The past year or so has been a fascinating one for the world of celebrities. COVID-19 lockdown led to a massive rewriting of the rules and expectations of fame, and that strange period of quiet forced many of us to re-examine our gossipy pasts. Really, 2021 in particular feels like the first time in quite a while that the general narrative surrounding celebrity is one of weary sympathy, a keen understanding that being famous is more likely to lead to misery than joy. From #FreeBritney to the exposing of Ellen DeGeneres’s nastiness to the Sussex exit from royal life, we’ve been surrounded by examples of how the previously accepted cruelties of celebrity life are being roundly called out or even rejected. Even the media outlets that proudly profited from this nastiness are eating crow and admitting their mistakes. Well, sort of. The point is that now, more than ever, we have the time and understanding to look back on our collective mistakes, call them out, and hopefully improve things for the next generation.
I write a newsletter dedicated to examining vintage celebrity gossip and reporting (subscribe now!), which means I spend way too much time reading immensely creepy profiles of famous women written by leering dudes. My most recent issue focused on an Esquire cover piece of Jessica Biel that often read like it was written by a serial killer. I could be here all day dissecting the ways that male-oriented publications have objectified women and the slow evolution of that trend. Instead, I want to dig into something that is, bizarrely, far nastier than even those screeds.
In 2007, Maxim, a men’s magazine, shared the illustrious winners of their annual Hot 100 list, dedicated to ‘celebrating’ the sexiest women of that year. This time, first place was occupied by Lindsay Lohan, followed by Jessica Alba, Scarlett Johansson, and Christina Aguilera. That same year, they introduced another list, this one on the ‘Unsexiest Women Alive.’ Five women were named. Britney Spears was slated for ‘filling chicken-grease-stained sweatpants on the cover of every trashy tabloid and gossip blog on the Internet’ and having ‘gained two kids, two useless ex-husbands, and about 23 pounds of Funyun pudge.’ Madonna was mocked for her ‘rapid postnuptial deterioration’ and compared to Willem Dafoe. Sandra Oh, star of a series described as ‘a show about doctors is a show about sappy chick doctors we´re forced to watch or else our girlfriends won´t have sex with us’, was nicknamed ‘Dr. McSkinny’ with a ‘cold bedside manner and boyish figure.’ Amy Winehouse was picked apart for ‘her openly hemorrhaging translucent skin, rat´s nest mane and lashes that look more like surgically attached bats.’ The top spot went to Sarah Jessica Parker, who was called a ‘Barbaro-faced broad’ and compared to Secretariat.
Shockingly enough, none of this is available on Maxim’s website anymore, but the entire list has been copied to multiple sites over the past 14 years.
Even at the time, this list was considered shockingly poor taste and stunningly sexist. The same outlets who repeatedly tore into Spears and Winehouse, two troubled women evidently struggling with mental and addiction issues, drew the line with Maxim. Parker talked openly about how much the Maxim piece hurt her. Maxim then tried to make up for it — I guess that’s what I’m calling this — by naming Parker their ‘unexpected crush’ in 2008. No news on whether or not Parker told them to shove it in response.
I wanted to talk about this whole mess because it got me thinking about the ways that the continued misogyny of the press has evolved over the past two decades or so. We could be here for weeks talking about the entire history of celebrity coverage, but in terms of how the internet has shaped our understanding of it, there’s so much to mine. 2007 was a period of transition for gossip and celebrity-related reporting. MySpace was king and Twitter was the new baby of Jack Dorsey and pals that nobody outside of Silicon Valley had heard of. The blogs were highly caustic, with Perez Hilton the undisputed king of the crop thanks to his gleefully cruel posts. The dominant figures, however, were still magazines and TV, from People and Us Weekly to Entertainment Tonight and Inside Edition. This was a point in pop culture where celebrity coverage was wall-to-wall, consumed by the masses, and extremely profitable.
This was also the time of the new age of reality TV stars and the ‘all grown up’ child actors who partied hard. For a brief period, it was impossible to avoid paparazzi shots of Paris, Britney, and Lindsay hopping from bar to bar. The women were hugely sexualized and positioned as worthy of our scorn. Their weight was mocked or held up as a disgrace to all women, even though that level of skinniness remained aspirational content for practically every fashion house. Everyone engaged in this circle of human bear-baiting, with this handful of women held up as the acceptable targets. The word ‘trainwreck’ had never been more utilized in the media vernacular. It’s no surprise that Maxim felt like they were on safe ground by making that list. Why would they think they’d be singled out for doing what everyone else was?
