The curators of the “World's Most Beautiful Women” at People magazine have surely spent months mulling over their annual issue, which hit newsstands Wednesday.
They have surely devoted hundreds of hours to debate contenders’ merits and the definition of beauty in heated editorial meetings.
Perhaps they employed some sort of “beauty” algorithm to whittle down actresses and rate each one numerically, weighing “money given to charities” against “number of times photographed by paparazzi.”
But at the end of the day, there’s only one thing that matters: whose face will attract the most eyes--be they approving or withering—in supermarket checkout lines?
This year, People placed their bets on “Real, Radiant Sandra Bullock!” whose defiant smile on the cover of the tabloid pairs nicely with a defiant strand of hair hovering above her right eyebrow.
The 50-year-old actress doesn’t give a damn about out-of-place hair! She looks too good to concern herself with matters so trivial.
Plus, she’s a proud single mother, a Hollywood star aging gracefully five years after her big Oscar win, and embracing her role as “the world’s first female supervillain” in the upcoming animated feature, Minions.
At 50, she’s the oldest “World’s Most Beautiful Woman” ever. Bullock is a strategic choice for People, who know readers don’t associate her with classic Hollywood beauty and femininity.
Bullock charmed you despite yourself as the tough girl with the cutesie bob in Speed. She annoyed you in While You Were Sleeping, but won your heart again with her tough-girl slapstick shtick in Miss Congeniality.
The actress is more poised in real life, but she’s still the ballsy guys’ girl—never catty or petty—who is bored by celebrity drivel. She’s modest, cool, and insouciant. Or at least this is how People is selling her.
“The people I find most beautiful are the ones who aren’t trying,” Bullock told People. “Real beauty is quiet. Especially in this town, it’s just so hard not to say, ‘Oh, I need to look like that.’” Superficial beauty is ephemeral; real beauty is to “be a good person, be a good mom, do a good job with the lunch, let someone cut in front of you who looks like they’re in a bigger hurry.”
Naturally, when Bullock learned People had bestowed her with the “most beautiful” honorific, she thought it was “ridiculous” and “told no one.”
It’s a predictable response from the Hollywood star, desperate to sound modest and prove her talent and success are unrelated to her good looks. But it sounds more genuine coming from Bullock, who has always seemed “laissez-faire” about her public image next to other big-name actresses.
Perhaps the other reason Bullock “told no one” is because, like every other sensible person, she recognizes that People’s annual stock of the “World’s Most Beautiful” women is more tired and ridiculous every year. It’s a list of actresses who fit a certain script.
There are 192 “breathtaking beauties” in this year’s issue, but Broadway’s Gigi star Vanessa Hudgens, Orange is the New Black’s Laverne Cox, pop singer Meghan Trainor (who, People writes, is a “pop force to be reckoned with” despite her “initial insecurities about not looking ‘like Rihanna’”) are all beautiful—yes—but also more than that airless word.
Many of these women are cultural lightning rods; they’re the celebrities we can’t stop talking about because they’re shattering gender and beauty conventions. They are talking points.
It’s a major departure from the “Most Beautiful” archives. When People first launched the issue 25 years ago, it was puffed-up eye candy: actresses and models who were famous because they were beautiful.
For less than a dollar, you could pore over pictures of the most beautiful people—and get a superficial glimpse of their world from the tabloid’s interviews.
Now the “beauty” criteria is more about cultural cachet than aesthetic beauty. In some ways this is a good thing: People’s definition of beauty, tailored to their readers’ views, is much less narrow than it used to be.
But it’s the script that bugs me, the imagined algorithms, the token “beautiful” star who defies beauty conventions. The message is clear: They’re not objectifying women, because that’s no longer socially acceptable. They’re celebrating their achievements! They’re championing diversity!
But they can’t say that because—why—too worthy? Too dull? Sell it as a beauty parade, but really this is a feminist-slanted pageant on the sly?
Implicitly, People wants us to see it is doing all women a service by selecting beautiful women who are more than just a bunch of pretty faces—but, hmm, still pretty enough to sell magazines.
People’s annual “Sexiest Man Alive” issue is equally absurd, but at least it’s straightforward when it comes to its looks-based objectification, and not laboring the “beautiful on the inside and out” point.
In its parade of firm pecs and hillock-shaped biceps, it says plainly: Here’s our pick of Hollywood’s sexiest male stars for you to fantasize about.
If People’s “Most Beautiful” cover star isn’t a painfully obvious choice (Beyoncé in 2012, for example), the magazine tends to go with a wild card, like Gwyneth Paltrow in 2013.
Eight days before that issue came out, Paltrow had been named Hollywood’s most hated celebrity by Star magazine.
People made a canny move here, knowing that polarizing beauties often sell more than popular ones, especially when selling to a tabloid demographic.
Giving the prize to Sandra Bullock this year is equally strategic. For all the readers who will marvel at how good she looks at 50, there are just as many who will say she’s over-the-hill.
And if there’s anything tabloid readers enjoy more than gawking at celebrity beauty, it’s voyeuristically observing their failures and flaws, from Britney Spears’s head-shaving meltdown to a glimpse of mottled flesh on Gwynnie’s thighs.
Not that you’ll see any of this in People this week. It’s a brief moment of sexy, shiny, happy respite for Hollywood stars, whose physical beauty will be relentlessly scrutinized the rest of the year.
Lately, People’s “Most Beautiful” issue has become an annual attempt by the magazine to redeem themselves from accusations of shallowness, to prove they believe beauty is more than skin deep.
But, in its page-after-page of contoured cheeks, pearly smiles and lustrous hair, the issue still promotes skin-deep beauty standards, and unless they call it “The World’s Most Talented Women,” there’s no point in pretending otherwise.