I spend a lot of time reading things I really really hate. I guess I’m just a glutton for punishment. The hours that I’ve spent on The Advocate, or Jizzabel, or The Red Pill, will never be returned to me, and sometimes I think wistfully of all the novels I could have written if only I’d spent less time reading about friend-zoning and */* E.M.P.O.W.E.R.M.E.N.T. */*
But I read these things because I think it’s important to keep an eye on what’s being said about women, whether it’s downright misogyny from MRAs, or the more subtle forms of regressive politics we see from third wavers. I wish I could ignore them, but the sad fact is that a lot of people read these things, and I want to know what the enemy is thinking.
One of the publications I keep an eye on is GQ. Now it’s very important to remember here that GQ is a classy magazine, or at least bills itself as such. The GQ reader imagines himself as a sophisticated gentleman, with varied cultural tastes. So there are some (superficial, usually football-orientated) articles on politics, film and restaurant reviews, stuff about gadgets, mildly amusing advice on fashion. Sometimes they publish articles about manly-yet-sophisticated food and drink topics like BEST COFFEE IN LONDON, and even the occasional recipe. Their imagined reader seems to be a James Bond sort of figure: suave, stylish, drinks a lot of whisky, wears a lot of watches. In reality, their readers look more like this…
… youngish middle-class men in media jobs. The typical reader is a bit right-wing, shops at Waitrose, follows @JeremyClarkson, and is apparently likely to believe that…
Basically the average GQ reader is kind of a douche, but hardly an unusual brand of douche. I have met many, many men like this, and, because of our shitty society, there are an awful lot of them running the country.
Which makes it all the more disturbing when we look into the dark heart of GQ, and discover what these men really think about women.
Because one of the cornerstones of the GQ experience is their “GIRLS” section. No one at GQ seems to think that naming the soft-core porn section of the magazine after pre-pubescent female humans is at all weird. I suppose they think “ladies” would be too old-fashioned, and the word “women” brings us uncomfortably close to recognising these sex objects as actual people.
GQ want us to believe that the pornified images they print are a world away from the common muck we see in the tabloids. So they print a lot of articles about burlesque, alongside classics like ‘A gentleman’s guide to threesomes’, and (my personal favourite) ‘You can be a lingerie model and a feminist’, illustrated by a picture of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s underboob. Mostly they just post endless pictures of pretty celebrities and Victoria’s Secret models. We’ve seen this a thousand times before.
The highlight of the “GIRLS” section is the sex advice column. If you want to know what our middle-class, youngish, media type men are wondering when it comes to sex, this is the place to come. A lot of the questions are predictable – how do I deal with performance anxiety? Which sex position will make me look the most tough, brave and manly? – as well as some hilarious ones like:
Dude – NO ONE BELIEVES YOU. GO HOME.
The advice from sex shrink Rebecca Newman usually involves an expensive sex toy, or perhaps a new bra. It’s a fairly transparent advertising exercise, and I like to think that the writer isn’t really a pretty blonde, but just a fat, unshaven guy in front a computer screen, with a pile of unopened LoveHoney Climax Twist Vibrators stacked in the corner.
But there are also some darker questions, a lot of them featuring BDSM. The sex shrink never challenges the desires of the questioners, only gives lengthy, explicit, sometimes absurd explanations of what he should do to her.
An extraordinary number of sexual battle plans begin with restraining the “girl” in some way:
- “let us look to slave-girl positions… order her first to spread her knees apart (the further she spreads, the more uncomfortable it becomes)… her ass spread and vulnerable”
Otherwise the questioner is told to “have her do this” or “tell her to do that”. How can a man convince his “baby” to give him oral sex more often? “Bribery” – also known as expensive knickers – may encourage her to “worship” his penis.
