NEW YORK—Barnes & Noble and Borders earlier this month demanded that Dossier magazine wrap its most recent issue in opaque plastic (similar to the wrapping your Hustler arrives in) because the black-and-white cover featured the androgynous male model Andrej Pejic bare-chested, his hair coiffed sensually in thick short wavy blonde curls. In the photo, the model's head is bowed slightly to the side, eyes closed, as a white shirt slides down the arms which, like an ancient statue, appear cut off above the elbow, lending the portrait a quality of timeless, genderless beauty.
“The model is young and it could be deemed as a naked female,” B&N explained, as word of the extremely rare stipulation rippled through the industry. Despite the fact that Pejic is waif-thin and devoid of anything remotely resembling female breasts (or a six pack, for that matter), the retailers obviously, and oddly, seem desperately worried that people would think Pejic is not just a girl, but an underage girl.
The Serbian-born, Australia-raised 19-year-old Pejic, who is very pretty and models both women's and men's lines of clothing to prove the point, is speaking out about the controversy, telling New York Magazine that while he understands why the retailers did what they did, he does not believe they should have done it... even if he were a female. The issue is one of art versus porn.
“I think the question really isn’t the gender of the person on the cover; it’s whether it’s porn or it’s art,” he said. “And clearly, it’s art, so art really should not be censored in a democratic society.” Is Pejic saying that gender is innately sexual and sex is innately pornographic, and that porn, unlike art, should be subject to censorship? One hopes not, but if so, it's a neat, if unfortunate, syllogism.
For Dossier co-founder and creative director Skye Parrott, however, the gender confusion element was precisely one of the reasons why the photo was chosen. “We knew that this cover presented a very strong, androgynous image, and that could make some people uncomfortable. That's partly why we chose it. I guess it has made someone pretty uncomfortable.”
Indeed, the image has become a sexual Rorschach Test of sorts onto which everyone is projecting their own definitions of sex and gender. If the retailers had not believed that the photo would offend at least some people they would never have asked to have it covered up. Pejic, on the other hand, wants the sex and gender elements removed from the argument, while Parrott says they are why the photo was chosen.
“I've been talking to all my friends who work in magazines, and nobody I know has ever heard of anything like this happening,” said Parrott, stirring the pot. “Especially with a guy. Guys are shirtless on magazine covers all the time.”
And Styleite noted, “Need we remind you that a crazily buff (and pretty much shirtless) Aaron Schock graces the cover of June’s Men Health? If Andrej were muscled instead of waif-like, would this be an issue?”
Jezebel also chimed in: “What message are the big bookstore chains sending—that the male torso is only appropriate all-ages viewing when the man in question is ripped?”
But the Gawker-owned gossip site also observed, “Pejic is a man. And pictures of shirtless men, in Western culture, are not considered ‘obscene.’ So why is Pejic's cover getting the same treatment as a porno mag?”
Hoo-boy, what a mess. Like chickens with their heads cut off, everyone is running around making up meanings as they go along. Confusion reigns, and all anyone can agree upon is that porn is bad. Even where there is no porn, everyone sees it lurking about. In the end, a burqa moment made more sense than trusting the general public to make up its own mind about the photo of a 19-year-old boy, and paranoid self-censorship prevailed.