August 2005

Melissa Fischer


Judging a Book by Its Cover: Actually, That Should Be "Magazine"

"Judging a Book by its Cover" takes a shiny, airbrushed look at the covers of several popular magazines this month, after an encounter with one of the monthlies left this writer questioning the nature of reality. I looked through the magazine, read an article and emerged from the experience with a head full of questions--for example: Who reads this? Where can I meet and study these people? Is someone playing a joke on me?

The thing is , for some time now, I’ve been enjoying a self-imposed hiatus from most magazines aimed at my demographic--basically the “women’s interest” section. Granted, I’ve always been hypermagazinated and prone to spending hours browsing the things before running home with, in most cases, a bag of advertisements and a few worthwhile articles. Thinking back, I’d have to say that my first encounter with magazines occurred in the mid-'80s, which was also the only time I conformed to some of the ideals of beauty that most of these “women’s” magazines espouse: I weighed about 95 pounds, had fair white skin and long dark hair. Of course, I was only 12-years-old.

My mom always had the current issue of Cosmopolitan magazine, and this is the one I most remember reading.When I was 12, Cosmopolitan baffled me entirely. I couldn’t understand why such a magazine would be filled with nothing but glossy pictures of half-naked women in sexy poses. I wondered what this meant, and how images of other women figured into the rest of the magazine’s content, which basically consisted of articles about ways to get, keep or please a man.

Until last week, I had never once purchased a Cosmopolitan magazine, so I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. Even when I did buy fashion or beauty magazines, I didn’t buy Cosmo, and I eventually came to an understanding about the effect that mainstream women’s magazines had on me. I was about 20 when I read my last Vogue, or Allure, or whatever the hell it was, and when I’d finished it, I realized that I suddenly had a head filled with a to-do list of self-improvements I needed to make immediately. It didn’t matter that an hour ago I was totally acceptable. Post-Vogue, I needed a brow tweeze, haircut, bikini wax, and to cover up my premature graying, to lose 30 pounds, to get a boyfriend and start having a lot of sex all in the next few days, right away if possible. Additionally, the corners of pages were turned down to mark something I needed to make me better, like a new face powder to cover my skin, eye cream to fix my bags, the 10 pairs of shoes that would certainly be the clincher when landing that new boyfriend.

Well, I found out that nothing bad happens when you don’t keep up with the latest innovations in liposuction, or when you miss out on this year’s new black. For me, not caring one shred is the new motherfucking black. I also found out that some things are even scarier after you’ve had some time away:

August 2005
(“The Hot Issue”)
ISBN: 074851082331

So naturally I had to go back to where it all started. Cosmopolitan has supposedly changed since our first meetings in the mid-'80s, but not so much from what I can see. This cover features gorgeous, tiny, young, blonde Kate Hudson in a miniskirt and lingerie-esque top--“A Very Revealing Interview” with the actress is promised within. The background is a solid turquoise blue and creates a scintillating color scheme of migraine-inducing proportions thanks to bright yellow and neon-orange typefaces.

Luckily for me, this issue included “The Cosmo Sex Survey: The Best He’s Ever Had,” which polled 5,000 men on the things Cosmo girls need to know. I know I felt particularly enlightened when I found out that the outfit that tells most men “that the woman wearing it really loves twisting the sheets” is a baby tee and miniskirt, and that guys are most turned-off by smoking (31 percent) and least turned off by being drunk (3 percent). This is really good news for us, ladies: If we have to run around in those ridiculous outfits, at least we can still take the edge off with a fifth of vodka.

But really, who can think about sex when Denise Richards filed for divorce from Charlie Sheen? Page 152 signals the happy fulfillment of “What You’re Dying to Know About,” a column focusing this month on “Why Expectant Parents Split.” I’ve had insomnia for five weeks now, and now I know this Richards-Sheen fiasco is to blame. Not really, but one of the many reasons provided in answering the titular query is likely to have me tossing in my sleep for the next five weeks: “Women tend to have an easier time making the adjustments because of their biological drive to protect their child. But a lot of men can’t handle the pressure, whether it’s worrying about supporting the family financially or the emotional stress.”

