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Do men only see women as bodies?

When you watch ads and read men’s magazines, that’s the impression you could get. But is it really true? Pranav Dixit goes past the facace and delves deeper. Read on to know what he found out.

sex and relationships Updated: Nov 27, 2010 20:58 IST
Pranav Dixit
Pranav Dixit
Hindustan Times

Browse through any periodical meant for men and you'll find, among the pictures of cars, watches, gadgets and clothes, photographs of women. Women in states of partial undress, displayed exactly like the cars, watches, gadgets and clothes mentioned above.

In 2010, when Indian men (and women) are allegedly new age, sensitive, and aware that women (and men) are people, not things, does it make sense for men’s magazines to follow and perpetuate the old stereotypes? On the other hand, don’t we, in this new age of awareness, acknowledge that some things in life are the way they are because they’ve always been the way they are, and that’s how men and women have always been?

Here are both sides of the argument.

Girl on girls
Sexy babes also feature in women’s magazines, don’t they? Former Cosmopolitan editor Payal Puri explains why.

Editors of men's magazines claim that women’s magazines objectify women as much as men’s magazines do. Your take?
Let me get this straight – a fit, attractive body does NOT imply the absence of other attributes of mind and heart. That stereotype is NOT created by magazines but by individual readers/general perception. Men or women buying magazines with stunners on the cover and in the inside pages do not automatically assume the person lacks other attractions. The stereotype is in the approach people often bring to these magazines, not in the content of the magazines themselves.

There’s often pseudo-intellectualism in both men and women where basic everyday needs – feeling confident, looking good, attracting the right kind of attention – all seem to be looked down upon. But let’s be honest – we’d all rather look good than not, we’d all rather be attractive than not, and as far as I’m concerned, those who feel it demeans them to do so are free not to.

Where’s the problem? We’re a democracy in thought – and in reading habits. No one puts a gun to your head at a newsstand. Don’t like it? By all means, don’t buy it.

Apart from sex, is there nothing else about women that the modern Indian man finds interesting?
There’s lots he finds interesting. He just doesn’t necessarily look for that information in his leisure time. These magazines are designed for your downtime. They’re for advice, laughter, the kind of information you wouldn’t know who to ask. I’d argue that the more closed a society, where access to certain kinds of information is closed/limited, the more you need magazines to do this role. Cosmo talked about sex without embarrassment and was an educated, unembarrassed source to go to when you had a question you didn’t know who to ask. In India, where is a young woman going to get that information – and I mean reliable, researched, un-sleazy information? Where, for that matter, are men going to get it? From their mythical locker room conversations?

Men are only interested in sex, cars and watches – do you think magazines play a role in reinforcing this stereotype?
A stereotype is exactly that – a generalisation. Sure, a man may be interested in women for sex. He may also be interested in equal opportunities for women, but he doesn’t look for that information at the same time. He reads many different magazines that are designed to talk to him at different times, when he needs different things. Men’s magazines that you’re talking about are designed for the purely leisure aspect of his personality. They aren’t a reflection of the whole.

Case for the prosecution

“What the Indian male refuses to recognise is the fact that women are far more intelligent than any of us male jokers. Despite all the modernity that we seem to profess, most Indian men still have a typical chauvinistic mindset and a narrow world view”
Suhel Seth, advertising professional and social commentator

I quit my magazine job because I was bored of executing a formula. I think the last straw was when I once looked at my girlfriend and wondered if a bit of photoshop airbrushing might make her prettier!
Anup Kutty, former editor, Maxim

I don’t read any of the nonsense in men’s magazines whose primary aim is to make men feel good about themselves. I think they underestimate the male intellect if they think that men only care about sex, cars and watches,” says advertising professional and social commentator Suhel Seth. Magazines today, thinks Seth, are consumer traps, hell bent on making their readers think and behave in a manner that benefits marketing.

What the Indian male refuses to recognise, he says, is the fact that women are far more intelligent and loyal than the rest of ‘us male jokers.’ “This is a typical chauvinistic mindset despite all the modernity we profess,” he says. “It’s not just magazines… it’s also things like the saas-bahu soaps on television that stereotype the Indian woman.”

