Far be it from me to praise, in general, Maxim’s Hot 100 list, which in its 2013 edition, as always, is overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly extremely young, and overwhelmingly homogenous in the body shapes of the women it celebrates. Not to mention that there’s something exceptionally depressing about the declaration of pop singer Miley Cyrus, this year’s holder of the number one slot that, “It’s every woman’s fantasy to be told she’s No.1 on Maxim’s Hot 100! So crazy!”
But the inclusions of two women on this year’s Hot 100, and the reactions they’ve provoked, are revealing, both of ways that Maxim might want to expand its brand, and of the limits its placed on itself by teaching men to see women in certain and very specific ways. First, there’s the inclusion of Kamala Harris, the California Attorney General who Maxim manages to compliment in a way that’s actually less condescending than President Obama’s remark that Harris was “the best-looking attorney general in the country,” a comment that foregrounded her looks rather than her expertise. “The current Attorney General of California cracks down on hate and financial crime like a bawss and created the Environmental Justice Unit in San Francisco,” Maxim wrote, next to a portrait of Harris in a smart pantsuit. “She makes following the law super sexy!” Then, there’s Hoda Kotb, the anchor who runs a tipsy, entertaining morning segment on Today, of whom Maxim wrote: “Ms. Kotb brightens our everyday and occasionally puts up with our fearless leader, Dan Bova, on Today. We’ll always want a morning cocktail with the Egyptian goddess!”
It’s all well and good to see Maxim acknowledging some older women, and writing up nominations that acknowledge that a woman’s expertise and her personality, rather than simply her inert body, can contribute to making her extraordinarily attractive. But apparently, not all of Maxim’s readers are on board for a more expansive definition of beauty. Breitbart columnist Ben Shapiro, in the course of making the legitimate complaint that the inclusion of Kotb and Harris tilts the list left—someone like the substantive Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, who’s a rising star in the larger Fox organization, might have been a good choice—defaulted to juvenile complaints about their looks.
“As if Maxim’s Hot 100 wasn’t already bizarre enough this year – Miley Cyrus at #1? Really, Maxim? – clocking in at #79 is Hoda Kotb of the Today Show (she is 48 years old) and at #54 is Kamala Harris, attorney general of the state of California and President Obama favorite. Maxim ranks Kotb above Alice Eve (#84, a former Maxim cover girl) and Rebecca Mader (LOST), among others,” Shapiro wrote. “As for Harris, she absurdly ranks above Rachel McAdams (The Notebook, #55), Emmy Rossum (Phantom of the Opera, #56), Eva Mendes (#57), and Brooklyn Decker (#59).”
As much as its ludicrous to watch Shapiro bluster as if there’s some sort of objective, codified standard for women’s looks that Maxim has failed to uphold, his complaints actually make a valid point about the world that Maxim and its fellow American lad-mag derivations have wrought. Kotb and Harris do genuinely stand out on the Hot 100 list because the roster of women is otherwise so consistent. If you spend years teaching your readers that to be attractive, a woman has to fall within a very narrow range of waist-to-hip ratios, pick from a very small selection of hairstyles that have been deemed acceptable in advance, and present herself in a range of ways that suggest that her primary characteristic is sexual availability, of course some of them are going to be surprised when you tell them that everything they’ve learned over the years is incomplete. I’d never venture to suggest that giving over 2 percent of the Hot 100 to different kinds of women indicates that Maxim is on some sort of substantial maturity kick. But if the magazine were to decide it wants to serve readers’ brains as well as their salivary glands, Maxim might need to give them, and itself, a rather gentle learning curve.