Judging a Magazine by its Cover: Vanity Fair, Sports Illustrated and Time’s Cover Triumphs, Faux Pas and Travesties

They say to never judge a book by its cover, and I have to agree. Except when it comes to having a movie poster on a book jacket, there’s no reason to think that whatever the publisher used to advertise a tome is going to resemble the work inside, and it shouldn’t be a factor in the month’s Barnes and Noble purchases.*

*Yes, I’ve gotten them down to a month instead of a week.

When it comes to national consumer magazines, however, that’s different.

This summer, Rolling Stone issued one of its more controversial covers that featured Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in what many called a “glamour shot” taken from his Twitter account. Like the good opinionated and educated journalist I am, I went on to write about it, arguing in favor of the editorial decision and actually calling RS out on calling him “The Bomber” when he hadn’t been convicted yet. My old digs Vox Magazine even referred to the post in their coverage of Columbians’ (and, in my case, ex-Columbians’) reaction. If the situation did anything, it was to teach me, my readers and the rest of the world that magazine covers matter. They matter a lot.

Which is why the last few weeks in the magazine industry has been so controversial, maddening and fun to discuss.

Vanity Fair Gets Less Vain

Every year I wish I had a Vanity Fair subscription when I shell out my five bucks for the Hollywood edition, which comes with a trifold cover featuring the top talent of the year. The best one in my collection was from 2011, featuring 14 fresh faces in Hollywood and one veteran (note Robert Duvall lurkingly tending bar in the back).

Vanity Fair 2011
Can I join that party?

It also only featured one-and-a-half black actors (Anthony Mackie and the beautiful Rashida Jones, daughter of Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton). The rest were all lily white, a trend that has forever plagued VF‘s pages and covers.

2012 was a little better, including a Colombian
2012 was a little better, including the Colombian Sophia Vegara and 12 Years a Slave‘s Adepero Oduye.
And then 2013 was no differ
And then 2013 was no different.

But this year the magazine has finally decided that black actors deserve a place in the spotlight, too, and has delivered a cover not only features more minorities but also puts them on the top panel instead of hiding them in the second and third pages.

Ah, much better.
Ah, much better.

Chiwetel Ejiofor of 12 Years a Slave and Idris Elba of Mandela: Long Road to Freedom join Julia Roberts and George Clooney front-and-center, making the 20th anniversary of the magazine’s Hollywood edition the first to include two black actors so prominantly. And it gets better as the panels unfold — Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o and Naomie Harris take over the middle as Chadwick Boseman (Jackie Robinson in the painfully overlooked 42) shines as the only man in the final section.

VF would probably argue that the reason for the number of African-American actors on the cover of the issue is because of the strength of Black performances this year — and I’ll call foul on that excuse immediately. In 2012, Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis were impeccable in The Help. Three years before that, Gabourey Sidibe was precious in Precious, but never even got close to the cover, which was dominated by thin white actresses. Then again, you have to wonder if that was because of her dark complexion or weight.

It’s like VF finally heard our cries and actually did something about them, which is more than I can say for other magazines this year…

Bring on the Plastic

…Such as Sports Illustrated. This time of year also brings with it the SI swimsuit edition, and 2014 marks the controversial annual pinup collection’s 50th anniversary. Compared to most years, the three-model photo is pretty tame, showing women from behind rather than emphasizing their Photoshop-perfected cleavage.

Now we just get to see their perfect, Photoshop-enhanced
Now we just get to see their Photoshop-perfected hineys.

But even with this different pose, it’s more of the same. White women, stick thin and bronzed to perfection, all in the name of giving men something nice to look at. I’ve often felt that the SI swimsuit edition is more guilty of objectifying women than full-out pinup magazines like Maxim and Playboy because it reaches a wider audience. Men who get Playboy know what they’re getting. Boys who get SI because they like sports are automatically subjugated to images like those in the Swimsuit Edition because it’s part of the subscription. SI goes on newsstands where everyone can see the cover — including younger audiences easily swayed by media portrayal.*

*That reminds me — to the Facebook user who commented “I don’t think kids are as manipulated by media body image as everyone thinks: tell that to the 75 percent of 10-year-old girls whose worst fear is getting fat.

But this year, it’s not just half-naked women found on the cover of SI. The publication teamed up with Mattel, the maker of Barbie, to put together a campaign called “#unapologetic,” which acts as a defense against how both companies have completely screwed up how women look at their bodies. Not only is it a somewhat failed Twitter trend (I haven’t seen the hashtag trend since it started), but it also came with an SI swimsuit cover featuring the Plastic Princess herself:

All Hail
They still probably Photoshopped her. I’ve never seen a Barbie with that perfect of hair.