Now, perhaps I’m indulging here, but could Cosmopolitan be for women what Details is for men? How else could you explain a headline like “She’s Pregnant--Is it Time to Split?”

June/July 2005
ISBN: 035707084350

The cover of this issue of Details features Tom Cruise looking so perplexed it would seem he’s just pulled his head out of his own ass, where it had been lodged for quite some time. Now he’s back and his eyes are still adjusting to the light. His shirt wears a strategically styled faux-sweat, also contributing to this wholly baffling look. In fact, the actor’s pose is so totally cosmetic and contrived, and his facial expression so pained that it’s almost possible to miss the aforementioned headline, which is perched just east of Tom’s chiseled features.

Finely honed skills of bullshit detection fully engaged, I didn’t miss the headline, and it’s why I bought the magazine. Not because the article it described was such a monumentally important work of reporting, oh no, but because I’d hoped my coffee concoction was tainted, causing hallucinations, and that by the time I got home everything would be OK again. On opening the magazine to page 71, we get Kevin Gray’s article, “Why Men Ditch Pregnant Women: She’s carrying your kid. The relationship isn’t working. What would you do?” It’s about what I expected. The article introduces the absurd, inappropriate and illogical idea of referring to men’s choice of leaving a pregnant partner as the "male abortion,” and makes the case that we shouldn’t judge men who have this “kiddie allergy.” However, I read on, and the following passage marks the point when my good eye starts spasming: “...Then came the Pill and legal abortion, and suddenly women could act like men: free love, no strings attached. The man’s options, however, remained the same: stay or go. And when you leave a pregnant girlfriend, no matter what the reason, you’re a dog. Not so for women--roughly 1.3 million opt out of parenthood every year, with little or no stigma.” In case you missed that last part, Gray wrote, with little or no stigma.

Once I’d finished reading this article, splashed some cold water on my face and took a few deep breaths, I was ready to turn pages and see if this type of lunacy pervaded all or select portions of Details. If the interview with Tom Cruise is any clue, then lunacy prevails. Reading the piece, I wonder if it was the writer’s intention to paint Cruise as a total idiot, or was there so little to work with that the writer had no choice? Take, for example, “Tom by Definition,” a bottom stripe of page dedicated to short quotes on specific topics. For “Mother,” Tom says, “If I got lost, separated from her, I’d close my eyes and wait for her to laugh. I would go to that laugh. Where is she, where is she?” On “Life,” Tom is seething with profundity:“This world, it’s rough-and-tumble. It’s wild and ragged. And the point is, are you confronting life? Are you in present time?” My answer: Maybe not, Tom, but are you on planet Earth? Judging from Vanity Fair’s cover this month, I’m not the only one asking this question.

Vanity Fair
August 2005
ISBN: 075354108443

I found this magazine in the “Men’s Interest” section, somewhat mysteriously since 74 percent of V.F. readers are women. At any rate, a glowing Martha Stewart takes the cover, embracing a little black dog. A field of bright pink flowers surrounds the two. I immediately respond to this, since it makes me think of The Body Snatchers, and I picture Martha and her puppy having hatched from separate, well-proportioned gourds and springing to life in the midst of all these fuchsia daisies. This cover is sophisticated, with a gracefully limited color palette and simple fonts. A red stripe crowning this cover displays, in a white font: “DOMINICK DUNNE: HAS TOM CRUISE LOST HIS MARBLES?”

Maybe this is all a big conspiracy, an orchestrated move by publicists to further thrust already overexposed stars into the realm of public discussion; for example, when viewing Batman Begins, I couldn’t help but notice that Katie Holmes’s enblousened nipples were apparent to such detail that one could easily shape an anatomically accurate sculpture of them after viewing a mere handful of scenes. Now, this media blitz of Cruiseness, his insanity of many variations, including Oprah-enabled Holmesophrenia--as Dunne sees it, “He has thrown off all sense of decorum and become more clamorous for attention than Paris Hilton in his public displays of love for Katie Holmes, a pretty starlet 16 years his junior, who opened in Batman Begins as Cruise was set to open in War of the Worlds.”

