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One of the great unheralded pleasures in life is lounging on a comfy couch reading People magazine while flipping between Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood while group-emailing friends about the latest celebrity gossip. Talk about multitasking!


It strikes me that reading People is not a guilty pleasure, just a pleasure. That’s because People ensures that we can read it with a clear conscience. There’s none of the shame or embarrassment you might feel in the supermarket checkout line when the cashier rings up your purchase of the National Enquirer or Globe and, with surprising volume, reads aloud salacious cover lines like “Hillary Attacks Bill’s Secret Lover” or “Oprah’s Cross Country Eating Binge.” Or when you scrutinize the photos in Star magazine of celebrities with (gasp!) unsightly — and un-airbrushed — blemishes or cellulite or layers of flab.


No, People has protected its readers’ virtue by resisting what I can only imagine is a really humongous urge to catch celebrities on film in unflattering poses or with the wrong people, or to print hot gossip before it’s confirmed.


Not only that, but from the start, the magazine has foisted feel-good stories on us about ordinary people doing heroic things like running into the house next door while it’s ablaze to rescue Furball, the neighbors’ partially blind, three-legged cat. Or using their food stamps to purchase cans of condensed milk and baked beans to donate to a food pantry two states over. Or spending five months scouring nearby forests for two murdered children they’d never met. (Can you guess which of these is real?)


And let’s not forget the cheerleading letters from readers like this one from the 7 August issue: “No Hollywood hookup has warmed my heart like that of Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy. These two hilarious souls go together like peanut butter and jelly. I couldn’t be happier for them.” (Funny, it’s occurred to me thousands of times to send letters to editors, CEOs, and customer service reps about things that annoy, irritate, and infuriate me, but I’ve never once been moved to send a letter filled with good wishes for people I’ve never met. But maybe that’s just me.)


You’ve got to give it to People: it knows who it is and what its readership wants, and it has never veered from that path. How many products do you know of that can claim success of this magnitude after 32 years in existence: People has a circulation of 3.73 million and its revenue is expected to exceed $1.5 billion this year. Adweek selected it as “Magazine of the Year” in its latest “Hot List of Top 10 Magazines”, and named Martha Nelson, editor of the People Group, editor of the year. People‘s website receives monthly page views of 225 million.


It’s clear that People magazine’s modus operandi is to be a people pleaser. And so it might appear that People is tame and middlebrow and safe, and focused exclusively on the bottom line. But after years and years of People-perusing, I’ve come to realize that the magazine is more than just a gossip rag or a teller of heartwarming tales. I believe that People is a secretly subversive publication, bent on reshaping society’s attitudes about beauty and sexual desire. Okay, maybe not exactly subversive, but at least progressive. In its own surprising way, People is causing us to question, consciously or not, many of our preconceived notions about women, men, and sexuality.


Consider this: In 1985, People did something radical for its time: it portrayed men as sex objects. That was the year the magazine introduced its “Sexiest Man Alive” cover with its selection of Mel Gibson (before he was revealed as a dangerously drunken anti-Semite, which for me really kills the whole sexy thing). Others who’ve been so honored include Tom Cruise (before he started freaking us out with his manic outbursts) and Nick Nolte (before his scary, finger-in-the-electric-socket mug shot). Okay, I’m not saying People has always chosen wisely, I’m simply saying the magazine started its own quiet sexual revolution by debunking the myth that only men are sexually drawn to others on the basis of visual stimuli.


Of course, today, male celebrities are routinely pictured on the pages of magazines, bare chested with their pecs and six-pack abs gleaming in the Malibu sun, but this was not the case two decades ago. Sure, in the ‘70s Playgirl was conceived, and Cosmo shocked everyone with its nude centerfold of Burt Reynolds, but this is People we’re talking about. Besides, even now, images of women chosen for their sexual desirability far outnumber those of men on the covers of magazines. So, by continuing with its “Sexiest Man Alive” issue, People is still going against the grain.



People is counter-cultural when it comes to how we think about sex and relationships in other ways, as well. Take the magazine’s celebration of the older woman / younger man relationship, for instance. The coupling of Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, in particular, seems to enthrall the editors of People. The magazine broke the story of their romance in May, 2003, and since then has reveled in it, with picture after picture of the photogenic couple, oftentimes with Demi’s kids and her ex, Bruce Willis, looking for all the world like he doesn’t mind being the sixth wheel.


People even featured the couple on its 10 October 2005 cover with the headline, “Secret Wedding!” despite the fact that the magazine had to run the article sans wedding photos—a near tragedy in People‘s world of exclusive photographic rights.


Big deal, you’re thinking, if you believe the whole Benjamin / Mrs. Robinson taboo went the way of the coo-coo-ca-choo song lyrics from The Graduate. But, according to the US Census Bureau, in 2003 fewer than one in 10 unmarried couples were women with men at least six years younger, and only four in 100 married couples were women married to men at least six years younger. People‘s rather gleeful celebration of Demi and Ashton, along with other May-December relationships like Guy Ritchie / Madonna and Tim Robbins / Susan Sarandon, is giving us a different picture of such relationships, one that more and more people might begin to emulate as a result of People‘s “normalizing” of them.


Finally, if you are a People devotee, you may have noticed that the magazine and its website have been quite audacious lately in questioning whether an actress can actually be — get this — too thin. I don’t know exactly why Hollywood, the fashion industry, and the magazine biz have conspired to promote the incredible shrinking woman (although I could hazard some rather cynical guesses), but they have, and for far too long. Beautiful young actresses are routinely pressured to lose weight, and they do—to the point of near-starvation.


I’m not saying that People is the Mother Teresa of the publishing world; after all, its pages are filled with waifish stars and it also seems to have an unhealthy obsession with how quickly new Hollywood moms can shed their pregnancy pounds. But, then the magazine redeems itself by slyly taking pot shots at the super-thin and famous. For example, The “Scoop” section of this year’s 31 July issue contained the large-sized heading “My Bag is Bigger than Me!” with the subhead “Has a combination of slimmer stars and larger purses led to a spike in satchel-to-celeb ratios?” Beneath the type are photos of Ashley Olsen, Victoria Beckham, Keira Knightley, and Nicole Richie, each looking like their frail frames can barely support the weight of their heads, much less their handbags.


Recently, the People website even featured a Photo Poll, with the text, “Star Bodies: Hot or Not? Too thin? Just right?” There’s a then-and-now photo comparison for Keira Knightley, Kate Bosworth, Lindsay Lohan, and Lara Flynn Boyle, accompanied by not-so-subtle descriptions by People of the actresses in their too-thin days (“gaunt” and “ultra-slender silhouette”), and in their healthier-looking state (“flaunted her curves”). This somewhat subversive subtext may not signal the demise of size double-zero, but it may make size six less repulsive to producers in Hollywood, again.


Sexiest men alive! Older women with younger men! Skinny celebs ribbed instead of admired! If only I were the right sort of person, I’d send a letter to People, thanking them for enlightening us in their understated way, all these years. But, alas, that’s just not me.

In her "Vox Pop" column for PopMatters Meta voices her observations about pop culture, particularly as it intersects with our lives. She is endlessly fascinated by the myriad ways in which our pop culture choices reflect back on us -- our beliefs, our desires, our idiosyncrasies, our intellects. Wagner's published pieces include written commentaries, features, and profiles for Salon, Boston Globe Magazine, Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, and other publications. You can visit her blog here. When she's not writing, Meta is molding young minds as an adjunct professor at Emerson College, where she teaches creative writing. She also developed and occasionally teaches a column-writing class at Grub Street, an independent writing center in Boston.


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