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Esquire as a Feminist Text

lrperry's picture

Laura Perry

Critical Feminist Studies

November 14th, 2008




The ‘male magazine’ Esquire does not present itself as a feminist text, nor is it circulated in society as a feminist text. It is shelved under “Men’s Interest”, often directly adjacent to explicitly pornographic texts like Playboy and Penthouse. Yet Esquire may in fact operate in particular ways as a feminist text, and as a model for navigating complex post-modern female identity in pop culture and glossy representations. This argument is very specifically generated from and attached to the November 2008 “Endorsement Issue” with Halle Berry featured on the cover as The Sexiest Woman Alive. This specificity is strategic, as what makes this issue operate as a possibly feminist text is often at odds with other issues of Esquire. Indeed, the feminist moves are sometimes best noticed through this lens of comparison: allowing a woman to speak for herself, as in Halle Berry’s acceptance speech (112), rather than crafting a half-fantasy, half-reality dramatically staged article in the form of a screenplay about her, as was done with Charlize Theron’s Sexiest Woman Alive article in 2007. The 2008 issue of The Sexiest Woman Alive, on the other hand, presents a satirical monologue from the Woman herself, in which she problematizes the very category for which it is supposedly an acceptance speech. To posit the November issue of Esquire as a feminist text is not to say that there are not instances of objectification or restrictive gender stereotypes in its pages. Yet, the particularity and personality, and thus the subjectivity and humanity, which women exhibit in this issue (especially in Esquire’s treatment of the cover image and the article accompanying it) can act as a model for a possibly non-oppressive rendering of women. In the November 2008 issue, Esquire presents a representation which engages with all the complexity of maintaining a position as both a sex symbol and ‘real’, individual woman.

            The cover image acts as a neat enactment of the gendered nature of power, yet the context for the image and the ways in which the cover is explicitly articulated in the issue perhaps work to undermine this easy explanation. In the cover photograph, Halle Berry reenacts a well known Esquire cover photograph of former President Bill Clinton. In the original image, Clinton wears a conservative black suit and blue tie. The perspective is skewed such that his hands, which rest upon his knees, seem abnormally large. This emphasis on his hands reflects his masculine power; he has physical as well as creative strength. With hands that large, the perceptive reader must infer, he can change the world. Indeed, the first few paragraphs of the 2000 essay accompanying Clinton’s cover photograph describe the enormity and power of his hands. Berry’s pose, in contrast, places emphasis on the body part which is the locus of womanly power: her thighs. Her hands rest on her inner thighs as she sits with her legs spread. Her toned yet expansive thighs serve to represent both her fecundity – the issue repeatedly mentions her recent pregnancy – as well as her sexuality. She is, after all, The Sexiest Woman Alive. Indeed, that the cover Esquire elected to reprise for Berry is an iconic image of Bill Clinton immediately engages with the ever overlapping matrices of sex and power, as his most infamous political and sexual mishap demonstrates so eloquently. That Halle Berry is a black woman reprising the role of a white man, a President, engenders multiple and ambivalent readings. On the one hand, her sexualized and aggressive pose – even her expression is decidedly more fierce and also more flirtatious than Clinton’s – continues the long cultural narrative of the sexual exploitation of black women as objects of the white male’s pleasure. Yet there is also something transgressive in her replacing President Clinton, particularly in the context of an issue which features Esquire’s glowing endorsement of (now President Elect!) Barack Obama’s candidacy. Given this context and the way Obama is often treated in the media as a kind of starlet himself, Berry’s coup d’état of Bill Clinton’s cover image is perhaps more empowering than exploitative. The white male president has perhaps become obsolete, as McCain became increasingly obsolete in the later stages of the 2008 presidential election. The white male president is something to be mocked, to be satirized, but not something to respectfully or straightforwardly represent.

The page devoted to contextualizing the two photo shoots, additionally, focuses on both Berry’s personality, and the particularities of her life. If Halle Berry were treated only as a sex symbol, as a mythic and idealized version of “woman”, this would be oppressive as it would ignore the reality of her life, and not allow her to assert her own subjectivity. There are, no doubt, oppressive ways of representing Halle Berry with individuality, if those represented aspects of her self work to assign her to a stereotypical gender or racial role. This sort of individuality would paradoxically serve to actually elide her particular self.  But Esquire’s discussion of the Halle Berry cover not only situates the cover in its political context, but also works to establish Berry’s unique personality. The interview which accomplishes both these tasks is with Berry’s photographer, Cliff Watts, who is also a longtime friend of hers. That he knows her on a personal level, he is the godfather of Berry’s child, means that his comments arise from his knowledge of her as a person, not as a celebrity or sex symbol. Cliff, like Berry in her acceptance speech, ascribes ‘sexiness’ to something that is not rooted in the physical, saying that “her sexiness goes beyond her good body and beautiful skin” (20). This in and of itself is not too revolutionary, but Watts also situates Berry as an equal to former President Clinton.  His comments about the comparison between her cover and the Clinton acknowledge her sexiness, but also focus on her “strength”, “warmth”, “confidence”, “charm”, and “power”. Watts writes: “She’s a powerful woman; he’s a powerful man. It’s basically the female equivalent of the Clinton cover” (20). Watts’ remarks serve both to particularize Berry, to make her more than an anonymous or interchangeable sex symbol, and to highlight aspects other than her physical appearance which make her “powerful”. This interview seems to belie the expectations that a Sexiest Woman Alive is chosen solely on her appearance or physical ‘sexiness’.    