That pretty women do attract male attention is a fact of life. “A pretty receptionist in an office will attract more looks from guys. Even on television, we have commercials featuring bikini-clad women who bear no relation to the product,” says Syed Moubin Zehra, an author and social analyst who specialises in gender studies. “So I’m not surprised that men’s magazines use women to sell.”

But these periodicals, believes Zehra, are caught between marketing and their own lack of creativity. “They do not have the talent and creativity to make women look good without shedding their clothes,” she says. “Also, is there no other dimension to a woman apart from her body and her sex appeal? Why can’t they ever go beyond these two things?”

Since magazines are also agents of popularisation and popular culture, says Zehra, they ultimately end up reinforcing the wrong stereotypes.

What about the readers? Are we to believe that they blindly lap up whatever these magazines dish out? “I think that both the readers and the people who run these magazines are no geniuses. They are extremely narrow and limited in their world view and so we are all living in a bubble of intellectual innocence – where the magazines claim that this is in fact what the readers want; the readers, of course, know no better,” says Seth.

However, it is not really fair to generalise, he adds. “I would like to restrict my views only to people who read and follow these magazines. I admit that a lot of Indian men have moved on, so I think that their readers are a reflection of the markets which they are targeting.”

The sad part, thinks Seth, is that corporate India continues to reinforce these stereotypes. “Only about 18 per cent of employees in the corporate world are women,” he says. “One only has to look at statistics of the rising cases of female infanticides in states like Punjab and Haryana to understand that these magazines exist in a world of their own. Like I said, it’s a bubble of intellectual innocence.”

Case for the defence

“Women are not objects for us. If they were, men’s magazines would be doing far better than they currently are. Men are looking at women with far more respect. The gender issue is really getting equalised now and men’s appreciation of women is definitely far more respectful.”
Jamal Shaikh, editor, Men’s Health India

The whole ‘commodification of women’ thing vanished 10 years ago. Women need to wake up and realise that men are treating them with more respect than ever – I have more female colleagues than men and the associate publisher of my magazine is a woman. Think about it!
Kabeer Sharma, associate editor, FHM India

Quick, choose your magazine cover: Aishwarya Rai in an elegant Roberto Cavalli gown, or a sexy Tamara Moss, clad in nothing but a diaphanous string-bikini.

Most guys, we bet, would choose the second option (though Rai is by no means an average looker). And why not? After all, men are visual creatures and isn’t wanting to see hot babes in minimal clothes just a natural part of being a guy? Surely there’s nothing surprising about that, say the editors of most men’s magazines on the stands today.

“We are unapologetic about the fact that men pay attention to pretty girls. At a certain level, women do dictate some of the things we do,” says Kabeer Sharma. “After all, a cover should be something that grabs attention and makes people pick up the magazine.”
Editors of men’s magazines mince no words. “I believe 95 per cent of men would look at women as bodies – it’s the first thing that attracts men,” says Anup Kutty, former editor of Maxim and now a consulting editor with Man’s World. “Brains and attitude come later. The remaining five per cent are gay, so they don’t count.”

Stop stereotyping men as machines who are only interested in sex, cars, watches and videogames – that’s the message that magazine editors want to put across. “In the 120 pages that make up FHM, we only have about 12 pages of a sexy shoot – less than 20 per cent of the magazine,” says Sharma. “Unfortunately, it is only those 12 pages that get talked about.”

No one will dispute the fact that if men only want to see semi-naked women, the internet is a vast playground of opportunities.
Jamal Shaikh, editor of Men’s Health India, agrees. “When they pick up our magazine, men are looking for more than cheap titillation. They are looking for well-researched advice about a lot of things – relationships, fashion, grooming, fitness, gadgets and more. Even the stories about sex are based on scientific methods. We are very clear that the girls featured should not look like girls who you think would want to turn you on in exchange for money. They need to be hot and bold but they are not girls you would be embarrassed to be seen with.”

First Published: Nov 27, 2010 19:46 IST