The Text behind that Cover Girl Smile

The Text behind that Cover Girl Smile

by Merle Hoffman

In the morning that I would be posing for photographers for an upcoming profile in Lears magazine I of course dressed myself with more than my customary attention to detail. The issue of what to wear -slacks suit or dress, basic black or color, what color, how to do the makeup, the hair, how to control the presentation of self -became a far more serious undertaking than usual.

Then as I sat in my office awaiting the photographers, I began to muse on how the images of women in women’s magazines are not merely a question of photographic aesthetics, but are laden with political and social significance. Considering the amount of money spent to advertise, publish and purchase them and the number of women who read, subscribe to and buy into their message, their importance went far beyond the commercial. I began to deduce a sub text behind the bland beauty of the women pictured in them.

Prior to and immediately after the presidential election, we had been bombarded with magazine photos of the new women in “power” and I noticed how any notion of power when it came to women, was conspicuously absent in these purely traditional female poses. When presenting women, power was projected as a prop, much like a costume that can be put on and taken off. Now that we have a First Lady who has real power, a female Attorney General, a Supreme Court justice, senators, governors, Cabinet members and more women in positions of corporate and political power than ever before, I was struck by the fact that women’s magazines persist in presenting these and other women in variations of the classic feminine submissive posture. It is a presentation that signals accommodation and vulnerability -and it shows us that even when it comes to women with power, we are portrayed as merely “women” with a power that dares not show its face.

Particularly compelling was the December28, 1992 issue of Newsweek which pictured Hillary Clinton on the cover smiling broadly, her head resting on a closed hand. The cover line read “Women of the Year” and the inside story went on to present the top women in the new Clinton Administration.

Under the title “Power and Glory,” Hillary was posed for the cameras dressed comfortably in sweaters and slacks, half reclining on the floor, bolstered by a living room chair. Both the cover image and the one within the magazine could be characterized as “user friendly,” very much like the broadly smiling models and photos of women in traditional “women’s magazines.” In so many of these photos, there is often an implied male presence. He is watching. The woman’s facial expression, makeup, body pose and clothing communicate this. Whoever she is, whatever she has become, or whatever she may be doing in her world, she must be presented to us through his eyes, eyes that require that he appear in girlish, welcoming, non-threatening postures. – These poses are what sociologist Irving Goffman postulates are the nonverbal communication f photographic images.

Goffman notes that female models of an exhibit what he describes as “head and body tilting canting postures.” These re postures -the lowering of the head for instance -that communicate an acceptance of a subordinate role with respect to the viewer of the picture. Goffman sees the posturing of childlike and playful poses as minimizing the seriousness of women; he calls these “ritualistic mollifiers.” The bashful “knee bend” pose that models exhibit and that can be described as childlike and trusting, suggests that they are vulnerable to, and dependent on, those who are viewing them.

What does power look like in a woman, I puzzled? Whatever it is, I was sure it did not come in the packaged smiles of cover girls who so artfully exhibited vulnerability, dependence and playfulness. I was determined not to exhibit any of these postures for the readers of Lears and I lost no time in telling that to the photographers from the magazine who walked into my office.

“I’m not doing any of that traditional female stuff” I said. “What stuff?” “You know, cute, playful things -like this” -I then proceeded to parody the classical cover girl pose: wide eyed smile with chin cupped in hands.

“Well, shall we dress you in a King Kong outfit and hang you from the top of the building -or how about some jockey shorts?” I was not amused as they began to take stock of my office and set up. “Listen,” said the other, “you know if you want a traditional male power shot you can always place your hands in the triangle pose,” which he then demonstrated by putting the finger tips of both of his hands together in front of him. “That’s power in male form?” I asked. “Yes, that’s what they always do,” he said as he looked around my office for props to pose me with. He was immediately drawn to the large black desk and beckoned me to sit behind it. Not satisfied with adopting the male power pose of the 10 fingertips locked in a tent of powerful thought, I decided to try and find an honest and direct way of showing who I am.

