Despite its claims to being an “alternative” publication, the LA Weekly traffics in some of the most conventional tropes of mainstream media. Rather than presenting a true alternative to the Hollywood image factory, with its endlessly objectified female bodies, and rigid beauty standards, the Weekly offers a hipper, edgier mirror image of that same value system.
An average issue of the LA Weekly typically features a cover design with an image of a sexy woman (often unrelated to the topic of the cover story), and a back page ad from American Apparel’s notoriously skeezy ad department. Inside, one finds dozens of ads for plastic surgery, liposuction and related services. Much of the ad revenue, judging from the paper’s back pages, also seems to come from the sex industry. In short, your average issue of the LA Weekly is a soft-core sandwich, with some local politics, arts and culture coverage tucked in between the surgically-modified (and ‘shopped) tits and ass.
Above: The front & back cover of the July 29, 2010 issue.
This phenomenon is often justified with the axiom that “sex sells,” a statement that combines biological determinism with free market tautology. Even if you accept this explanation at face value, there’s another question: Yes, but whose sex gets sold? The answer is almost always women’s. Just as in mainstream media, men are rarely sexualized on the cover of the LA Weekly.
This doublestandard is not just confined to print media. It’s actually enforced and codified at every level of the entertainment industry. In my history of performing in Los Angeles, I have been explicitly told by bookers from two different “alternative” venues, that female nudity is welcome (encouraged even) onstage, while male nudity is forbidden. That’s right. Men aren’t allowed to get naked on their stages, even when audiences will pay to see it. So much for the free market.
We see this same hypocrisy in the way the MPAA doles out ratings for movies– full frontal female nudity can safely pass with an R, while a visible penis often means the NC-17 kiss of death. In fact, the MPAA now goes out of its way to warn parents about the special risk of exposing their children to “male nudity.” Many Americans like to mock Muslims for the prevalence of the hijab. One might ask why Hollywood is so demure when it comes to male nudity.
99 Essentialist Covers of the LA Weekly
Rather than generalize about this state of affairs, I decided to gather some actual data. So, I looked at the 99 most recent covers of the LA Weekly. You can too! They’re all archived here. These issues were published from April 23, 2009 to May 31, 2011. What follows are my findings and some subjective impressions.
Of the 99 covers, 12 do not depict people. In another 7, it is hard to determine the gender. 2 covers depict children. In total, 21 covers were exempted from this analysis.
That leaves 78 covers in which the gender of the adult subject or subjects is identifiable.
Who is sexy?
Of 78 covers, 30 depict a sexualized woman. Just 4 of those women are also the subject of the cover story.
Of 78 covers, 12 depict a non-sexualized woman, including one trans woman. 8 of those women are also the subject of the cover story.
From this, we can conclude that a woman is most likely to end up on the cover of the LA Weekly if she is (a) “sexy” and (b) not being written about inside the paper. Those rare women who both landed the cover and the cover story were most often musicians, though in two cases, they were prostitutes. This is the exceptional case, where a sexy woman on the cover is also the subject.
Are men sexy?
Men are pictured on 48 covers, usually as the subject of the article, or related to the article in some way.
Out of all the covers, just 5 depict a sexualized man. 4 of them represent gay sexuality. (Straight men are now so oppressed that they can’t even be sex objects on the cover of a newsweekly!) Here they are:
The Boxer is shirtless, as boxers usually are. But I’ll give this round to the Weekly. Sexy boxer is sexy.
These gay men are generically sexy. Sorta.
These cartoon renderings of man on man action both depict female voyeurs. I think the woman’s presence acts as a beard, negating gay anxiety for the spectator. Not coincidentally, one of the articles is about slashfic. In any case, the message here is more funny ha-ha than sexy.
And now a missed opportunity…
You might think that the Weekly’s “Sex in this City” issue would be a good chance to depict a sexy dude. After all, more than half of LA’s population (and presumably the Weekly’s readers) are women. Wouldn’t they want to see a hunky guy grace the cover? Isn’t it their pocketbooks that those vaginoplasty ads are targeting? Regrettably, while this woman is seen stripping off her stockings, the man is disguised head to toe in a rabbit costume. A carrot for the furry demographic? Or is the bunny burqa enforcing a showbiz fatwa against depictions of male nudity?
What is sexy?
Damn near everything. The LA Weekly can sex up any story.
Murder is sexy! The subjects of these stories were men who killed and/or raped women, so surely we need sexy victims, to see the stories through the killer’s eyes.
Ibogaine– the experimental treatment for heroin addiction– is apparently sexy! This woman is not in the article, nor is there any description of naked people. Or, regrettably, monkeys.
Overpopulation is sexy! Why not?
The music site Buddyhead is sexy. That’s the site’s founder, Travis Keller with the spray can. But whose crack is he looking at?
Food is Sexy! Jonathan Gold’s restaurant reviews are very sensual. But you’ll never see this Pulitzer Prize winning hedonist on the cover.
Art is sexy. Hey, this buxom beauty with the come hither gaze is already in the canon!
Books are sexy. Yep.
And somehow related: Afros are sexy. Well, Afro wigs.
Sometimes, the Weekly finds a clever way to put a sexy woman on the cover. This article about a bogus child sex trafficking panic, which mistook adults for children, gives the paper all the justification it needs for a cleverly sexy cover.
The word “objectification” may not be precise enough. In many cases, it would be better to call women’s bodies a design element, as they frequently make a convenient spot for text. The Weekly has a particular fondness for slapping a headline along a woman’s exposed back, as in this bizarre toxic mold cover art from 2008, or on the chest as in this cover story about The Hills.