The subversive and humorous content of Halle Berry’s acceptance speech also serves to question the motivations behind the award “The Sexiest Woman Alive” and emphasizes the constructed and arbitrary nature of sex symbols. Her speech itself could be recognized as an almost traditional Western feminist text, with her asserting her own independence, agency, and sexuality. Berry begins by grounding this award in ‘reality’, by acknowledging the immense construction that is her appearance and image. She thanks her makeup and hair team, and the photographer by name, saying “without him, the camera is all lies of a different sort” (112). By beginning her acceptance speech thanking those people who usually are meant to remain unseen, their job done best when it is invisible, Berry removes the fiction of her idealized appearance. She is not a ‘naturally’ sexy woman, but rather her status as sex symbol “takes a lot of work” (112). Berry also mocks the editors, describing them as what amounts to cheaply dressed business nerds. In this way she desexualizes and diminishes the power of the men who supposedly enable her to claim this title. Her next move is to question their very motivations for creating this piece, by suggesting that there is no connection between being named The Sexiest Woman Alive and having any authority to speak about being sexy: “Does being the sexiest woman alive imply that I know a thing or two about what’s sexy and, possibly, about sex itself? I’m not sure” (114). What these assertive opening paragraphs become is a speech which articulates Berry’s own subjectivity as capable, autonomous, and decidedly feminist. She takes control of her sexual power, describing herself as solely responsible for her own sexual pleasure, and, additionally, as “responsible for some pretty damned good orgasms” (114). She also clearly marks out her own sexual agency within her heterosexual relationships, writing of her orgasms: “I wouldn’t let a man control that. Not anymore. Now I’d invite him to participate” (114). Berry does not advocate for separatism, but rather for a feminism which can coexist with heterosexual relationships. Berry becomes most recognizably feminist when she says that she “shares this title with every woman, because every woman is a nominee for it at any moment” (115). Berry’s speech consistently undermines the category of Sexiest Woman Alive, by deconstructing her own idealized image, by questioning Esquire and those who present the award, and by denying the supposed superiority which the award implies. These defiant and feminist moves comment on the troublesome nature of sex symbols and popular representations of women.

Esquire has always made it a habit to include the female viewpoint, with three reoccurring columns written by women: “Sex”, an advice column by Stacey Grenrock Woods, “A Funny Joke From a Beautiful Woman”, and “10 Things You Don’t Know about Women”. The sexual advice column operates in a strange ambiguous space between titillating questions and Stacey’s persistent gestures towards various experts, from doctors to anthropologists. She seems to attempt to act not as a bearer of personal knowledge, but rather as a reporter relaying objective facts. Further complicating the column is the fact that this is one of the few places, other than the Letters to the Editor, where women readers of Esquire are acknowledged. The first question in this issue’s column is explicitly asked from the point of view of a woman: “How would one go about working as a girl who answers phone-sex lines? Does it pay well? I think I’d be good at it” (50). This question titillates and plays into the stereotype of the “the happy prostitute”. But Stacey’s answer is anything but titillating. Her first sentence simultaneously mocks the question while also focusing on the economic part of the question, rather than the implied ‘skill’ of the questioner. Stacey writes: “I see you’ve taken an interest in the diminishing field of Telephonic Sexual Commerce. Congratulations” (50). Stacey does not focus on the transgressive aspects of phone sex, and, indeed, only brings up the sexual content as it relates to the business aspects.  She takes the wind out of the stereotypical male reader’s sails who expects a salacious answer, providing irony and practicality instead. In this way, though “Sex” works within the framework of provocative sexual advice made more provocative because it comes from a woman (Stacey does print a picture with her column), it also subverts the usual expectations of the genre.

