If the image of Michele Bachmann on the Newsweek cover that has been ginning up the engines of indignation lately proves anything, it’s that there is no such thing as a good magazine cover.
Generally, as I’ve said, Bachmann is photogenic. She looks plucky, yet steely. She pulls off sundresses. But on the few occasions when she fails, she always looks as though an abomination is taking place slightly to the left of the camera. It's a regrettable condition, but I don't think it's damning. Everyone gets the crazy eyes at some point.
But there’s a larger problem.
There's a golden rule of magazine photography which is that if you look too good, it's sexist, and if you look too ugly, it's sexist. If you aren't photoshopped, it's sexist. If you are photoshopped, you might look good, but you're creating unrealistic expectations down the line for America's Young Women, so it's still sexist.
There is no such thing as a good magazine cover photo. Scratch a magazine cover picture long enough and you will uncover layers of offense, some invisible to the naked eye. There’s the photoshopping. There’s the makeup. There’s the lighting. There’s the failing to tell Michele Bachmann to look at the birdie and not impersonate Lot’s Wife. There’s the hidden anti-labor message woven into the glossy paper. There’s always something.
Sometimes there really is something — real women have curves, and by that we do not mean “concave areas where their ribs ought to be.” And if I see one more cover of someone dressed as Hitler or the Joker, I’m cancelling my — er, I’ll stop looking at covers of magazines when I walk through the checkout line.
The only people who look good on magazine covers do not actually exist. They were sired by Photoshop and bred on an elaborate concoction of celery sticks and nicotine. I once saw a magazine cover that actually looked good, with the right proportions for a human being, and it turned out to be Snooki and I had to rethink my life.
That’s the trouble with magazines. You may not be able to judge a book by its cover — it doesn’t really translate on the Kindle — but magazines are made to be judged by their covers. And if they look a little off, they’ll sell.
Sarah Palin looks good, and it’s sexist. Michele Bachmann looks bad, and it’s sexist. Hillary Clinton looks completely neutral, and it’s not sexist but nobody buys it.
Yes, there are exceptions. But for the most part, Real People on magazine covers look a little stranger than life. That is part of their charm. And it gets the magazines off the shelves.
There’s another word for “uncontroversial and flattering cover picture” and it’s “lowest-selling issue in Newsweek history.”