My first reaction was, “Well, if your models are all going to look fake anyway…” I wrote for Lydia Magazine on the subject in my new column, the Lydia Lexicon, that “it’s a pretty gutsy move to make, essentially sexualizing one of America’s most famous toy icons and replacing plasticized models with real plastic — it’s like they’re admitting that their standard of beauty can only be found in the toy aisle.” It’s as impossible to look like Barbie (and those who have tried have really failed — just Google Image Search “human Barbie” and have fun with the nightmares) as it is to look like Kate Upton after she’s been airbrushed and slimmed down courtesy of Adobe Creative Suite, so we might as well point that out.

But the problem is that although most of us recognize that fact — be it one that SI and Mattel meant to convey or not — the little girls who see their favorite toy on the cover of a magazine while Mom’s checking out at Jewel aren’t going to immediately see it that way. They’re going to look at their dolls and say, “If I want to be famous, which is something Disney says I should be, then I have to look like my doll.” I don’t know if that’s worse than them seeing (apparently not skin-and-bones?) Kate Upton in the tundra wearing nothing but bikini bottoms and an unzipped winter parka. At least Barbie’s dressed for the weather.

Meanwhile, down the hall…

Time Warner media, which publishes SI and (obviously) Time Magazine, also stepped in it (or, rather, stepped on it) with their cover advertising their coverage of Hillary Clinton’s potential presidential run. Hillary’s always been the brunt of jokes about her appearance and demeanor, but a respected news magazine like Time is the last place those punchlines should land.

The cover featured a photo illustration of a pantsuit and kitten-heeled-clad leg striding over a male candidate. It’s still up for debate whether the man is holding on or has just been crushed — from the cutline “Can Anyone Stop Hillary?” and lack of a Tarantino-style blood trail, it seems like the former is more likely.

What, did they get this out of a stock photo database search for “feminism?”

My friend Abby made the mistake of posting Feministing.com’s “#notbuyingit” story on her Facebook page. I call it a “mistake” because she knows me and my inability to let sexist comments go. So when one friend from high school commented ” I am sorry, maybe it is just because I am male but I don’t see the sexism. Can you please explain?” I naturally went on the feminist-journalist-must-educate-the-masses warpath. On the outset, Time Magazine classified Hillary as nothing but a power-hungry woman who emasculates men rather than being a savvy politician diplomat playing the same games as her opponents.

Another high school acquaintance disagreed with me, writing: “Politics are, and have been, characterized by propaganda, mud slinging, and general defamatory statements. If Hilary (sic) has hopes of running, this is something we all need to get used to. That’s not sexism. That’s politics.”

The first friend agreed with the second, saying that he felt like the image was simply showing one person being uncatchable by another, and that it just so happened that the shoe was one typically worn of a woman. To him,”sometimes we become over-zealous in fixing a terrible problem that we start to see it everywhere in the smallest things to the point where the smallest triggers cause a wicked knee-jerk reaction even if the actual problem isn’t there, just imagery or words often associated with it.”

Growing more and more frustrated, I texted Abby my apologies for starting a feud on her wall, no matter how civil we had kept the conversation. I don’t know if my last comment ended the thread successfully or if they just got tired of me or bored with the topic, but no one replied after I wrote this:

“If you think this is just a case of an image being taken too far, remember that graphics are the first things we as children recognize and have an overwhelming importance in our lives. That’s why magazines photoshop images, put beautiful people we should “aspire” to be on their covers and spend as much time on the visual aspects of their content as they do the written. When a man runs for president, his picture is put on the cover of the magazine. When a woman runs? She either looks blindsided like Michelle Bachman or is simply represented by her shoes, like Hillary. What kind of message is that sending to impressionable girls? Be a model, and you’ll be glammed up on the cover of Glamour. Run for president, and you’ll be personified through an Anne Klein kitten heel.”

And that’s where this whole blog entry comes together. Magazine covers do more than sell a publication (their main function). They direct our society’s way of viewing things, be it race (Vanity Fair), body image (Sports Illustrated) or gender equality (Time). The images they use can never be overanalyzed or over-scrutinized because they play such a major role in how we see ourselves fitting into the world around us, even if that world has been airbrushed and Photoshopped to pore-less, fatless, flawless perfection.

So go ahead and judge that magazine by its cover, because that’s exactly what it’s doing to you.


One Comment

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  1. Brilliant!!! Send it on to the OP-ED page of the Sun-Times and see if they print it.

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