I have mowed down house pets, orphans, and grandmothers to reach this exalted state. I will continue doing so because I am as unstoppable, constant, strong, and firm as sharpened steel. You know you want to fuck me, but you'll just have to settle for voting for me -- at least until I stay overnight in your town.
If the plaint is that this sort of statement is not conventionally attached to female politicians, that there is a different standard for Sexy Female, then we've arrived at a trivial truth. Perhaps this should change. Any who would like to change it is welcome to begin thinking of, say, Madeleine Albright and Claire McCaskill as extremely sexy women on exactly the terms that at least some women seem to perceive Bill Clinton, however wrinkled and chubby, and any Kennedy male, however weirdly shaped.

Go ahead, I'll wait. I won't be holding my breath, but I'll wait for that. We will know the conventions have shifted in this desirable(?) way the first time an issue of Men's Health or another insipid man-mag comes out with a cover model that looks more like Hillary Clinton circa 2009 and less like Megan Fox circa last week. A few years after that, this new and better(?) convention will be so tired and entrenched that it will start showing up in the discount newsweeklies.

Until then, the likes of Lady Also will continue projecting sexually-charged starbursts, and the likes of Dick Cheney will continue projecting intimations of hardness -- assuming they want to succeed in a game where sex sells and sales win.

1 comment:

larryniven said...

"It may well be that Newsweek was holding this up to make a 'who does this?' sort of statement, but I think that gives too much credit to Newsweek, which is to say, this gives any credit at all to Newsweek."

Well spotted - that looks like a case of pure home-team cheering to me. Anyway, I haven't seen anything that anybody does with respect to you-know-who that isn't construed by some party or other as sexism, so this whole thing rings awfully hollow.