What’s more is the inexplicable, Scientological nonsense Cruise is so chirpily preaching. Again, Dunne observes regarding Cruise’s four-part Access Hollywood interview, “For Cruise, it was a mistake. I think it’s wonderful that his belief in Scientology is so strong, but I resented being preached at by him. Through Scientology, he claimed, he has helped hundreds of people get off drugs with the use of vitamins, and that is very commendable. But when he told Billy Bush that he gets calls at 2 o’clock in the morning from drug addicts who need his counsel, he lost me. Would the Church of Scientology really make the number of the telephone on Tom Cruise’s bedside table in his gated and guarded mansion available to a street druggie with a needle in his arm? I don’t think so.”

The best part of Dunne’s column surfaces in his analysis of Cruise’s well-publicized attack on Brooke Shields for taking antidepressants in dealing with a nasty bout of postpartum depression: “Now, what in the hell does Tom Cruise know about postpartum depression that allows him to speak so definitively on the subject? His children are adopted.”

You can probably surmise that I found a pleasant surprise in Vanity Fair. This “men’s” magazine features the cover story on Martha Stewart as well as articles about successful shoe queen Tamara Mellon, accomplished actress Scarlett Johansson, and lingerie mogul Elle Macpherson--all without having to declare a “women in business” theme. Need I describe how refreshing it was to not learn makeup tips from Macpherson, stain-removal techniques from Stewart or intimate details on Johansson’s latest squeeze?

Unfortunately, I didn’t find any powerful women portrayed in:

August 2005
ISBN: 0751184008436

This cover is simple and dignified, with no sensationalistic ploys for attracting readers. Stuntly joker Johnny Knoxville is well suited in gray wool, set against a white background and surrounded by headlines: “The American Sex Tourist,” “A Story by David Sedaris,” and let’s not leave out the query, “Can a Gospel Singer be Gay?”

I hadn’t read GQ before, but I had the expectation that the magazine that identifies itself as "the authority on men" would be smart and classy, given the whole "gentlemanly" thing. However, one of the first things I noticed was that the pages were populated with images of very young, half-dressed not-yet-women, like page 78’s extremely sexy photo of 18-year-old actress Camilla Belle. I found this especially interesting in light of the magazine’s readership, of which only 21 percent are between the ages of 18 and 24.

Looking at magazines for this month’s column was a remarkably revealing experience. Their covers are so different, on so many levels, from book covers--magazines actually have to tell you what you get on the inside, rather than symbolically gesture toward contents. They’re immediate and their content is time-sensitive, also unique from the book situation.

What hit me the hardest in this endeavor was my experience with Cosmopolitan, almost 20 years after our first meeting. I looked through its articles and learned “The Trick to Meeting Guys,” that “Backs Are the New Boobs,” and “How to Have Steamy Summer Sex,” all the while wondering why anyone thought I cared. It wasn’t that different with Details, other than being on the outside looking in: I wondered why I had never met any of the men who cared about “The Darkest Secret of Hollywood’s Leading Men,” or wondered “Is Your New Baby Making You Gay?”

This all boiled down to the question, do men looking at Cosmopolitan think this magazine’s topics are really representative of “women’s interests"? And vice versa vis-à-vis Details: do men wonder--or worry--that women might think it represents the general ideas of the male population?
Or maybe I’ve got it all wrong, and these magazines are pure fantasy, just entertaining fodder to pass the time. Either way, a lot of people read this stuff, and let their lives and decisions and ideas be shaped by what they find in Cosmo, Details and other popular magazines. The market exists, both for the crafty quality of writing in Vanity Fair and the mostly mindless drivel of many magazines targeted toward women. My hope is that my favorite monthlies, which include subverts like Bitch, Bust and Venus, don’t follow suit and start filling pages with cosmetics reviews and skincare opinions that tell me to “go nuts while you get moist with MadGabs’ Almond Hand and Body Balm.” For once, I just want a magazine that refuses to tell me about all the things I should buy to make myself a womanlier woman, or a better competitor in some imaginary race toward male appeasment. Because I guarantee, while no hand and body moisturizer will make me “go nuts,” being inundated with the empty promises of this new sparkling lip gloss or that old standby mascara will. Besides, I’ve got too much work to do to worry about whether my lips are adequately shimmery.