The latter two columns are ‘written’ by a different female celebrity every issue and, like “Sex” and Berry’s acceptance speech, exist within the framework of a recognizably stereotypically sexist genre while also serving to complicate the objectification of that genre. The November 2008 issue features Kaitlin Olson as the Beautiful Woman, and Emily Deschanel as the author of the 10 Things piece. The “10 Things You Don’t about Women” column in particular operates as a female viewpoint, as its entire premise is structured around the knowledge which supposedly arises from a female identity and as such is precluded from those with a male identity. Additionally, both columns are meant to be humorous, although Esquire does include a caveat marked by an asterisk for the “Funny Joke From a Beautiful Woman” column that the magazine “cannot guarantee this joke will be funny for everyone”. Deschanel’s 10 tips include declarations like “The only acceptable men’s wrist accessory is one that tells time”, or “Don’t wink. Never wink” (76). As these two prototypical examples show, though the article is predicated on and supposedly structured as a woman revealing secrets about women, the “things you don’t know” are often behavioral or grooming tips for men to make them more attractive to women. In this way the article becomes a forum for these various women to mock male anxieties and the very concept that they have a special insight into womanhood. It allows the ingénue to claim some kind of epistemological authority because she is a woman without being forced to participate in supposedly revealing secrets. These two articles do seem to ostensibly serve the unfortunate purpose of supplying a rationale for the display of scantily clad women, with a small paragraph in miniscule font promoting their current theatrical projects or television series. Kaitlin Olson, as the Beautiful Woman in the November issue, is posed on a bed, with her hands in the Venus Pudica pose which simultaneously draws attention to her genitalia while maintaining the fiction of virtue by supposedly attempting to cover them. Nonetheless, they create a space where women possess two aspects not usually given to them in popular culture (at least not without requiring a corresponding sacrifice of their status as a sex symbol): humor and self-awareness. These same two aspects proliferate throughout Halle Berry’s acceptance speech, while refusing to disqualify her as self-professed and gloriously sexy.

Despite these various arguments describing Esquire as a feminist, it remains obvious that this is not the best case scenario. It takes more than a strong, humorous woman on the cover of one issue to become a feminist magazine. There is also the question of whether the goal of feminism should or must always be the construction of an autonomous individual who is able to come to speech about her own situation. For those readers who remain entirely unconvinced, you may be right. The short article, “Women Writing”, in the November 2008 issue, for which time and space unfortunately preclude a longer discussion, certainly privileges speaking subjects, quoting various women writers who have contributed to Esquire over the magazine’s history: Joan Didion, Nora Ephron, and, wonderfully, canonical figure of Western second wave feminism, Simone de Beauvoir. Yet this article, as Berry’s speech, also seeks to reclaim the discursive space of male magazines as a place of women speaking and naming themselves. Perhaps Esquire’s very explicit status as a bastion of masculinity – one need only look at their motto of “man at his best” – allows them to sneak in powerful women, or create a discursive space which recognizes women as both sexy and smart, objects and subjects, compliant and defiant. These representations seem closer towards the truth of it, towards a representation which acknowledges the complexities of identity and embodiment, than most.


Anne Dalke's picture

Satirizing the Subject

Well, Laura, you couldn't have picked a more provocative thesis--Esquire as feminist magazine?!--and your attempt to "prove" (or @ least to exhaustively entertain the possibility) raises for me a range of far-ranging questions that harken back, first, to some of what we have been learning from Spivak about representation. I'm wondering what sort of representation of individuality would paradoxically elide her particular self (?), and also about what it means to know someone "as a person" (rather a role?).

But (to me) the really really interesting questions you raise are ones about genre. So much of what you talk about here has to do with satire: you identify mockery, irony, subversion. When Northrop Frye describes "satire and irony" as one of his "five modes of fiction," it is characterized by a hero who is "lacking power and intelligence"; "effective action" is "absent, disorganized or foredoomed to defeat"; "confusion and anarchy reign." But there are of course lots of other ways to think about how humor functions, and there is the long-standing joke that feminists are humorless, so your gambit here is of particular interest to me.

On the one hand, I'd say that to understand irony--or satire--one needs some distance, has to be able to stand outside, "beside," and look across (as Anthony Appiah said when he was here a few years ago, "Ironism isn't for homebodies"). So satire comes from a place of relative power? Though it might be enabled by being positioned on the outside/on the edge/in a place of relative powerlessness? Or @ least from being performed as if from that place?

And then I have some thoughts about just what the relation of humor to feminism might be. Some possibilities:
  • Humor is conservative: it enables us to live in situations we find unacceptable, reconciles us to the painful, unacceptable, or tragic aspect of our condition. According to Gershon Legman, jokes defuse (and so perpetuate) highly charged situations; the laughter of relief can make such situations endurable.
  • Humor is revolutionary, in line with Leonore Tiefer's examination of political humor, which has a social awareness and a clear social purpose: that of social change. Satire, in her terms, is a form of resistance against oppression, and offers the hope of an alternative. Humor inverts reality, rather than helping us accept it, by calling attention to the incongruous. 
  • Humor can function to open up a space for newness--new thoughts, new behaviors--by surprising the hearer of a joke into examining her previous conceptions. This notion builds on Tiefer's analysis; but according to Sarah Friedman (BMC '03, who articulated it) what is important here is the audience's willingness to receive a joke, to be in a mindset to play....
It is that willingness to play (rather than the gesture toward coming close to "truth" with which you end) which most engages me here.