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The Gossip Reading Club: Issue Four – Selling the Sexiest Woman Alive, the Esquire Way

That time Esquire gawked over Jessica Biel in a totally not serial killer-esque way!

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Kayleigh Donaldson

May 21 2021

10 min read

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Welcome to Issue Four of the Gossip Reading Club!

Today’s subject is one degree separated from last week’s hero. It is depressingly common to read an interview or profile of a major female celebrity and find her being written about as if she’s some sort of rare animal in a cage. I once wrote a piece for Pajiba on the most glaringly sexist profiles ever written, and I wasn’t short of options. Honestly, I could probably do an entire newsletter just on creepy celebrity profiles. However, whenever I am asked to point out what I believe to be the most glaring example of this trend, I always return to this piece.

Esquire. “Jessica Biel is the Sexiest Woman Alive.” October 31, 2005. A.J. Jacobs.


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Esquire Magazine was founded in 1933 and became a pioneering publication during the "new journalism" boom of the 1960s. Norman Mailer wrote for them, as did Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe. They've won numerous awards for top-quality writing and weathered shifting trends in fashion and masculinity. Seen as the less smarmy GQ with a more intellectual edge (and less conservative-leaning politics, especially in the UK edition), Esquire sells itself as a thinking man's magazine. But it's still a men's magazine, which means it spends a lot of time getting super-weird about hot ladies.

For twelve years, starting in 2003, Esquire ran an annual feature dedicated to the Sexiest Woman Alive. This was a spin-off of the Women We Love issue that had appeared yearly since 1988. It's a feature that does exactly what you expect it to: share lots of glossy images of famous women (usually actresses) looking astounding in not much clothing, accompanied by a profile or interview that seeks to add substance to the style. Okay, the latter is me being a touch generous. The Sexiest Woman Alive profiles have always been pretty trifling affairs. They’ve been the subject of much mockery over the years, as have the lion’s share of this sort of aesthetic cover competition. Consider the rigmarole we go through every year when People announce their sexiest people alive. That publication, however, is primarily aimed at women and sells sex in a very different way to Esquire. Last year's winner, Michael B. Jordan, is styled classically, suavely, almost homey at times. No pecs shots here. Sorry. Esquire likes strategically placed silk sheets, pulled down V-neck dresses, and soaked-through garments. They're not ones for beating around the bush. Ahem. 

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Esquire has landed in hot water a few times with their profiles. Their 2014 piece on Penelope Cruz is a strange mishmash of cultural stereotypes, adjectives, and panicked freelance padding wherein the Spanish actress is compared to bullfights. But for today's purposes, I want to focus on 2005's honouree, Jessica Biel, and the discomfiting profile she received that seems curiously positioned as something in-between a creative writing exercise and a serial killer's manifesto.

Before she shacked up with Justin Timberlake and started lobbying with an anti-vaxxer, Jessica Biel was the "good girl gone bad" breaking into the movie mainstream. Much had been made about her decision to pose naked for the men's magazine Gear while she was still starring in the cloyingly wholesome family drama 7th Heaven. She was also only 17 at the time. Stephen Collins, the actor who played her father on the show and later admitted to "inappropriate sexual conduct with three female minors", decried the shoot as "child p**nography." She starred in a few horror films, and in 2005, she had the big-budget sci-fi action film Stealth to promote. It's not hard to see why Biel's team would want her to land the Esquire cover. This was the default mode of selling a gorgeous young actress to the masses in the early-to-mid 2000s, even ones who were stridently serious artists. Before the profile itself, Esquire hinted at Biel's identity in a six-part series with each month revealing a different body part and clue to her identity. Yes, she was chopped up into bits and turned into a leering guessing game. It only gets worse from here.

 

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In a 1913-word long profile, it takes 407 words for the writer to even name Jessica Biel. The lead-up to her proper introduction is a genuinely unnerving visual dissection of her body and the journalist's familiarity with it. "I know the body climbing out of that SUV alarmingly well", starts the piece.

 "I know it better than the body of any other human being, with the possible exception of my wife's. I've been staring at photos of this body for weeks now -- thinking about it, scrutinizing it, asking lots of probing questions about it. For those who haven't been paying attention: In each of the last five issues, Esquire has unveiled a different body part of the Sexiest Woman Alive. We started at her toes in June and took you to her lower lip last month."

There's an extended bit where the journalist questions the intimate details of Biel's feet, including whether she could pick up a stapler with her toes. He says it was "journalism, after all, not prurience" to call her up and ask about every single body part that the magazine focused on for six issues, which is how he knows Biel's opinions on her breasts. I'm trying to imagine being on the receiving end of this cycle of phone calls and all I can do is shudder like Sideshow Bob after he's been hit in the face by a rake.

