The XX Factor

Editor Admits Esquire Objectifies Women, Then Rationalizes Like Crazy

Alex Bilmes, reluctant truth teller

Photo by Tim Whitby/Getty Images

Esquire UK editor Alex Bilmes got in some hot water this week when, on a panel about feminism’s conflicts with advertising, he admitted that his magazine objectifies women. As The Guardian writes,

“The women we feature in the magazine are ornamental,” he said, speaking at the Advertising Week Europe conference in London on Tuesday. “I could lie to you if you want and say we are interested in their brains as well. We are not. They are objectified.”

He went on to compare pictures of women to pictures of “cool cars,” which is to say that the models are presented to men as trophies and objects for use, instead of people. The comment has churned up outrage, but really, we should be happy that Bilmes was being, to use his own words, “more honest.” Nearly everyone is or has been complicit with sexism on some level, but almost no one admits it. (Hence, self-satirizing situations like doting, subservient housewives being presented as “feminists” in the media or people who voted against the Violence Against Women Act denying that they have a problem with women.) Seeing someone admit outright that his magazine deliberately objectifies female models is refreshing. Bilmes even used the word objectified correctly, to mean “reducing to an object,” rather than simply looking at with lust.

Had he left it at that, I would have applauded him and moved on. Sadly, however, having admitted to perpetuating sexism, Bilmes then tried to rationalize it with two of the most illogical sexist excuses in circulation: That’s just how men are and women do it, too! He trotted out the latter when he accused women’s magazines of also objectifying women, as if the practice becomes less, not more, objectionable for being ubiquitous. And his version of excuse number one went like this:

The fact is that men regard women—heterosexual men—regard women in many different ways. They’re our sisters, our daughters, our wives, our mothers. And we do see them as three dimensional human beings. But there are certain times when we want to look at them because they’re sexy.

Pointing out that men notice they have female relatives is not actually an argument for the claim that men see women as “three dimensional human beings.” The sisters, daughters, wives and mothers are still defined strictly by the men in their lives. And again, there’s no reason to think that because a man finds a woman sexy, he is forced to view her as an object for use, instead of another human being he can fantasize about doing things with. Not all sexiness is objectification. Instead of punting blame around or treating sexism as inevitable, why not have a more honest conversation about why it’s so profitable to objectify women? Then, just maybe, we could move on to the harder conversation about what it would take to change that.