Esquire UK editor Alex Bilmes has kicked up a stir by making the subtext of his publication text—more specifically by saying at a conference in London that “I could lie to you if you want and say we are interested in [women’s] brains as well. We are not. They are objectified.” His remarks may have seemed crude. But as a gallery of vintage Esquire covers pulled together by BuzzFeed makes clear, Bilmes was squarely in keeping with his publication’s tradition. Apparently, gazing bug-eyed at a beautiful woman has always been a good look for sophisticated gentlemen, no matter the year or season.
Many of the early covers featured the Esquire mascot, Esky, a Claymation fellow with eyes open so wide they appear to be lidless, and a straw-colored moustache. Sometimes he’s surrounded by beautiful women, burying him in sand at the beach or enjoying the spray at the prow of a boat. But far more often, he’s stealing a peek, whether he’s ogling the low neckline of his partner in a duet, ignoring his age-appropriate wife for a younger beauty, or using his job as a beauty pageant judge to cop a feel while measuring a contestant.
By contemporary standards, Esky looks like a perv, and even a little pathetic. But by the 1940s, everyone else had gotten in on the act that he pioneered. Football players at the line were distracted by a chipper cheerleader. In 1967, a so-called gentleman in a suit and hat cops a feel from a young lady in a sherbert dress. The magazine even started giving advice on things like “The New Intimacy,” a story with a cover line that promised readers they’d learn “How to frisk, wallow, rub, etc…” A cover on an excerpt of Gay Talese’s book on the sexual revolution, Thy Neighbor’s Wife, is promoted as “Gay Talese On The Man Who Fell In Love With This Picture.”
Once readers were trained up, Esky and his surrogates disappeared from the cover, and the women left alone on it began talking directly to readers. “So You Think You’re Hip. We’ll Show You Hip…” promises one braless temptress in a top hat and carrying a cane. A girl from 1980, looking directly out from the cover, is thinking “I have a good job and a condo on the beach. I run four miles a day and play tennis twice a week. I’m in perfect health, and my roller skates cost $100. I guess you could say I’m unhappy.”
For a brief moment, it seemed, Esquire women were in conversation with the men who are reading about them. But it didn’t last long. Women became items on a list in “Women We Love…And Women We Don’t.” Robert Mapplethorpe’s vision defined a naked Susan Sarandon for “Unforgettable Women.” And by 1995 Demi Moore’s value was not as an actress, but as “The Last Pinup.” By 1999, a woman wasn’t even a whole person with “The Triumph of Cleavage Culture.” Esquire men don’t have to talk to the women on their magazine covers any more. The pin-ups, like the girls that Esky looked at and frolicked with, have been so reduced to object status they might as well be made of clay.