“Girls”, we are told, love “bad boy behaviour” and “deceitful, exploitative Machiavellianism”. And in an article on ‘sugar daddies’, Newman delights in the fact that “group, oral, anal, bukkake etc are common or garden” on the “professional menu” (she’s talking about prostitution here). We’re reminded that “every relationship has some element of quid pro quo”. Why not make the commercial exchange explicit? After all, we’re already bribing “girls”, ordering them onto all fours, getting them to “worship” at the altar of the almighty penis.
This advice is (apparently) written by a woman, and yet not only does she legitimise her readers’ desires to dominate women, she writes them a how-to guide. Women in GQ are as horny as porn stars, and as impressionable as children – easily seduced by wealth, spanking, and the firm mastery of an expert male hand. These women never speak. They are always waiting to be “surprised”. They never refuse the £300 crotchless knickers they’re offered as a “bribe”. And they are eminently disposable. After all, we’ll soon have a new ‘Hottest Woman of the Week’, and all hot women are much the same.
They may sell themselves as intelligent and sophisticated, and they may occasionally throw around that favourite buzzword feminism™, but the woman hating is only just below the surface. On top of this, GQ adds a fresh layer of misogyny to that found in lads’ mags and tabloids. Not only are women gagging for a dominating man to show them what’s what, that dominating man is rich. Nowhere is the fetishisation of wealth more obvious than in this article from 2011. I remember reading this aged 19, after someone (presumably a man) left a copy next to my train seat. The female writer begins…
… and goes on to give a lengthy, excruciatingly detailed description of exactly how that blow job was performed. She wins her prize, and concludes “I’ve decided these deals are perfectly acceptable and a sign of a good relationship – it’s called compromise.” One of the comments underneath the article reads “Fantastic! Great column – I must get my wife to read this, haha.”
I hadn’t yet discovered radical feminism in 2011, but I was still angered and nauseated by this. My first thought was “how could a woman write this?” – how could a woman encourage men in the belief that sexual favours are commodities to be bought? That love and mutuality should be abandoned, to be replaced by cold, hard economic exchange? I didn’t realise yet that this article, and the GQ attitude towards “girls” more generally, was entirely consistent with the worldview of their target demographic.
For in GQ, everything is purchasable – the booze, the suits, the watches, the restaurants, and, yes, the women. Every woman has a price. He may not leave the cash on the nightstand, or pay her through direct debit, but the economic transaction is nevertheless blatant. And he not only buys sexual access to her body, he buys the right to dominate and dehumanise her.
Chris Hedges begins this interview with Gail Dines with a damning analysis of the ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ franchise:
“[it] is a celebration of the sadism that dominates nearly every aspect of American culture and lies at the core of pornography and global capitalism. It glorifies our dehumanization of women. It champions a world devoid of compassion, empathy and love. It eroticizes hypermasculine power that carries out the abuse, degradation, humiliation and torture of women whose personalities have been removed, whose only desire is to debase themselves in the service of male lust.”
For all the carefully constructed glamour of the GQ brand, the desire to dominate others is the core of the franchise, and only thinly veiled. Wealth and status are positional advantages, and so depend on the relative poverty and low-status of others. The GQ brand cannot exist without this inequality. In the mind of the ideal reader, all that matters is material success, and female bodies are little more than material possessions. All those lefty men who rail against consumerism and big capitalism, but then excuse the objectification of women, have failed to join the dots. The GQ attitude towards money is tightly bound to their attitude towards women, and the ideological product is highly lucrative.
And our middle-class media man buys into this ideology. He may not be a sugar daddy, or exchange handbags for blow jobs, but he nevertheless chooses the buy a magazine that encourages this fantasy. His view of women as purchasable commodities is reproduced and reinforced by the female journalists who soothe his ego, and the GQ shareholders who profit from it.
Men of this demographic then go on to work in government, edit newspapers, commission books, and run businesses. Many of these men are immensely powerful and influential. And on the train, or in the office, or in their bachelor pads, they read media like GQ and their fantasy of supremacy is reinforced. These are political texts, with political consequences.