By Amanda Biederman
Chief Science Correspondent
Which of these Science magazine covers is not like the other?
If you said the middle image, you're not alone: The publication is known for its trademark look of a single, bold image that often depicts a scientific phenomenon. So thousands of readers were a bit surprised to receive this particular cover in the mail last Friday.
The photo depicts the bodies of two transgender Indonesian sex workers, accompanying an article about how other countries can benefit from the example of Australia's extremely effective HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment programs.
"When we said we wanted more women in Science this is not what we meant," Louisiana University professor Prosanta Chakrabarty tweeted yesterday.
On one level, I think I understand Science's initial intentions in this unusual cover choice. They have chosen to tackle a controversial issue by featuring a group of people that are often either condemned or ignored in popular culture. And that is very admirable.
I believe the editors chose to feature the women in this way in an effort to portray their everyday lives. Sex workers are constantly objectified. They have to dress provocatively to survive. And no one cares about their faces. For their clients, they only exist for their bodies. In this way, the decision to cut their heads off may have been a symbolic one.
The choice may have also been a stylistic one. By cutting off the women's heads, the top of the cover was no longer the focus of attention, bringing the reader's eye down to the caption at the bottom of the page. The women's shoes, metaphorically "staying a step ahead" are now the focus of the reader's attention.
Yet the magazine is lost in its message, ultimately contributing to the concern that I believe the editors at Science were attempting to highlight. In retrospect, it may have been more effective for this message to come through in the article's text.
Science Editor-in-Chief apologized for the cover in a tweet yesterday, acknowledging that the magazine's effort to highlight a solution to the crisis "badly missed the mark."
The actual article actually has nothing to do with Indonesian sex workers, focusing more on the superior medical care that Australian patients receive, alluding at the end to the fact that the country's neighbors are facing their own challenges with the epidemic.
Although Indonesia itself is mentioned in the article, sex workers are only mentioned once, and only as a side note. Transgender women are surprisingly absent from the text.
A bit strange, seeing as they are the focal point of the cover.
I am disappointed that Science magazine, no matter how well intended, would produce a cover that would look more appropriate on Us Weekly.
The magazine should stick to its well-known scientific cover images and leave out the sexy metaphors of oppression. It may have been a creative, even empowering idea; unfortunately, the concept did not translate well into production and only added to the problems of sexism in the media that I believe the photo was attempting to address.