If you Google the phrase, “Woman on the cover of,” what images do you think come up? The results are very similar-looking images. You see a female actress, musician, athlete or starlet sprawled across the cover, barely dressed, and provocatively posing. This is a hyper-sexualized portrayal of women’s bodies that has become the focal point for our patriarchal capitalist society. I had never thought much about what magazine covers represented, or how these images affected me, until I took some Communication courses in college. I was, and in many ways still am, a pawn in the marketing of young women who buy magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Vogue. How could I ever begin to resist and change these images?
It is far easier to do so than I first imagined. The process began with deconstructing or engaging in an “oppositional gaze” at what I saw in these photographs. The magazine cover that really sticks out to me involved a photo shoot for British GQ, which featured Lana Del Ray, a pop musician. The cover showed Del Ray sitting on the ground with her knees tucked up toward her chest and her arms clasped around her legs. Her hair, makeup, and accessories are completely done up, but she is undressed. In fact, her legs are positioned to cover her naked body. This image fixes Del Ray as a sexual object to be looked at. Renowned black feminist writer Bell Hooks would attribute this provocative use of Del Ray’s image as a way to “sell a product” in white patriarchal capitalist culture. Hooks points out that black women are even more often portrayed in media as the “jezebel” or prostitute than is white womanhood. Therefore she calls for black female spectators to oppose these images through an oppositional gaze. But why does GQ, a magazine for men, portray women this way?
Laura Mulvey theorized the concept of the oppressive “male gaze” by examining famous films. She found women are usually displayed as erotic spectacles: from pin-ups to the striptease, woman’s role is to play to make desire. No matter if viewers are men or women, they see women this way and expect them to act accordingly. I agree that we live in a world where women are pressured to fit this image. So much of what we see on television and in magazines, like GQ, are women wearing tight short dresses (if they’re wearing clothes at all) and walking by a crowd where everyone turns their heads to look at her. This also occurs in everyday life at Keene State College when girls are stared at on Appian Way or at parties.
But women like me are not objects that are just meant to attract the “male gaze.” We do no not exist to be controlled by this idea that everything we do is done to please men. Cases like Del Ray’s GQ cover must end. Media have to focus on showing women in stronger and more favorable lights just like their male counterparts. A healthy society starts with a healthy relationship between the viewer and the subject, and an oppositional look at Hollywood starlets could spark this change.
Jessica Waldo can be contacted at email@example.com