British Esquire editor stands by comments: Women are ‘ornamental’—just like cars

Dylan Stableford
The Lookout

The editor of Esquire's British edition is not backing down from his controversial comments that the women featured in the magazine are "ornamental," and he says he doesn't understand what the fuss is about.

"I stand by what I said, albeit while accepting I didn’t put it very well," Alex Bilmes wrote in a post on the magazine's website. "I do find the response to a simple statement of fact slightly baffling."

The controversy began last week during an Advertising Week Europe panel discussion in London, where Bilmes—appearing alongside Cosmopolitan U.K. editor Louise Court—compared women to "cool cars."

"The women we feature in the magazine are ornamental," Bilmes said. "I could lie to you if you want and say we are interested in their brains as well. We are not. They are objectified."

He added, "We provide pictures of girls in the same way we provide pictures of cool cars. It is ornamental. Women's magazines do the same thing."

The Guardian published Bilmes' comments along with video of the panel, sparking fury among readers who saw them as sexist.

"Being honest about objectifying women isn't anything to brag about," one commenter wrote.

"An overtly sexist man may be more honest than a covertly sexist one but does that make him any better?" asked another.

"[Bilmes] said the women's magazine industry and advertising targeting women were primarily responsible for perpetuating stereotyped and negative images of women," another commenter wrote, "which he appears not enlightened enough to challenge or change in his own magazine. He seems to be holding the worst examples of women's objectification as some sort of benchmark worth reaching."

In his column, Bilmes tried to clarify his approach to putting women in Esquire:

Here’s what I was trying to get across before we ran out of time.

Esquire is a men’s magazine, for men. It’s no more for women than Cosmo is for men. When we are considering whether or not to photograph a woman for the cover our first question to ourselves is: is she conventionally sexually attractive? In other words, is she likely to appeal aesthetically to the biggest number of potential male readers? There are other criteria: does she have cultural currency, do we like her stuff, is she worth celebrating, will she agree to it, will she say something funny/entertaining/enlightening? But most of all, we wonder: is she hot? Will our readers agree that she’s hot? Ornamental, see?

Can anyone truly be surprised about this? Did everyone think it was an accident that the women who appear on the covers of men’s magazines are uniformly ridiculously good looking? Do they actually think it’s somehow wrong that we find these women attractive? Do they find the male libido revolting? What exactly is the problem here?

He then used "Girls" star Lena Dunham to illustrate his point:

Why haven’t I asked Lena Dunham to be on the cover of Esquire? I could give you some mealy mouthed reasons: like, her show is aimed at young women, not men, and as a result many of our readers will not have heard of her or, if they have, will not be interested in her. But the main reason is that she doesn’t look like an Esquire covergirl. 'Girls' wouldn't work if she did. That’s kind of the point of it: most young women are not, never have been and never will be the poised, perfect, blemish free, sexually confident, expensively dressed and groomed creatures depicted in glossy magazines (men’s magazines and women’s magazines), in advertising, and elsewhere in the media. Lena Dunham is a brilliant, brazen, necessary corrective to that. This makes me want to watch her show but it doesn’t make me want to put her on the cover of Esquire. It’s not my job to provide positive role models for young women, or to challenge the homogeneity of representations of young women in the media. I’m a men’s magazine editor. I supply entertainment for men.