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Magazine Cover Esquire February 2008

Is this a case of refreshing British candour, or outright sexism?

Alex Bilmes, the editor of the U.K. version of Esquire magazine, said during a public event on Tuesday that the women his magazine features on its pages are "ornamental" and that he and his editors "provide pictures of girls in the same way we provide pictures of cool cars."

Bilmes was speaking on a panel at the Advertising Week Europe conference in London; his event was videotaped, and you can see the heads of his female co-panelists snap back when he takes his first steps down the road to controversy.

"What we do at Esquire is produce a men's magazine, and it has a male gaze," Bilmes begins. "So this is the controversial bit that people don't like but I always say the truth about it: The women we feature in the magazine are ornamental."

At this point a woman in the audience interrupts and warns Bilmes, "We have sharp objects." He goes on: "Yeah I know. Well I could lie to you if you want and say that we're interested in their brains as well, but on the whole we're not, and they're there to be beautiful objects. They're objectified."

By now his co-panelists look like they wish they'd signed on for the discussion about classified advertising down the hall. Bilmes, too, looks a little taken aback by where he's going, but he apparently decides it's too late to turn back.

He goes on to explain how men "regard women in many, many ways: They're our sisters, our daughters, our wives, our mothers [he never says "colleague" or "boss"], and we do see them as three-dimensional human beings. But there are certain times we just want to look at them because they're sexy... One of the things men like is pictures of pretty girls, so we provide them with pictures of pretty girls.

"For that purpose, they are ornamental. This may sound even worse, but it's the same way we also provide them with pictures of cool cars."

At this point the two women on either side of him in the video look like they just want to disappear. When Bilmes then accuses fashion and women's magazine of also objectifying women and says the ornaments — whoops — women in Esquire are more diverse in age, shape and ethnicity than in, say, Cosmopolitan, the female co-panelist on his right finally can't take it any more. "Oh god, that is so not true!" she says.

Bilmes digs his grave right up to the end of the video, boasting that Esquire, unlike fashion magazines, publishes photos of "older women" – by which he means 40. That statement draws audible gasps from the audience.

No man would deny he likes to look at women because they're sexy, but few would celebrate the objectification of women and boast of contributing to it. Bilmes never offers a counterpoint to the tangible harm done by treating women as objects similar to cars or offers any proof at all that he sees them any other way. His only response is, well, other people do it too, and some of those are women! His entire talk is a fatuous putdown.

But what do you think? Was Bilmes just being honest, or did he betray a rank and outdated sexism?