Judging from the Weekly’s track record, indeed anything can be sexy. I would not be surprised to see subjects like earthquake preparedness, school overcrowding, or the 99 essential food trucks sexed up on a future cover.
What About Diversity?
The imagery on the cover of the LA Weekly isn’t just female, it’s also heteronormative, white and reflects a set of rigid notions of beauty (this cover story on Beth Ditto is the rare exception.) The lack of diverse images is especially disappointing when one considers the incredible diversity of Los Angeles. Nearly half of the City’s residents identify as Latino or Hispanic. More than 11% are black. There is a huge gay, lesbian and trans population. People from these demographic groups rarely find themselves represented on the cover of the Weekly, and when they do, it’s in very specific contexts.
Of 78 covers, 18 pictured at least one person of color. In 12 of these, this person is also the subject of the story. Of these, 9 are profiles of musicians. Only one is a woman.
This profile of funk legend Georgia Ann Muldrow is the sole instance out of all 99 covers, in which a woman of color appears on the cover and is also the subject of the story. Note that they found a convenient spot for the headline too– the recurring exotic Afro.
Though many African American, Latino and a few Asian men appear on these covers, none, with the previously noted exception of boxer/politician Manny Pacquiao is sexualized. Sexy women of color, however, appear often, though rarely with any direct connection to the subject.
This expose about the murder of a woman at a “south of the border style” speakeasy in Los Angeles is a good example. The sexy woman on the cover is not an artist’s rendition of the murder victim, nor a photo of anyone profiled in the piece. She’s just a sexy hook for a rather grim story of murder and underworld corruption.
Another victim. This story about corruption in Los Angeles high schools depicts model Charita Mertz reflected in the sunglasses of a predatory cop. The article itself is about a police officer who attempted to assault “an attractive blonde senior.” (As we learned in the case of Lara Logan, it’s always important to note when victims of sexual assault are attractive.)
Middle Eastern, South Asian and Arab women are not depicted on any of the covers. Yet, for this profile of Jillian Lauren, a white American author who wrote a memoir about her stint in the harem of the Sultan of Brunei, the LA Weekly appears to have darkened her skin and styled her in Orientalist drag.
So, what’s wrong with being sexy?
That’s the usual response to critiques like mine. Of course, nothing is wrong with being sexy, when the subject has something to do with sex. Some porn is lovely. Pornographic advertising, not so lovely. A sexy cover story about a sexy someone? Fine. A sexy cover story about toxic mold or serial murder? Just plain stupid. And why is it only women (and sometimes) gay men who are chosen to signify sexy?
I don’t claim to know how design decisions get made at the LA Weekly. I have noticed that ever since the Phoenix-based New Times media chain gobbled up the Weekly and numerous other regional papers, their covers have gotten considerably trashier. What’s the idea behind this? Here’s a clue.
On February 8th, the Seattle Weekly ran this cover to tout an article about their new medical marijuana column. Diane Sosne, a registered nurse and union leader wrote to the paper to complain about the “sexy nurse” imagery, which she said was disrespectful to her profession. Staff writer Curtis Cartier published the letter and then replied with a condescending rebuttal which began by paying lip service to his respect for nurses and then continued with this lame apologia:
“So with that same spirit of professional understanding, I’m hoping that you can respect us and others in our profession, who know that picking a good cover image is crucial in getting people to, well, read our publication.
As Mr. Elliott writes and you point out: ‘Seattle’s lively medical-marijuana scene can be quite entertaining.’ It can indeed. And Steve’s gripping prose and wealth of insight explains that point beautifully. But putting an image of a middle-aged white guy on the cover, or a generic pot-leaf graphic, or something else lame, runs the risk of failing to inspire anyone to actually pick up the paper and enjoy said prose and insight.
That’s not to mention that the whole sexy-nurse thing is a cat that was let out of the bag a long time ago. Sure, it’s mildly degrading to the nursing profession, but…”
I have a hunch Cartier’s rebuttal sums up the general attitude at these publications. His readers don’t want to see middle-aged white guys on the cover. His readers are middle aged white guys. And to get them to read his publication, instead of say Maxim or something, he’s gotta deliver the T&A. Sure, the covers might be degrading, stupid or even bizarre non-sequitirs. But he didn’t invent the sexy nurse stereotype and besides, didn’t you hear that print media is dying? What are you bugging him for?
This is, no doubt, the same calculus which informs Arianna Huffington’s decision to fill the right column of her political news site with sexist linkbait, while chastising critics for actually clicking on it.
Maybe they’re right. Perhaps their publications will go belly up without all this T&A. But somehow I doubt it. Instead, I think it suggests that these editors are worried that their content alone simply isn’t good enough to attract readers.
But beneath the economic anxiety and the creative laziness lies something deeper– an unwillingness to confront privilege. It’s so much easier to believe that women are meant to be sex objects, and that the routine use of sexualized images of women is driven by market forces or ancient biological drives and not by a patriarchal society, which extends even to the hallowed hipster hallways of our alternative press.
UPDATE: A reader notes that I should clarify that the LA Weekly & Seattle Weekly are actually owned by Village Voice Media. New Times merged with VVM in 2006. As this article notes: “The merged company, which will continue to use the name Village Voice Media, is effectively an acquisition by New Times, whose current shareholders will own 62 percent of the new company and hold five of nine board seats.”