The ‘Complex’ Issue With Photographing Female Pop Stars: What’s That About?
Nick Jonas and Tinashe are the subjects of Complex magazine’s latest cover stories, an honor they both deserve. Their (well-written) profiles are accompanied by lush photo spreads, presented online in Complex’s dynamic, browser-fatiguing interface, pictures which have been tweeted, Facebooked and reblogged on other sites including this one. The two, respectively, look great — but I noticed a familiar difference in the two spreads, in terms of “tone.” Can you guess what it is? There’s a side-by-side above, for reference.
Do you see it? In case you don’t, let me sum it up. Let me sum up Complex’s overall editorial trend in 140 characters.
A cursory review of the magazine’s cover stories in 2015-16 reveals a stark binary, in which male musicians are men of action and adventure — running on a flaming flatbed truck, navigating a giant maze, performing a death-defying escape — while women are static, partially-undressed objects to be admired, often presented ass first. Sometimes they get to hang out with naked lady mannequins, or lean against something.
By outward appearances, this pattern isn’t the result of Uncle Terry-esque photo sessions in which one predatory auteur coaxes a succession of naïfs into partial nudity. Tinashe was shot by a woman. Khloe Kardashian, part of a family that’s built an empire on their constant need to be gazed upon, named her sister Kim a “creative consultant” on her shoot, which was photographed by frequent Kardashian collaborator Steven Gomillion. And October/November cover star Demi Lovato pitched her nude, makeup-free Vanity Fair photo shoot during the same promo cycle (very Confident, always stay on-brand), so I don’t presume to know that any of these women are, as Nicki Minaj put it, “drinking the pickle juice.”
It’s also safe to assume editor-in-chief Noah Callahan-Bever doesn’t sit on set with a megaphone, shouting commands like an evil shill for Acme Thirst Traps, out to undercut female celebrities’ voices with cheesecake pics that present a much louder story: “OIL up those thighs! Stack those heels! Jesus, people, if I can’t see my hand through Demi’s bloomers they’re not sheer enough!” And yet.
Over the past year, it’s become impossible for me — and several other female Complex readers I’ve spoken to, including a singer friend who struggled to reckon the Tinashe she’s watched “MURDER her performance wearing sneakers and sweatpants” with the same highly-airbrushed woman in Moschino lingerie crawling out of a giant overturned beverage— not to wonder. We wonder why Nick’s out here destroying a car, while all Tinashe gets is a green screen, some sprayed-on oil and a request to show us her (under)tits. Justin Bieber — who, like Jonas, has displayed his own willingness to disrobe time and again — gets to play Houdini while Demi’s left to rub her bare breasts on a giant flamingo (what is it with Complex and their oversized props?). Travis Scott got to be a cool floating head, and then rode inside the floating head!
Complex was founded in 2002 by male-focused streetwear designer Mark Ecko and, though its current tagline, “making culture pop,” is ostensibly gender neutral, I was recently told by a current employee that it very much still considers itself a men’s magazine. Setting aside the question of why pop culture and music would still be considered mainly within the purview of men — the style features are largely male-facing, which makes sense given its origins — there’s still no reason the photo spreads need to follow the conventions of Maxim and Playboy. Particularly given very legitimate concerns about the many shades of sexism that pervades the music industry, an issue that's only just begun to be addressed.
And it doesn't have to be this way. While “sex sells” (is there a mustier adage?), it doesn’t need to be the default sales approach every time. Fader, who can be considered one of Complex’s biggest competitors in terms of content and artists covered, offered several gorgeous covers featuring female artists just in the past year. Their creative — which often favors the sort of tight close-up that would crop underboob right out of frame — manages to capture Kehlani, Grimes, and Kacey Musgraves without presenting them as parts in a giant punchbowl. In a particularly inspired cover for their 100th issue, photographer Renata Raksha even helped Rihanna to shoot her own portrait, presenting a great photo of RiRi that visually acknowledged the tricky relationship between a female pop star and the media outlets that work with (or at times against) them to present their image.
Complex certainly doesn’t seem to suffer from a creativity deficit when it comes to their male cover subjects, so their selective editorial laziness when it comes to female ones is puzzling. And if they don’t know what to do with a worthy female artist, what is she even doing there?