Maxim’s harshness here is at least honest with its sadistic intentions. They want to be mean. This is typical of the fratty tone of many men’s magazines from this era, near-identical to the sleazier rhetoric of ‘lads’ mags’ but with glossier photography. I have a painfully strong memory of one of the more popular British women’s weeklies doing a front cover on the ‘muffin tops’ of celebrities, which it then defended as a display of body positivity. Tell that to your cover artists who used graphics that pointed to women’s stomachs as if they were crime scenes. There seemed to be an entire ecosystem of D-List British celebrities whose endless cycle of weight loss victory and gaining ‘shame’ offered regular content for such publications. Even now, as the glossies embrace the most diluted and capitalism-friendly version of body positivity (white, cis, hourglass-shaped, seldom over a size 16), it’s not as though they’ve dropped the diet talk or scrutiny over others’ forms. Maxim derided Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears’s bodies but so did all of the women’s mags. Insults towards the latter were often accompanied with denigrating comments about her parenting abilities or near-cackling reminders of how far she’d ‘fallen.’ They would pretend these issues were about encouraging a ‘balanced debate’ by selectively publishing readers’ letters that acted as though a changing body was worthy of ‘both sides’ equivalences.
Maxim positioned itself as just highbrow enough to separate itself from the plethora of lads’ mags that polluted the shelves in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Imagine a stopgap between GQ — expensive, conservative, metropolitan — and Nuts — crude, brash, more obsessed with nipples. As the label suggests, such magazines were for ‘lads’, which generally means working-class, 20-something, obsessed with football and boobs and an aspirational sort of masculinity. Raunch was front and center, as it was in tabloid newspapers thanks to Page 3. The tone was that of the ultimate guys’ night out, one of hedonistic freedom and zero consequences. And boobs. Seriously, I cannot overstate just how breast-obsessed this entire era was. I remember the ‘war’ of cosmetic enhancements between Katie Price and Jodie Marsh, and how giddily covered it was by magazines for both men and women.
One magazine, Loaded, even bragged that its entire aim was ‘the pursuit of sex, drink, football and less serious matters.’ Its founder, James Brown, said he set up the magazine for ‘my mates who liked music, clubbing, women, comedy and football.’ There was certainly a gap in the market for a brand of male-oriented media that didn’t focus entirely on the monied, but often these magazines felt like mean parodies of working-class masculinity. Women were treated as sex objects on those pages, but it’s not as though men were seen as three-dimensional beings either. I don’t say that to excuse their misogyny but merely to point out how the stark gender binary offered by money-driven media is reinforced. They all made money from denigrating women, even the ones made for us.
The era of the so-called lads’ mag is basically over, but its influence is evident. Especially in Britain, the sheer force of their particular strain of sexist banter has simply found pride of place online. Mostly, changes in publishing and marketing forced those blokey sites to take a new direction. LADbible started out with sexist content such as Cleavage Thursday but quickly changed to run-of-the-mill viral content and Buzzfeed-esque Facebook feed filler once it realized how to game the system. According to a 2015 piece by the Financial Times, magazines like Nuts and Maxim saw losses of over 80% to their readership. You can get boobs for free online and a Reddit thread full of all the misogyny you desire.
14 years on from the Unsexiest Women Alive piece, I wonder how much has truly changed. The British edition of Vogue thoroughly entered the 21st-century thanks to editor Edward Enninful’s diversification of its staff and content. Even the most watered-down version of body positivity and money-friendly intersectionality offers the briefest glimmers of evolution to media. As with all things in this field, change is slow and maddeningly incremental. I doubt we’ll ever see a list like this again in print but check the clickbait ads on any site and you’ll find a barrage of shock-horror over actresses who have dared to age publicly or former cover girls who no longer have six-packs. There is still a lot of cash to be made here. Misogyny is endlessly profitable. Nowadays, it’s just glossier than ever.
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