Yesterday, Channing Tatum was anointed People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive. And while it’s true that 2012 was really Tatum’s year, with three successful movies at the box office—The Vow, Magic Mike, and 21 Jump Street—Tatum is part of a 26-year long tradition of anointing square-jawed white men as the hottest in the land.
The one exception: when they chose a square-jawed black man—Denzel Washington in 1996.
And during the last four years, when there has been an African-American president (who, if he were a Hollywood hunk, should surely have topped the list), it seems preposterous that no other men of color have been picked as the winner. In 2008, square-jawed Aussie, Hugh Jackman took the top honor. In 2009, Johnny Depp and his rotting teeth were selected for a second time. Last year, nobody’s favorite, Bradley Cooper, walked away (shirtless) with the crown. And the year before, perhaps in anticipation of the release of Green Lantern (which bombed), Ryan Reynolds was bestowed this dubious honor. Call it the Sexiest Milquetoast Man Alive.
Where are the Blair Underwoods, the Taye Diggses, the Morris Chestnuts? The Terrence Howards, the Jesse Williamses, the Idris Elbas?
Well, they are inside, scattered throughout like chocolate sprinkles on a vanilla ice cream cone. And if you believe People magazine’s official line, it is what’s inside that counts.
A representative for the magazine wrote, in part, via email: “People Magazine is sensitive to representing people of color in its pages; our Sexiest Man Alive issue is no exception. Every section in this year’s issue includes a diverse group of men.”
How diverse? In recent years, men like LL Cool J, Eddie Cibrian, Usher, Drake, Vin Diesel, John Cho, and Mario Lopez have been featured.
Brett R. Johnson, associate editor of the website The Root wasn’t surprised by the magazine’s stance. “That response is expected,” he wrote via email. “They can’t come out and say black men don’t sell magazine covers.”
Though there are some sports celebrities, like David Beckham, most of the picks skew toward Hollywood. There are very few music celebrities—and then, those picks tend toward teen dreams like Justin Bieber or the Jonas Brothers. If the magazine featured more men from sports and music—they might have had a choice of a few more men of color big enough to push cover stand sales. Kanye West, Kobe Bryant, or Michael Jordan during their primes would have been fine cover stars.
A rep for People explained: “The cover subject is chosen solely on the following criteria: Is he hot at the moment? Is he sexy? Is his career on fire this year? Channing Tatum fits that criteria this year, which is why he was named 2012 Sexiest Man Alive.”
The list, then, said Jezebel editor-in-chief, Jessica Coen in an IM interview, isn’t the “sexiest man in general, just—‘handsome man who’s getting the most work right now,’” she said. “What makes the choice so strange is that People is not a trade mag.”
If People’s list is really a barometer for who’s hot in Hollywood, the list is even more distressing. It serves as a mirror to Hollywood’s one-dimensional idea of who can be a leading man. (Hint: he’s a white dude. Or, Denzel Washington.)
“Denzel is the lazy choice,” said Coen. “He’s obligatory. And that’s because whenever there’s a discussion of race in Hollywood and dearth of black leading men, someone always argues that Denzel Washington is ‘proof’ that there’s no race problem. Like, ‘But, but, but here’s this one guy!’”
Coen wasn’t buying the magazine’s PR, response either: “People’s response places the blame on Hollywood. That’s a copout. They have a lot of power as a media outlet, but their response is akin to throwing up their hands like, ‘Who me?—Not I!’ Hollywood and the media—and that includes People—have a highly symbiotic relationship. Putting a man of color on the inside is like saying, ‘He’s hot, sure, but just not hot enough for the cover. Only a white man can be number one,’” she added. “Which is kind of how the world has worked for the past couple centuries.”
Or to put it more clearly: there are no men of color to put on the cover because there are no leading men of color, save Washington and Will Smith.
“They’re pretty much the only black men who Hollywood deems worthy of being able to carry a big-budget movie as its lead,” said Johnson. “Other top black actors such as Sam Jackson, Morgan Freeman, and Laurence Fishburne do consistently great work but they’re rarely regarded as get-the-girl-type leading men—or perhaps more likely they just don’t fit People’s definition of sexy.”
People’s list is problematic for other reasons—the magazine has simply missed the zeitgeist on a number of occasions. For instance, as Buzzfeed pointed out picking Tom Cruise in 1990, years after he was truly hot—post-Risky Business or Top Gun; or celebrating Matthew McConaughey in 2005, when he was in the middle of the most banal part of his career, starring in middling romcoms with Kate Hudson. Alarmingly, Jon Hamm, the man all women want to sleep with—and the man all men want to be—has never made the cover; nor, has feminist favorite and Oscar nominee, Ryan Gosling.
People also missed a big opportunity in 2010 by not choosing Old Spice spokesperson Isaiah Mustafa—a man who arguably really was the sexiest man of the moment, striding into women’s living rooms topless and riding a white horse, and turning tickets into diamonds. Instead, he was relegated to the “25 Chests To Be Thankful For” spread.
This, for a man whose video at the time had more than 13 million YouTube views. (Now up to 45 million.)
People magazine and other old media outlets, as Coen pointed out, could stand to take a few risks, and they might actually change social mores in the process.
“When you don’t regularly expose an audience to men of color as sex symbols, they’re less likely to think of men of color as sex symbols,” she said. “We need to see these men to know they’re out there—and not seeing them because they’re not being presented to the audience as much as white men.”
It becomes a chicken vs. the egg problem. She said: “Then you get into this vicious circle: studios expose audiences to white guys, audiences respond to white guys, so studios cast more white guys. But that would change if the casting were more balanced. Studios expose audiences to a mixed cast, audience responds to a mixed cast, studios continue to cast people of color. I think Shonda Rhimes’s shows [Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice] are a great example of how easy it is to make that work. Visuals are very powerful, consciously and subconsciously.”
Johnson agreed. He thinks stars like Idris Elba, Michael Ealy, Terrence Howard, and Blair Underwood could be perfect choices for People’s cover—but, he said: “They just need to get the right film roles that will put them over the top in terms of having crossover appeal,” he said.
“If Idris Elba, for example, landed a couple roles in big-budget, box-office winners and had a blowout year, I can see him on the cover. He could be an undeniable choice. The stars would have to align just right, though.”
People—and the media, by extension—could take the bull by the horns and lead by example. The issue is a hot seller regardless of who graces the cover—thanks to the loads of shirtless, soft-focused-lens photo shoots featuring topless men—and to the mag’s well-oiled PR machine.
Said Coen: “They could put a panda on the cover and it’d probably sell just as well.”
The lack of nonwhite Sexiest Man Alive winners, though, doesn’t necessarily reflect Americans’ aversion to men of color, just Hollywood’s.
“If white and mixed audiences can listen to and follow and even swoon over black musicians like Trey Songz or Chris Brown, then why can’t they just as easily find common ground and connect to a wider variety of black actors on the screen?” said Johnson. “American moviegoers and mag buyers should be given more credit.”