First smiling, then half smiling, then in profile, then full faced, with books, with artwork, until two hours into the shoot, while I was sitting against the window, he asked me to pull my legs up and place my arms around my knees. I started to do it by rote and found that I was automatically assuming one of the most traditional positions – the playful little girl. “Let’s take a break,” I said as I sat up and walked away.

Once again my mind went to the magazines, the ones I had recently collected to illustrate my point.

ITEM: The ultimate female submissive pose is portrayed by Princess Di on the cover of New Woman, February 1993. She appears head down, hands crossed under chin with her eyes childishly looking up towards us the cover line above reads: “Sex Report – -Are your orgasms normal? Exciting new findings.”

ITEM: BBW (Big Beautiful Woman), February 1993: A wind swept blonde turns towards us with the expression of a deer that has been caught by headlights the cover line reads: “Are you too sleepy for SEX?”

ITEM: American Woman, February 1993: A broadly smiling blonde, low decolletage, hands coming up towards chin cover line reads: “The One Hour Orgasm Erotic techniques that pro long your pleasure (and his).” Arid to insure that even so called “career women” are not exempt from the homogenization, Good Housekeeping has Maria Shriver, a successful media personality, on the cover in a classical “bashful knee” pose. The cover line reads: “Maria Shriver talks about Arnold, their daughters, and why she wants to quit her TV job.”

The images of models and cover girls that stare out at us so engagingly attempt to sell us images of ourselves, images made by photographers and advertisers. The warm, welcoming cover girl is, ironically, the most aggressive and powerful advertisement a women’s magazine can muster. It silently promises us that we too can look like this, can be this if only we would follow the advice within and buy the products advertised on its pages.

Back to the Women of the Year and the power and the glory in Newsweek. Tipper Gore is pictured photographed from behind -holding a camera underneath her bin as she gazes a in a mirror, seemingly bout to photograph herself. The image itself is a play on the observer observing he observer. Tipper seems to be effectively playing the object of the action while in reality she is clearly the subject. She is the subject of that ubiquitous male onlooker, and our and even her own gaze. We are not quite sure what she is looking at, she seems to be looking past us forever in what Goffman calls an “anchored drift,” a pose which shows women mentally drifting away from the situation at hand and which is also conveyed by the absent, unfocused gaze of many of the cover girls.

The same piece pictures Mandy Grunwald, a media consultant who is described as a “fearsomely smart woman who is not afraid to be tough and is not afraid of success.” However fearsomely smart she is, she is presented looking downward leaning on what seems to be a couch containing bed pillows. One shoe is off and a television set is tuned into Bill Clinton’s face. Her body is posed in such away that his TV image is looking directly towards her crotch.

Has her fearsome smartness been mollified, effectively rendered harmless?

Sandra Day O’Connor, the first and only woman on the Supreme, Court, is photographed walking down a grand marble staircase. She descends on her black robe, one hand on the balustrade, one against her breast wearing an open smile, while her legs assume a particularly female posture -ankles gracefully touching. She looks like the ultimate hostess about to greet her guest at’ a dinner party, “so good of you to come.”

One after another the images assault us,’ always smiling, ever ready to accommodate. They are good girls all, exhibiting a characteristic a “friend” described Zoe Baird as having: “She gave good daughter.” Good daughters are good girls and don’t make trouble or revolutions and they don’t have power. At least not a power that is visible not one that can be recognized and respected.

When power comes dressed in traditional female roles it remains in the closet. The question is, when will women define their own images -come into their own definitions of power? Some feminists have all too easily accepted the definition of power as male, while accurately locating its abuses both ‘within individuals and institutions. But power has many faces -not all of which are authoritarian, deadly, violent or exploitative. It is up to us to express them -to create and define them so that we come to recognize ourselves in them and boldly how our faces.

Merle Hoffman is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women’s Medical Center, Inc., and Choices Mental Health Center.