100 Years Of Magazine Covers: An Exploration Of The Virgin-Whore Complex

Women have come a long way from 100 years ago. It’s no longer rare to see women in diverse positions of leadership spanning from the sciences to politics and the arts; while our world is still one of rampant sexism, our ownership and visibility in the world has been gradually transforming.

But have our evolving roles actually changed the way we’re represented in the media? In response to this question, San Francisco-based creative director Karen X Chang and her co-creator Jerry Gabra paired magazine covers from across the past century in an effort to analyze the changing images of women. What I’ve personally discovered is a consistent exploitation of the virgin-whore complex.

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One of the most noticeable marketing changes over the past few decades is the freedom with which women are able to pose and the amount of skin exposure. While the older magazines exploit the sweet and tidy image of a “respectable” woman — falling under the housewife or virgin trope — newer magazines show a freer, more sexually liberated woman, often so obviously objectified that she falls under the whore trope.

Some would say the image of women has made progress, as we now see women who look alive and expressive and sexually free. Others would argue that our images have become worse, with rampant objectification taking the place of submissive womanhood. My answer is: Why not both?

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The media is a great marker of cultural progress, and can absolutely be used as a mirror of progress. However, it is first and foremost a business, and progressive images of women (or any demographic really) are only printed when they sell.

The solution? Exploit whatever current stereotypes or movements will sell your magazines. One hundred years ago, images of innocent, submissive, and respectable women made sense. The virginal constraints of femininity and pressure to be good and pure worked as a selling point, so they depicted women that way.

As we’ve made progress and the word “feminism” has reached the mainstream (more on a branding level than an ideological level, unfortunately), exploiting women’s recent sexual liberation and commodifying it into objectification is the smartest way for magazines to market us, as it can hide under the umbrella of progress while still presenting us as objects.

In short: As women have made incredible strides in the past 100 years, magazines as businesses have danced with our progress in whatever way benefits them, whether it be covering up or undressing us.

I say, let’s keep striding forward and push our public images, roles and stories into territories that are increasingly too complex to commodify. [Huffington Post]