The interview itself takes place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the writer -- seriously -- brings along his wife and seventeen-month-old because this "would show Jessica that I'm not a John Wayne Gacy-like perv." The next paragraph then sees him describing his son "smiling vacantly -- a common enough reaction by men" when he meets Biel. The hits just keep on coming with this piece.

It's pretty clear from that leering opening that Esquire has no interest in portraying Biel as anything other than a sex object. It's not the Best Personality issue, after all. Not that this excuses the flagrantly ridiculous way that Biel is written about, but the narrow focus at least makes sense when you consider the early-to-mid-2000s era of lad's mags. Really, this seemed to be the primary way of framing women for male consumption. As a millennial who grew up during the peak of magazines like Nuts and Zoo, this whole thing felt horribly familiar. The profile continues, giving minute details of Biel's career, love life (remember when she dated Chris Evans?!), and attitude towards the publicity cycle.

But most of the page space is given to Biel's attitudes towards on-screen nudity. The Gear photoshoot is brought up, and the writer doesn't seem to draw any lines between her obvious regrets over that incident and his own rhetoric. Biel admits that she was "miserable" and "humiliated" by the shoot and felt taken advantage of by the men in charge of her then-17-year-old choices. The writer's response to this, to this candid moment of an actress's vulnerability, is to be amazed that she agreed to pose for Esquire, which she also admits was "very hard", then ask if she'll ever bare all for the camera in the future. Yes, really.

The piece ends with a moment wherein Biel seems to gain the upper hand over the writer. During their Met expedition, they decided to look for the sexiest piece of art in the gallery. Eventually, Biel chooses Massimo Stanzione's portrait of Judith gripping the decapitated head of Holofernes.

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Writing about beauty is hard. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of just leering over someone and pretending that there’s some sort of thematic heft to your wet dreams. Voyeurism is at the heart of cinema. Actors exist to be looked at, to be appreciated on this level. How do you talk about that, appreciate that, without just drooling over the keyboard? This is a talent that seems to elude a hell of a lot of writers. We often joke that many of these men don’t seem to understand that they’re not being paid to date these women. When a woman is sold as a sex symbol – and many of them are because it’s one of the few roles we allow those in the public eye to inhabit – many see that as blanket permission to freely objectify the subject. They won’t fight back, right? That’s what they’re there for. To be seen, not heard.

There are too many examples of this to count. A 1995 Rolling Stone profile of Alicia Silverstone opens with a line describing her as "a kittenish 18-year-old movie star whom lots of men want to sleep with." The guy who wrote that piece, Rich Cohen, would repeat his bullsh*t with a Margot Robbie profile that basically turns her into an alien because she's from Australia? Musician Sky Ferreira called out one writer for the misogyny of a profile that talked about her breasts at length and compared her to "a freshly licked lollipop." Emily Ratajkowski also clapped back at Thomas Chatterton Williams for a piece wherein he seemed astounded that she liked to read books despite being “admittedly blessed with the most perfect breasts of her generation.” And I’m not even including stuff like the film reviews that leered over an adolescent Emma Watson in the Harry Potter movies or basically everything Harry Knowles wrote on Ain’t It Cool News (seriously, don’t google it, you’ll thank me later.)

Bad profiles happen for a number of reasons. It may be that the writer was unprepared, or that they didn’t have a lot of time with their subject. Sometimes, said subject isn’t a talker and you can tell when the journalist has had to pad their word count out with whatever comes their way to compensate for it. Nowadays, with publicists holding ever-tighter leashes on their clients’ narratives and many publications eschewing the traditional profile in favour of personal essays of BFF chit-chats, it’s not hard to see why many think that the form is dying. That’s, of course, a load of tosh. How can the celebrity profile be on its last legs when Caity Weaver, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Doreen St. Felix, and Allison P. Davis, to name but four, are writing the best work of their lives?

What happened with Jessica Biel is unfortunately a regular occurrence in the field, but it doesn’t have to be. I get the sense that Esquire understood that they couldn’t keep this charade up. They haven’t bestowed the Sexiest Woman Alive title upon anyone since 2015. Maybe just hire writers who don’t think with their hard-ons for a change? 

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Please share your thoughts on this article in the comments below, or feel free to hit me up on Twitter at @Ceilidhann for a chat about books, gossip, and my panting efforts to return to regular exercise. If you like this newsletter, please share it online and recommend it to everyone who you think would enjoy some vintage gossip analysis. If you have any feedback or recommendations for future issues, please get in touch through email.

You can find my work on Pajiba.com as well as sites like SYFY, IGN, Uproxx, RogerEbert.com, and many other places. If you like esoteric vampire pop culture, you can listen to my latest podcast Fangthology! This past fortnight, I wrote about the parasocial force swirling around John Mulaney, the impending media war of the post-JLo/ARod split, and the perils of blind gossip in our current conspiratorial age. I also made my debut over on Slashfilm talking about Shrek and its strange Scottish legacy.

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