As the founding editor of FHM in South Africa I feel honour bound to make a statement following the media furore that has erupted around the brand over the past weeks. It all started with two staffers making reprehensible jokes about rape and quite correctly being fired. I watched and listened and read with detached interest as people debated the role and the merits of the magazine. Detached, that is, until former FHM Sexiest Woman in the World winner Casey B Dolan used the event to throw a blanket accusation of misogyny (misspelt as mysogyny on the bookslive website) over everything that had gone before, including her involvement with the magazine and, in the process, drawing my colleagues at the time and myself into the fray.
FHM was founded on strong values and principles. Most fundamental was the “girlfriend test”. Any guy who bought one had to feel comfortable leaving it lying on the table for his girlfriend to find and read. All relationship and sex advice features were given from the perspective of a woman. If a woman didn’t write them, then women were interviewed, along with experts. No guy ever gave that kind of advice; any guy featured was always the recipient of the advice, as in a gonzo journalist who went out and tested what he had been taught by a woman. The feedback we regularly received from men and women – even from conservative small-town readers – was that the relationship and sex features had made a positive difference for them. Throughout the magazine, women were treated with respect and having a good relationship with women was seen as one of the most important and revered aspects of a man’s life. Any portrayal of women was treated within that context, and no denigration of women would have been tolerated by anybody. This was a principle, and not even one that needed to be stated. It was part of the fabric of who we were, and remain, as people.
My view on the two staffers’ comments is that they were well outside the boundaries of decency, and of those founding principles. Whether the initial comments happened privately or not doesn’t matter. Any staff who harbour underlying attitudes like that are not acceptable in their position. They must take the consequences for their actions and I hope they learn from it. Judging by their response, I doubt they have. They should have ’fessed up and shut up. At the same time I don’t think we should lay the whole burden of South Africa’s unacceptable rape crisis on those two guys, nor their employers. That’s like someone making a joke about a bomb at the airport and you throw them in jail as though they had the actual bomb, or worse, you throw their employers in jail as though they invented the bomb.
The events that Casey points to in her article have been taken out of context. I’m afraid that she has managed to reverse engineer the attitudes of the two recent staffers into her own memory and apply them as a filter to events that happened 13 years ago.
For starters, the staff complement for FHM at the time included four women (three in senior positions), two gay men and only three straight men, two of whom were in their early thirties. It was hardly a den of boyish misogyny. The people present at the shoot were the photographer (who is as quiet and gentle as a Zen monk), two gay stylists, two women, and myself. Any remark about “tits” that might have been made as Casey claims – and I don’t remember one – would have had to do with the fact that her nipples were showing through the garment, and the solution decided upon was to Photoshop them out. If there was any insensitivity or objectification, then it was the objectification of media professionals, not of leering men.
The comment that the editor told her she was lucky to be in the magazine, well, that’s true but that was in a different context entirely. It happened not at the shoot, but at the office in the week leading up to the shoot and again afterwards. It was early days for the magazine in South Africa and Casey was justifiably unsure whether accepting the mantle of “Sexiest Woman” and appearing in the magazine was the right thing to do. It was in that context that I presented to her the benefits for her career. Perhaps I used the word lucky, or implied that she was lucky, I don’t remember, and perhaps I was tactless or insensitive, as I have been known to be, but it was in the context of my professional duty to rescue the cover we were planning to run, that we had invested tens of thousands of rands and weeks of time to accomplish. We had deadlines to meet, and she was a star in the making – they even wanted to run her pics in a number of the international editions, which is not a common occurrence.
She failed to mention that this was her second shoot; she had been with us before and had come back again. I emphasise again that we were always respectful towards her as a woman, not because we needed to be, but because that’s just who we were, and are, as people. If she has a personal problem with her appearance in the magazine then she needs to admit to that and deal with it honestly and appropriately.
With regards to the question of men’s magazines and how they are often linked to the abominable levels of rape in South Africa I would like to point to a statement made by Gillian Schutte, the Southern African Coordinator of the global One Billion Rising to End Violence Against Women and Girls campaign. She wrote in The Star on 26 February 2013 (I cut the article out and kept it, with the intention to act on it) that more men need to speak out against rape. Should FHM make such an effort? Perhaps. It would be like football players speaking out against racism, which is a positive step. Should FHM do it by not featuring women in bikinis and lingerie? Well that would be akin to football players not playing football until racism went away. It may be effective in some way, and it’s never going to happen. Perhaps we could ask the football players for a week of no football to highlight the issue of racism – and perhaps we could ask FHM to leave a blank page in its next edition to highlight the issue of rape. Other than that we will have to look for solutions elsewhere, because to close the magazine down, well there’s still the Internet. Stop football and there’s WWF to watch.
So my request to Casey is that she endorses her statement by offering the full context to her readers. My message to men is to be mindful of the history of our gender and our treatment of women. It’s not a good case. We have no right to take that lightly. Not for the next thousand years, and then not for the next thousand, and then not beyond that. If you take that on you’ll be a better man for it, I assure you. My message to women is, you will have to continue to be the bigger persons for a while still: forgive us and teach us at the same time. We are obtuse creatures.