Orna-mental by Alex Bilmes

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The Esquire editor (pictured above) responds.

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Possibly it was unwise to follow my videotaped assertion on Tuesday that the role of women in the pages of Esquire was mostly “ornamental” with a tweet – in reply to my girlfriend and a friend of ours (also female), who were quite understandably enjoying a laugh at my expense – explaining that I’d been misquoted; what I’d actually said is “mental”. Yeah, OK, well it seemed funny at the time.

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In any case, by that stage the Guardian, a newspaper whose online comment section is apparently edited by the cast of Girls (they fucking wish) had gone into overdrive. Two longish stories about me were commissioned and published and followed up by papers and magazines - online only, of course, reflecting the real importance of the story - here and in the US and Canada and doubtless beyond. (Those who missed the scintillating media story of the week can catch up here, there and everywhere).

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I called the Guardian, I emailed (twice) offering to elaborate – for a fee, obviously, I still believe in journalism – but the comments were coming thick and fast and comment, as the Guardian keeps telling us, is free. So I didn't get an answer. Except from the free commenters, who seemed to be split 50-50 between those attacking me and those attacking those attacking me. Best line of all: “Alex Bilmes is kind of a Volvo.”

I have been the focus of these hysterical online dramas before. I’m not Piers Morgan (although apparently I look a bit like him) but I do think they are quite good fun, up to a point. I once innocently opined that the portly indie rocker Beth Ditto is not especially talented or interesting, and on another occasion I controversially asserted that that thin boy in Twilight is not a very good actor. Digital bedlam ensued on both occasions, with pixellated opprobrium heaped on me for my supposedly radical chauvinism. In my downstairs loo there used to be a framed printout of an item from Perez Hliton’s [sic] gossip blog. It read: “Alex Blimes [sic] is a douche.” (I got rid of it when Perez Hliton stopped being famous).

So what was I saying? Oh, yeah: ornamental. Despite the cavalier attitude to public speaking, I do occasionally give this stuff some thought, and I stand by what I said, albeit while accepting I didn’t put it very well. And I do find the response to a simple statement of fact slightly baffling.

Here’s what I was trying to get across before we ran out of time.

Esquire is a men’s magazine, for men. It's no more for women than Cosmo is for men. When we are considering whether or not to photograph a woman for the cover our first question to ourselves is: is she conventionally sexually attractive? In other words, is she likely to appeal aesthetically to the biggest number of potential male readers? There are other criteria: does she have cultural currency, do we like her stuff, is she worth celebrating, will she agree to it, will she say something funny/entertaining/enlightening? But most of all, we wonder: is she hot? Will our readers agree that she’s hot? Ornamental, see?

Can anyone truly be surprised about this? Did everyone think it was an accident that the women who appear on the covers of men’s magazines are uniformly ridiculously good looking? Do they actually think it’s somehow wrong that we find these women attractive? Do they find the male libido revolting? What exactly is the problem here?

So, in the past year we’ve had six women on the cover, out of twelve: Rihanna, Victoria Pendleton, Cameron Diaz, Miranda Kerr and our current cover star, Rachel Weisz. Two actors, a pop star, a model and a sportswoman. All accomplished women in their fields, ranging in age from twenties to forties, and all abundantly sexually attractive in a conventional way. And yes, all chosen for their decorative and ornamental properties, even in the cases where we celebrate them for much more than that: for their talent, their success, and so on. Again, I make no apology for this. Why should I? I like looking at pictures of conventionally attractive women, and so do Esquire readers. In fact, I’m hard pressed to imagine a heterosexual man who doesn’t like looking at pictures of conventionally attractive women. Lots of women like looking at them, too, by the way.

In a different way, also like lots of women, I like looking at pictures of conventionally attractive men. Which is why the men we photograph for the cover – Daniel Craig, David Beckham, Jon Hamm, et al – are unfailingly equally easy on the eye. They are being used for ornamental, decorative purposes, too. To sell the magazine. They are chosen because they look glamorous, cool. Like a car, as I said the other day. Admittedly we don't ask them to take their clothes off but that's because our readers don't want to see them half-naked. If they did, we would.

As with the women we feature, our readers’ interest, everyone's interest (or lack of interest) in the lives, the work, the opinions – the brains – of these men is a secondary consideration. We all know this, right? Men who look like me do not appear on the covers of style and fashion magazines for a very good reason, no matter how interesting we are (in my case, clearly absolutely bloody fascinating). I don’t want to look at men who look like me any more than you do. I want to look at men who look like movie stars.

Now, back to girls, and Girls. The freshest, most interesting, most relevant, most distinctive, most provocative, coolest, hippest, sassiest young woman’s voice in pop culture in 2013 doesn’t belong to Rihanna or Cara Delevingne or Taylor Swift or insert name of blandly attractive covergirl of the moment here.

It belongs to Lena Dunham, the writer and star of that exceptionally smart TV show. Dunham is funny, clever, popular and she speaks directly to the experience of a certain kind of twentysomething woman (white, western, middle class, etc) – or so I’m reliably informed.

So how come she is yet to appear on the cover of a British women’s magazine – or an American women’s magazine, so far as I can establish? Could it be that she is not conventionally sexually attractive enough? Too fat, too awkward, too frumpy?

I can’t answer that question. I don’t edit a women’s magazine. But I can speak for Esquire, and then maybe you can draw your own conclusions about Lena Dunham’s invisibility at the newsstand.

Why haven’t I asked Lena Dunham to be on the cover of Esquire? I could give you some mealy mouthed reasons: like, her show is aimed at young women, not men, and as a result many of our readers will not have heard of her or, if they have, will not be interested in her. But the main reason is that she doesn’t look like an Esquire covergirl. Girls wouldn’t work if she did. That’s kind of the point of it: most young women are not, never have been and never will be the poised, perfect, blemish free, sexually confident, expensively dressed and groomed creatures depicted in glossy magazines (men’s magazines and women’s magazines), in advertising, and elsewhere in the media. Lena Dunham is a brilliant, brazen, necessary corrective to that. This makes me want to watch her show but it doesn’t make me want to put her on the cover of Esquire. It’s not my job to provide positive role models for young women, or to challenge the homogeneity of representations of young women in the media. I’m a men’s magazine editor. I supply entertainment for men.

I’ve explained, hopefully, why the women on our covers look like they do. It’s up to others to explain why the same aesthetics apply to so many women who appear in newspapers, on TV, in advertising, and in women’s magazines.

By Alex Bilmes

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