The annual cover is a lightweight honorific that worked its way into the public consciousness as way more legitimate than it actually is. Kind of like winning a Golden Globe.
Think about the inherent ridiculousness of declaring anyone the sexiest person alive. Sexiness, by its very nature, is subjective. So it’s a winky joke that People offers up its own tastes as if they are everyone’s. And by making their subject male, they’re tacitly saying: See, we’re not objectifying women, we’re so evolved. Men can be objects of lust too! Maybe that was (arguably) a subversive statement in the 1980s, when Playboy, Penthouse and other magazines imposed a misogynist ideal of sexiness at the newsstands. But now? Not so much.
And when you consider the enduring ubiquity of People, its insistence on shaping our taste in men feels less funny. The magazine’s tradition began in 1985 with a candidate whose appeal, I think we can agree, has not aged well: Mel Gibson, now infamous for his antisemitic rants. It’s worth noting that a bunch of SMAs subsequently made headlines for pretty troubling reasons.
The vast majority of People’s SMAs have been White, straight men with generic good looks. In its 37 years, the magazine has featured four (also chiseled and straight) Black men – Denzel Washington, Michael B. Jordan, John Legend and Idris Elba - and one biracial man, Dwayne Johnson.
Nobody is disputing these are handsome men (even ones who’ve proven themselves to be ugly on the inside). But their looks represent the narrowest sliver of the range of humanity.
Where’s the sexiness in that? As Tracy Moore wrote in Jezebel, “sexy is a construct, and unfortunately, in this world, it’s a very very very unimaginative, narrow, boring one that fails to address many sexy things and focuses on other, boring things that have been sexy for so long I’m willing to suggest right here they might have even lost some of their sexy.” As she points out, “we’re so conditioned toward the fake image that it has become normalized as Definitively Sexy.”
What if we just acknowledged there’s a huge spectrum of what people actually consider sexy in a man, without trying to fit the term into a one-size-fits-all container? Different people are attracted to different body types, different orientations, different presentations of gender. Some men look really good in dresses, just for example. By reliably announcing the same presentation of masculinity, over and over, as the BEST kind, this tradition of SMA is just shoring up the many ways that beautiful people are rewarded in countless ways in our culture.
As one study has noted, “people seem to assume that positive interpersonal qualities and physical attractiveness are systematically linked.” Arguing about the definition of what’s sexy may seem silly, but it has real-world implications for anyone who doesn’t live up to a rigid stereotype about what it is or isn’t. One 2020 study claimed that “compared with people of average attractiveness, the highly attractive earn roughly 20 percent more and are recommended for promotion more frequently.” In less stark economic terms, it stands to reason that reinforcing a status quo about what’s acceptably sexy makes people with differing views feel less empowered to be open about it.
Compared to newer titles, People can seem like a bit of a relic, but it’s the publication that jump-started the business of marketing celebrity to the public. It’s still available in plenty of waiting rooms the world over. So when people pick it up and see that another White, wealthy, successful, straight, American, able-bodied guy has been crowned The Sexiest, it reinforces the idea that everyone who deviates from that norm is inherently less than.
A study found that “People magazine had the largest audience in the United States in June 2022, with an average monthly reach of 81.35 million people.” It has the power to wave its pop-cultural wand and confer “sexiest” status on anyone it wants. (As one tweet put it: “Imagine if sexiest man alive had (been) a wheelchair user?”)
There’s real damage done when media continues to idealize masculinity in such a limited way. “The more men cling to rigid views of masculinity, the more likely they are to be depressed, or disdainful, or lonely,” wrote Monica Hesse in the Washington Post. The effect, quite possibly, applies to both reader and subject.
None of these problems with the title itself should cast any aspersions on this year’s SMA, Chris Evans, by all accounts a genuinely nice guy who’s long been interested in using his fame to advance good causes. But there’s an inevitable schtick involved in being anointed the SMA that he plays into: “‘The Gray Man’ star is also bracing for some good-natured ribbing from his close friends. ‘Really this will just be a point of bullying,’ he jokes. ‘It’s ripe for harassment.’” Actors who’ve participated in a lengthy photo shoot and interview and, one imagines, a lot of back-and-forth to arrange the whole thing, still have to do an aw-shucks-who-me affect about showing up for the gig.
Personally, I’d love to see an SMA give an interview where he talks about the increased wealth that comes with the title; what movie doesn’t want its leading actor to be an SMA? Or openly discusses the massive advantages he’s already enjoyed in his career thanks to being the kind of hot that mainstream pop culture considers acceptable. Or acknowledges the damage that can happen when the media insists on a retrograde definition of masculinity.
Now that would be sexy.