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Heaven Is Real; Is God Dead? 5 Controversial and Ridiculous Magazine Covers

Using controversial images about race, gender and religion helps sell copies. But does it help readers?
 
 
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Last week Newsweek created yet another stir with a cloud-bedecked magazine cover screaming “HEAVEN IS REAL.”

Inside the magazine’s pages lay a doctor’s account of going into a coma and having a hallucinatory experience which he interpreted as a little holiday in heaven, whose delights included riding on butterfly wings, having a mysterious female companion who communicated unconditional love, and entering a dark void that was the home of God.

Bizarre and amusing as this particular cover is, it hearkens back to an old-school tradition of using major questions about theology to worship another deity entirely: the god of sales.

In 1966, Time magazine asked “Is God Dead?” and created a memorable stir.  Since then a qucik Google search reveals that Time has run the following covers: “God vs. Science” “Is God Coming Back to Life?” “What Does Science Tell Us About God?”, “Does God Want You to Be Rich?” “Fait,h God, and the Oval Office” “Where Did God Go?” “God and Women,” “The God Gene,” and more. Seriously, search for the above headlines. The stories exist.

So besides the “big statements about God” category, which we’ll put at number one, here are a few more of the most sensational magazine cover stories and types of cover stories that stir the pot to stir up sales. Let;s be clear--some of the stories, whether serious probings of a massive sociopolitical issue or even a plain old celebrity Q+A were and are perfectly standard, even above-average or excellent, magazine journalism.

It’s the incendiary words and images used to get buyers to open that magazine and peer inside we’re discussing here. As the New York Times reported this year, we’re in an era of the “provocative cover” reborn, celebrate or denigrate it as you will:

...Newsweek featured President Obama wearing a rainbow-colored halo with “The First Gay President” as the headline. Bloomberg Businessweek attracted attention in February with a cover featuring two mating Continental and United planes with the headline “Let’s Get It On.”

“In a nonstop news cycle, it’s their best vehicle to say ‘Hey wait a minute. Look at me,’ ” said Josh Tyrangiel, the editor of Bloomberg Businessweek. “We’re seeing a really interesting moment where weekly magazines have awakened to the possibility of that real estate.”

2-The“Muslim Rage” cover run by Newsweek earlier this autumn was, as many immediately noted, clearly looking for a reaction and also to exploit fear and cultural tensions.

But Twitter had the last laugh when people began responding with great irony using the hashtag #muslimrage about the everyday temptations of pork, the hassles of the hijab, and the pain of reading Thomas Friedman columns.
Two of the most popular tweets were:

Lost your kid Jihad at the airport. Can't yell for him.#MuslimRage — Leila

"I'm having such a good hair day. No one even knows.#MuslimRage" — Hend

At Salon, Alex Pareene slammed the piece as being the worst kind of “trolling”  “This is related to the “news” of the “week.” But it’s also a much more dickish and counterproductive bit of trolling, because it is shamelessly exploiting a sensitive situation with idiotic “provocative” fear-mongering.”

Here’s the irony: Newsweek’s online, site, the Daily Beast, has already published its own fairly comprehensive list of controversial and racist magazine covers, not including its own. Want to see more magazines with covers that employ problematic racial and cultural tropes? Click through.

3-Are You Mom Enough? Time entered the cover war fray last spring with a picture of a toddler standing on a chair while he breastfed under the headline “Are You Mom Enough?”

The, erm, arresting, image promoted an article about the already-controversial “attachment parenting” movement--but became a topic of many an article itself.

The LA Times ran a piece about the impact of the image, quoting a fawning journalism expert saying this was the most exciting thing that had come out of print journalism in a while:

It all adds up to the secret sauce behind the cover's success, said [Smir] Husni, a professor at the Magazine Innovation Center, Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi. The editors have taken a very old topic -- breastfeeding, after all, has been around forever -- and managed to put a very fresh spin on it.

"It didn't just start the conversation, it's continuing the conversation," he said. "This is not just '15 seconds of fame, go on to the next story.' This story is going to be 24/7 [for a while].

Katha Pollitt called bullshit on these stories that profile and hype up “parenting” (especially mothering” “movements” or fads:

Child-rearing fashions come and go, but they’re always about regulating the behavior of women—middle-class educated women. If these discussions were really about children, we would be debating the policies that affect them—what to do about our shocking level of child poverty, for example

4-Why Women Still Can’t Have It AllAlong similar lines to the “Are You Mom Enough”” debate was the furious and sometimes productive conversation that arose from this summer’s cover story in The Atlantic featuring a baby in a briefcase toted by a suit-wearing torso of a mom. Actually a somewhat personal take from Anne Marie-Slaughter about the impossible she faced as a mom and a high-powered person in government, and her decision to return to academia, it provoked fury because of the idea that the very question was one men would never have to answer--and also reasoned, thoughtful discussion on the issue of work-life balance.

In fact, it even provoked Slaughter, inspired by a Rebecca Traister piece, to drop the phrase “have it all” from future discussions of the issues at hand--while acknowledging that that very phrase vaulted her byline into stardom. As the responses to her piece fanned outover the internet, she wrote:

when so many Americans have so little and so many men appear to be dissatisfied with their lot (judging by the number of responses that essentially say "men don't have it all either," a better and more accurate title for my article would have been Why Working Mothers Need Better Choices to Be Able to Stay in the Pool and Make It to the Top. (Not sure that would have been catchy enough to motivate over a million readers to read and debate it, however.)

Her piece also prompted Jessica Valenti to identify the scare-mongering trope “Sad White Babies With Mean Feminist Mommies,” a perennial favorite of magazine covers and spreads.

5- Photoshop til they drop. Self’s “Body Confidence” issue, in which an unrealistically, absurdly slimmed-down Kelly Clarkson graced the cove--and editors defended their choice by saying they wanted to inspire women to look their best--is perhaps the apex of this category. But there’s Demi Moore’s missing hip, Faith hill’s smoothed-over face, disappearing hands, whittled waists, and heads seemingly plopped onto others’ bodies. There’s skin shined away to remove bone structure and unique features and worse, make non-white models and actresses, well, whiter. It’s a disaster that merited its own protest.

Buzzfeed Shift and Jezebel both have galleries of shame listing the worst examples of this practice.

We haven’t even touched on the tabloids, but you can be sure as the internet continues its erosion of our attention spans, editors are going to be fighting to attract our roving eyes. And as a fan of magazine journalism I can’t entirely fault that instinct. Still, there must be a way to get our attention without resporting racist and sexist tropes? Please?
 

 

Sarah Seltzer is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published at the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor, Jezebel and the Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter at @sarahmseltzer and find her work at sarahmseltzer.com.

 
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