Dr William Pawlett
FHM’s Top 100 Sexiest Women 2013
FHM’s top 100 sexiest women – decided by popular vote and featuring the likes of Mila Kunis and Kelly Brook – is undoubtedly commercially successful, but how might we think critically about this publication and its success? There is a now standard critique of such publications running along the lines that such sexualised images of women are demeaning and exploitative – primarily of the women photographed but also of the men who buy such magazines. Yet, critiques of this sort have lost ground in recent years as both male and female pundits (some claiming to be feminist) have argued that the women featured are displaying a new assertiveness, a liberation, that they are exercising power over men and are fashioning careers for themselves on terms, more or less, of their own choosing. There is something of a deadlock between these two views, so how might we re-think these issues beyond this impasse?
Firstly, if we place the FHM 100 sexiest women in a much broader historical context it becomes clear that there is a very long tradition of concern over images and their power to mislead or corrupt. For example, the Old Testament issues a clear prohibition on images, images of male and female bodies as well as of the “graven images” of false idols. By the 19thcentury erotic art, including studies of the nude, were being distinguished from pornography on the basis that art enables a detached aesthetic reflection that appealed to the intellect, while pornography seeks to enflame the senses provoking an immediate reaction which overwhelms the intellect. More recently it has become fashionable to claim that the only real difference between erotica and pornography is the social class of the consumer.
If we examine FHM’s 100 sexiest women we find that the images are surprisingly tame, or rather that they are both prim and prurient. There is no nudity and actually not that much flesh is on display; if underwear is revealed it is pinned or taped into position to prevent any unseemly revelations. Does this suggest that the magazine is erotic rather than pornographic? – Not at all. The images on display are so carefully constructed, so stage-managed in that they play to the recognised ‘strengths’ of each model, so stereotypical that they do not encourage or invite the reflection, imagination or seduction associated with erotica. Instead, the images seem only to seek to verify or justify the inclusion of the various candidates within the ‘Top 100’; that Mila really deserved to be voted eighteen places ahead of Beyoncé etc. There is something of the marketing brochure or the curriculum vitae about this publication with Kunis et al struggling hard, with their photographers, make-up crews and publicists, to convince us that they are among the ‘100 sexiest women in the world’.
Neither erotic nor pornographic and beyond any easy distinction between the liberatory and the exploitative, the publication is nevertheless a reflection of current times: the choking atmosphere of competitiveness, the meaningless abstraction of rankings and league tables, the parodies of democracy, the desperate uncertainties of status, identity and sexuality and, finally, the reduction of all values to that of commercial success.
Dr William Pawlett, Senior Lecturer in Media, Communications and Cultural Studies. William's teaching areas include a module, based on his research, entitled Body, Sexuality and Identity, as well as final year modules on Global Media/Global Culture and Media, Consumerism and the Body.