Thank you Wired. Thank you so much for the boobs cover. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. I was racking my brain trying to think of a lighthearted topic for a Friday column, and there you come, smacking me in the face. At first I thought it was just silly, but with all the attention the cover has been getting, I couldn’t look away. So I’m going to tackle this topic head on. I’m going to grab it with both hands. Motorboat. Sorry, couldn’t think of a stupid pun so I just stuck that in.
Wired has a fascinating story on how the advances learned in the science of breast augmentation might have long term benefits in the field of stem cell research. But that’s not why we’re here. The real story, unfortunately, is the cover of the magazine. Wired’s cover is a close-up shot of ample cleavage. It’s PG-13, for sure, and not R-rated. Some feminist bloggers are up in arms about the cover design, while Wired’s female staff members have posed in a group photo, each of them holding the cleavage cover up to their own chests in a move they say represents solidarity with the anonymous women depicted inside and out.
I consider myself, if not a feminist, at least a cultural critic who is informed by the processes of feminist deconstruction. I don’t ignore my own masculine sensibilities, but I try to remain sensitive to the fascinating ways in which gender, usually the male gender, dominates our cultural experience, especially as it applies to the world of technology. So, the questions to ask when looking at the controversial Wired cover are: 1. What is the cover doing? 2. Is this a problem?
Well, the answer to the first question may be obvious. Wired’s cover is attracting men. Men will see the cover, talk about it, spread it around and maybe even buy the magazine. If I were shopping at an airport convenience store (the only time I still buy magazines), and I were choosing between this issue of Wired and, say, this week’s issue of Time magazine with a joint on the cover, well — okay that might be a tough call — I’d probably pick Wired. Maybe both. Actually, I’d probably buy Newsweek, too, just in case there’s a sweet old lady in the seat next to me, and I don’t want to look like a junkie or a total pervert.
The cover is also repelling women. Maybe some women don’t care, or don’t see this as a big deal, but I think many will be repulsed by the cover. Whether or not Wired’s female audience has hang ups about nudity and sexuality, at the very least a woman will see this cover and think: “That is not for me.” It’s not just the depiction of voluptuous cleavage. It’s the way the cleavage is presented.
Wired has the cover art and the entire story online. I’m not sure if it’s printed the same in the magazine itself, with the same artwork, but there was one thing that strikes me about all of this. You never get a good look at a woman’s head and face. On the cover, all you see is cleavage and breasts. In the story, the woman who models for the photos keeps her face out of view. You see the Doctor behind the procedure in profile, but the woman is only shown from the mouth downward. You see more of her nipples than you do of her nose.
This is a textbook case of objectification. The man in this story gets a profile shot. The machine he uses is shown in its entirety. The woman? Side boob. Belly button. Cleavage. Thin arms. Red lipstick, even though she’s completely naked otherwise. The man is shown as a head, with a brain and eyes and a purple button down shirt. The woman is a collection of parts.
So why is this a problem? Who cares if Wired is targeting men? That’s most of their readership already, right?
Maybe, but why does that have to be the case? Certainly, there are magazines that I might pick up for some masculine titillation (pardon the pun). Maxim, for instance, or GQ magazine. Both are aimed at men. If Monica Bellucci wants to pose in transparent clothing in GQ magazine, it’s because she’s trying to appeal to the male audience on a sexual level. This helps her image, helps her brand. It doesn’t reduce her power or stature as a woman, instead it’s a display of raw force. Monica Bellucci can move men’s magazines, and put butts in the seats at her next film.
Is that what Wired is trying to accomplish? If so, I’ve had the wrong impression about the magazine ever since I started reading it back in 1993. Wired came out the year I was a college freshman, and I’ve been reading it, admittedly irregularly, ever since. At first I loved it because it was a magazine unafraid of throwing technological stories over my head. I could barely understand what the magazine was talking about, but I wanted to learn more. I loved it because it used technology in artwork, with the crazy, fractal-like computer images that stretched on for multiple pages. Wired was trend-setting, informative and relevant. The Wired I knew wouldn’t have to resort to silly stunts to sell magazines.
The other problem is that the story is sold on cleavage, and when you open the magazine you see clinical men and naked women. The story does talk about female researchers, but if a picture says a thousand words, the impact of the nudity is definitely greater than egalitarian text. But it’s a story about science. It’s not a story about naked women, though women play the most prominent role. With such a disparity between the sexes in technology, mathematics and the sciences, a magazine like Wired has a responsibility to not only depict women fairly and equally, but to also generate the same sort of interest in the fields of study for men and for women.
If the magazine had simply told the story, I have no doubt this would be the case. But by accompanying the tale and information with pictures of naked women, it sends a terrible signal. The fact that these are idealized, voluptuous and perfect forms only worsens the blow. The magazine is saying “Men, jump right in, the water’s fine. Women, we didn’t have you in mind, but you might like this anyway.”
The only career scientists I know personally are women. My mother-in-law and a cousin of mine are both chemists. My wife’s mother is a mass spectroscopist. She’s designed equipment that has been used on the space shuttle. She’s consulted with the Nobel committee on their awards nominations. She travels the world presenting papers and giving speeches, when she’s not in her labs at the NIH and NIDA. Johns Hopkins has, at times, begged her to return.
If my mother-in-law saw the cover of Wired, she would spit. Literally, that’s a thing she does. She spits at things she hates. She’s old school. She would certainly not pick it up and read it. But the story might be of interest to her, since she works with stem cells and tissue regeneration. Unfortunately, Wired has put up a huge sign on its cover turning her away. Now imagine how it must feel to someone who isn’t so experienced and established. My mother-in-law doesn’t need to read Wired to get inspired by science, she’s immersed in it every day. But to the girls and young women who are considering a career in genetics and biosciences, which will probably be one of the most important career paths of the next century, Wired has effectively rolled up the welcome mat and proclaimed the field a boy’s club. Sorry, if you’re not into cleavage and nipples, this isn’t for you. If you want to look into the eyes of a scientist and relate on a deep, primitive level, we have nothing here to show you except this old, white man.
Cindy Royal has an interesting take on the whole topic, with more context on the history of Wired’s covers. In the comments to her blog post, Wired Editor Chris Anderson responds with a predictable excuse. He needs to sell magazines. Which sells more magazines, my 65-year-old mother-in-law, or boobs? I think the better question is: Why did you get into the magazine business? If Anderson is so much more interested in selling sex and celebrity than coming up with a more compelling cover that doesn’t objectify and repel women, perhaps he’s working for the wrong rag?
There are plenty of magazines that sell well based on their content. But here’s an interesting secret about magazines. Sometimes, it’s not the number of copies you sell. Who you sell the magazine too is sometimes more important. A magazine needs to survive on advertising, which generates much, much more revenue than the cover cost. If magazine companies could figure out how to keep track of every single eye that flashes on every single ad, and get the magazine into your hands for free, they wouldn’t need to sell it. They could give it away.
Maybe, instead of worrying about selling thousands of copies to teenage boys who will pass them along to all their friends, Wired should target the best audience for their advertisers. With a more intelligent, equally divided audience, the magazine might become more valuable to advertisers, and bulk sales wouldn’t be so important that they had to sacrifice their integrity to make money. But if Wired keeps treating women like objects to display for sales, the audience will start treating the magazine like an object, too, and throw it away.