The Better Bombshell

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a bombshell sighting. It’s right here in the February issue of Esquire. The cover: Megan Fox in a modern pinup pose. The cover line: Megan Fox (You’re Welcome.) And in his profile, writer Stephen Marche comes right out with it: “Megan Fox is a bombshell.…Bombshells once used to roam the cultural landscape like buffalo, and like buffalo they were edging toward extinction.”

PHEW. Megan Fox is like those whales in Star Trek IV, or the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. We thought they were gone, but one yet roams the earth!

In the guiding statement of The Better Bombshell, the contributors were tasked with considering the bombshell “in a sharp contrast to the popular media.” As a card-carrying member of their ranks, I’ve always taken issue with idea of a monolithic “media”—we magazine editors don’t sit down at an annual convention to vote on a superficiality agenda. But trends do emerge, especially when I look at the spread of magazines in front of the treadmills at my gym. I sat down with Esquire’s profile to figure out just what society is labeling a bombshell these days.

Megan Fox wears a bra, panties, half-open shirt, and a pout on the February Esquire cover; last month Sean Penn wore jeans, a t-shirt, and a scowl.

Oh, come on, I hear you say. It’s Esquire! It’s for men! But Esquire isn’t some porn-adjacent laddie rag; it’s an 81-year-old institution, one that launched the career of Raymond freaking Carver. Its readership is 30% female. Last year Esquire was a finalist for the top prize at the National Magazine Awards, the Oscars of its field, and won for Feature Writing.

Esquire isn’t Maxim, and it isn’t Hustler. It’s about as close as the “popular” media comes to thoughtful, literary writing. And it has unequivocally named a bombshell: Megan Fox.

Who is she? An actress, basically. She had major roles in the Transformers blockbusters, basically as the hot chick that the hero saves and then earns as a reward for all his hero-ship. In comedies like Friends With Kids and This is 40, her roles are all riffs on her sex bomb image; she’s the too-hot girlfriend or sexy coworker threatening the status quo. Her acting talent isn’t doubtful, just untested—she’s unquestionably more famous for being beautiful than for acting. (However, she earned major cool points by directing her substantial Hollywood hotness into dating and then marrying David Silver from Beverly Hills, 90210. Not even Dylan McKay! This guy!)

But what makes Megan Fox a bombshell? According to Esquire, it’s her physical symmetry: “It’s not really even that beautiful. [Her face is] closer to the sublime…There is absolutely nothing wrong with her.” But to properly anoint Fox with the bombshell label, Marche contrasts her with other famous women: She’s really sexy, you see, unlike Lady Gaga, Amy Adams, and Tina Fey. “To be serious and respected, it is better to be homely or cute,” he writes.

(Yes, Marche calls, a walking avant-garde act and the literal embodiment of the Disney princess “perfectly plain,” and considers this lady to be “really just average.” I don’t think those words mean what Stephen Marche thinks they mean.)

As dismissive, judgmental, and patently absurd as the comparisons are, Marche epitomizes a common thread in today’s popular media: Beauty is a static state of being, and so to achieve—or strive, or fail, or create—is the opposite of beauty. “Bombshell” takes the place of a full-job. If a bombshell can fill in the “occupation” line in her passport application with anything else, she is, therefore, not a bombshell.

Wander the newsstand (if you can find one! Long live print magazines!) and look at the faces. The Kardashian sisters are happy to be purposeless but pretty. Fifteen years ago, Jessica Simpson was a singer; now she’s a professional Jessica Simpson. Real Housewives, Teen Moms, established actresses: All photo-shopped into Barbie forms and contorted into awkward positions on InStyle, Redbook, Glamour, US Weekly. The Esquire cover fits right in.

Is Megan Fox’s sexuality, her beauty, working for her? Does she own her bombshell image? Not quite—the profile goes on to note her unease with the attention she receives, and is more about her beliefs than her acting. She speaks in tongues, considers the Antichrist, believes in leprechauns, and would rather discover Bigfoot than watch a good movie. She’s painted as quite the superstitious nut, hiding in irrationality. She’s beautiful, she’s a bombshell—therefore she isn’t smart.

Megan Fox knows her place, suggests the writer. Unlike the similarly beautiful Scarlett Johansson, who is mocked for the folly of “telling everyone who will listen just how thoughtful an actor she is.” Silly Scarlett; you’re in the wrong box, and you belong with the bombshells.

We may take issue with Esquire writer’s claims, his categorizations—and oh, do I ever—but in the terms of The Better Bombshell, there are larger questions to ask. Is it fundamentally okay that Megan Fox is half-naked on one of the country’s biggest magazines? Is that owning her sexuality, or being used by it?

 We’re more comfortable when we say yes, that Megan Fox is in on the game. She’s not dumb, leprechaun beliefs aside; she’s built a solid career out of playing on, sending up, or joking around with her sexual, socially-rewarded persona. And sex is good. Sexy is good.

But another contributor to The Better Bombshell pointed out, there’s one more word in our book’s title: Better. Is Megan Fox a better bombshell than, say, Marilyn Monroe? Marilyn was in on the act…until she wasn’t. Here in the 21st century, being a bombshell doesn’t free Megan Fox; it tethers her down. It pushes her toward Kardashian status, away from the sphere where Tina Fey and Sean Penn dwell.

The popular media is undoubtedly better than it was 50, even 20 years ago. Pinups get full magazine profiles, not just cover photos. Vanity Fair has to begrudgingly admit that women are funny. Hillary Clinton is a badass meme. But more and more, we’re seeing women shoved into two camps: The smart women, the ones that try, the ones that achieve, are on one side. The bombshells are on another: rare, but celebrated. Being a bombshell is still a thriving career in today’s popular media, but you daren’t try to be a multihyphenate.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: We still need a better bombshell.

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Allison Williams is a senior editor at Seattle Met magazine and a contributor to The Better Bombshell. Her popular media credentials include a stint interviewing celebrities at Time Out New York magazine, where her most bombshell-y subjects were Amber Tamblyn (who hung up on her), and Maya Angelou (who talked about her pants falling off), and Will Arnett. Allison also accidentally swore on NPR during her first live appearance on The Takeaway.

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