A new study has the blogosphere buzzing about men’s magazines and the way they treat women in their pages. Jezebel asks, “Can You Tell the Difference Between a Men’s Magazine and a Rapist?” The Huffington Post has a similarly scandalous take.
According to the study, conducted by the University of Surrey and Middlesex College in England, men’s magazines are so degrading toward women that participants in the study couldn’t tell the difference between quotes taken from articles in British men’s magazines and direct quotes from convicted rapists. The full study will be published in the British Journal of Psychology.
But before we start to go nuts on men and their magazines, let’s have a reality check.
The truth is, women are involved in all aspects of the production of men’s magazines. In New York, the magazine-publishing capital, more than a dozen full-time positions at GQ are filled by women, including a senior articles editor, director of photography, and production director. Esquire employs a female editorial director, a female editorial-projects director, a female photo editor, two copy editors who are women, and two female contributing editors. Men’s Health has a senior managing editor named Debbie, and six other positions are held by chicks.
Historically, Nora Ephron was once a senior editor at Esquire, and Betsy Carter at one time served as editorial director. Playboy has a long history of publishing short stories by notable female novelists including Margaret Atwood and Doris Lessing. For more than a decade, the magazine was run by Hugh’s daughter, Christie Hefner.
These magazines do cover women in a responsible way, at least on occasion. In 2009, Esquire ran a piece on the last abortion doctor to specialize in late-term abortions, an article that became a finalist for a National Magazine Award. GQ has received five such awards for its “General Excellence.” While Maxim might not be winning tons of awards, I don’t see the harm in articles like “How to Give Her the Best Sex Ever,” which encourages foreplay and the idea that “getting her off is what gets you off.” And if you’re thinking they’re going to get all date-rapey in “The Maxim Guide to Hitting on Girls,” think again: it’s written by a woman.
Writers at The Huffington Post and Jezebel have seized on the results of this new study as evidence of men’s magazines’ culpability for a culture that excuses rape by legitimizing hostile sexual attitudes. They describe the study’s findings as “chilling,” “disturbing,” and “upsetting,” suggesting that some bloggers trust what researchers say more than what one might learn for oneself by simply flipping open a magazine and reading it.
When I was approached by Penthouse this past fall to write an essay for the magazine, I was surprised to learn just how many women were responsible for its production. Even more interesting: discovering what these women thought of their jobs. I sat down with Christine Colby, Penthouse’s managing editor, for lunch one afternoon after I’d turned in my piece. Yes, Christine is a vagina-carrying woman, as is Penthouse's editor in chief, who has been with the company for nearly 20 years.
According to Christine, nearly half the staff at Penthouse are women, and working there is “probably not as different as you’d suspect,” she said. Christine described working alongside men and women of all different ages, backgrounds, races, and body types. “Everyone adds something to the conversation,” she said, “and a lot of them have their own creative lives outside of work, whether in writing, music, dance, or some other type of art.”
Christine, who got her start as a copy editor for Disney, left a job at a respected, mainstream women’s magazine to work at Penthouse. “Initially, I was worried it would negatively impact me,” she said, citing fears of what her family would think. “Today I’m so much happier than I was, and glad I made that decision. I feel a lot better about my body these days than I did when I worked in the women’s-magazine world. In that industry, I felt a lot more bombarded by the need to be skinny and youthful, and the models who came into that office were more the runway-model types, like size-zero teenagers.”
Leaving lunch that day, I had a new appreciation for the work Christine does, as well as my own. As a feminist, I’ve always felt my work was more appropriate for men’s magazines because, let’s face it, if men’s magazines do, on occasion, speak pejoratively of women, women’s magazines, by and large, speak pejoratively to women. I would rather read (and write) features like GQ’s cover stories on Herman Cain and Steve Jobs than yet another interview with the queen of “reality,” Kim Kardashian—or one more story on how to “Blast Fat Fast.”
Because women are involved in the making of men’s magazines just like men—and even more than men, if you count the models—conversations about men’s magazines (including pornography) should be conversations about media, rather than indictments of men.
Whether the media contribute to rape is a conversation worth having. Yet assumptions about who’s to blame stop such conversations in their tracks. Yes, the media shape people’s views on gender and sex, but it’s people—men and women—who create the media.