Phil Gulley Takes on People Magazine

It stopped being about people a long time ago.

I was at a doctor’s office recently, and as I sat in the waiting room, I read People, easily the worst magazine in the universe. Just to be clear, if there is a parallel universe with other Earth-like planets capable of supporting life, People is surely worse than any magazine published there, too. First, I read about Prince William and Kate Middleton, and Kate’s brave decision to wear a $39 necklace with a designer dress. That article also detailed the couple’s efforts to ensure their son George has a normal life, which won’t be easy since the kid won’t have to work a day in his life because the British populace seems incapable of forcing those freeloaders to get a real job like the rest of us.

After my dalliance with royalty, I turned to the next story, featuring upcoming trends in fashion. There were pictures of scrawny women dressed in clothing so ridiculous that one would have to be a subscriber to People to wear it. Now, I get around more than the average Quaker minister (which is to say I’ve been to Indianapolis and know how the high-rollers live). Even at the ritziest parties, I’ve never seen anyone wear the kind of puffy costumes fashion models do.

On the next page, the magazine showed pictures of men looking ridiculous, too. Ladies, think of your grandfather who fought in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam. Now imagine you are dating a male model and bring him home to meet the family. Your grandfather is there. He asks your boyfriend what he does for a living, and your boyfriend says he is a fashion model. Visualize, if you will, your grandfather’s reaction. His beloved granddaughter, the light of his life, wants to share her future with a man who wears leather pants, has spiked hair, and hasn’t shaved in three days.

When one reads People, it’s hard to believe we’re the cultural descendants of the statesmen who wrote the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Those giants entertained profound ideas, expressed themselves eloquently, and if they were alive today, would tell Miley Cyrus to grow up and get her scantily clad butt to college.

Speaking of Miley, I met a young lady recently who was in tears over the pop singer’s transformation from Hannah Montana—a paragon of virginal virtue—to the village bimbo.

“Like, I had, like, such respect for Hannah Montana,” the young lady told me.
“Except Hannah Montana wasn’t real,” I pointed out. “She was make-believe.”
Being make-believe is the chief requirement for being written about in People magazine, since it isn’t actually about real people, a profound irony if ever there were one. I read a magazine named Motorcycle World, which is about—wait for it—motorcycles. A magazine’s name should have some bearing on its content, but People stopped being about people a long time ago.

I’ve been told that magazines are dying. If they were all as bad as People, I would say good riddance. But the two magazines I write for are doing reasonably well. I’d like to think my essays are keeping them afloat, although I suspect their good fortune has more to do with advertising. Writers hate the idea that advertising, not writing, is keeping publications in the black. But that’s a writer’s life, one letdown after another.

The average Quaker pastor is mesmerizing, a never-ending fount of charisma, but you’d never know it from reading that rag.

I wish there were a magazine about the kinds of things I like. Even though I read Motorcycle World, I would enjoy it a lot more if it only published stories about the four motorcycles I own. In the same vein, I would like People more if it only wrote about Quaker ministers. I’ve been reading the publication in doctor’s offices since it first came out in 1974, and not once have I read about a Quaker pastor. The average Quaker pastor is mesmerizing, a never-ending fount of charisma and heroic derring-do, but you’d never know it from reading that rag.  

There’s another thing magazines are doing today that is unspeakably evil: inserting perfumed advertisements. Magazines should smell like paper, not a brothel. I was recently in the library and saw a magazine with a big-chested floozy on the cover. Underneath her, it read, “How to Make Your Wife the Happiest Woman in the World.” Wanting to make my wife the happiest woman in the world, I read the article, which was chock-full of perfume ads. When I got home, my wife took onesniff and asked where I had been.

“At the library,” I answered.

She didn’t believe me and, for what it’s worth, didn’t appear all that happy. Isn’t that just like a magazine, to promise more than it can possibly deliver?

People thrives on our hopes that if we read about royalty and stars, we will be like them. It implies an access to fame that exists only in our minds. We begin to think of William and Kate and Miley as our friends, our confidantes. People convinces us we are held dear by stars we’ve never met and never will. Reading about them won’t make us look like them, be rich like them, or famous like them. It will only cause us to despise our own lives, which seem lacking in comparison. That is why People is the worst magazine in the universe. It contributes nothing to our store of helpful knowledge, promotes an unrealistic view of life and beauty, and requires a lot of perfectly good trees to be cut down in the process. Entire forests, stunning beyond description, have been leveled so we can read about Simon Cowell impregnating his friend’s wife.

A thriving democracy depends upon a well-informed populace. Without it, we end up with Sarah Palin, another People favorite, running for high office. Since the periodical does nothing to contribute to our nation’s well-being and everything to diminish it, a hefty tax should be charged to anyone who buys it. We could call it the stupidity tax. There’s a social cost to ignorance, after all, and those who trade in it should be penalized.

If I ever become the omnipotent ruler of America, something about which I regularly fantasize, the first thing I’m going to do is outlaw that magazine. In fact, let’s not wait until I’m the omnipotent ruler; let’s shut it down now, before Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber marry one another and People writes about them every week.  I know it’s evil to wish someone dead, but if that ever happens, I hope someone comes along and shoots me.  


Illustration by Ryan Snook

This column appeared in the May 2014 issue.