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Essay by
Joe Sharples.
Edited by
David Gauntlett.
Comments
welcome.


Are contemporary men's magazines a progressive force in society?

By Joseph Sharples

For years the term 'men's magazine' referred to one of two things: pornography or sport. But in recent years a new breed of men's magazine has entered the public arena 'en masse'. The new breed is thick, crisp, glossy, low in content, and very, very general. These new men's lifestyle magazines have caught the interest of the market place -- an interest for the most part not found five or ten years ago. Readers today appear to be very much more focused on the self, and the magazines have found an editorial format that is having a profound effect on the marketplace. Loaded, FHM, Men's Journal, Maxim, Men's Health, Men's Fitness, Stuff, GQ, and the long established Esquire (which began in 1933) are just some of the publications that can be found filling the shelves of newsagents around the country.

Perhaps the popularity of such magazines, with both audiences and advertisers alike, lies in their generality. This allows for an enormous variety of images to exist within the covers of one publication. Whereas Sports Illustrated and Top Gear magazines, for example, are strictly for and about sports and cars respectively, the modern men's magazine is about sports and cars as well as sex, fashion, women, and anything else which their editors feel might be even mildly interesting. This may partly explain the very large reader base that magazines such as Loaded and market leader FHM (500,000+ copies sold each month) enjoy. It also allows for a wide range of advertisers to take advantage of a wider range of readers. By catering to this wider audience, the new breed of men's magazine is able to cash in on as diverse an audience as possible.

So instead of selling just sorts or just cars, FHM sells everything to everybody which helps explain its popularity, but only partly. In fact the success of the 'lad mag' cannot be put down to one individual factor. There is clearly a need to look at and analyse the content and type of individual articles in an attempt to ascertain possible influence over the reader.

More importantly for the purposes of this essay, there is a need to investigate whether these new publications are in fact a progressive force in society. The term 'progressive' asks the question of whether these magazines have a positive influence over the readership -- such as by helping men come to terms with their personal idea of what it means to be male in a world that is becoming increasingly feminized, or by providing advice on masculinity and introducing a desperately needed 'men only' orientated form of entertainment. On the other hand, these magazines may be a negative force in society as they are seen as being sexist, objectifying women.

Unlike women's magazines, which also feature women on the front cover, lads magazines usually have scantily clad or even naked women as their come on and many people believe, that despite being very successful, they are far from being a progressive force in society and are little more than an anti-feminist backlash.

"While women become 'friends' with their magazines there is an inbuilt male resistance to the idea of a magazine that makes public and shares ideas about being a man. To men it is an unacceptable contradiction. Self-consciousness is permissible, even attractive, in a woman; it is perceived as weak and unmanly in a man."
(
Campaign, 26/7/85: 37)

This, for Simon Marquis, commenting in a 'State Of Play' article in Campaign at the height of the trade debates in 1985, was the fundamental reason why men's magazines were unlikely to succeed. Zed Zawada touched on these same sentiments and interpretation of masculinity associated with it. He echoed Marquis by saying:

"Men don't define themselves as men in what they read, they define themselves as people who are into cars, who play golf or fish… Successfully launching a general interest men's magazine would be like finding the Holy Grail."
(Campaign, 29/8/86:41)

These conclusions are clearly drawn from a somewhat stereotypical view of men and masculinity. Dated thinking this may be, but whilst the presence of a feminist movement was never under dispute, the opinion that men may also be subject to some kind of mini 'sexual revolution' was given little thought. Indeed even up to the present day it should be said that change in masculinity has never been part of an organised political movement. Whereas the women's movement had a distinct goal and was in itself a quite clearly-defined political movement, men coming out from their emotional closet should not be confused with such a movement. There is no distinct goal and no set ideology. In the early to mid 1990's the men's magazine revolution began to take off in response perhaps to the development of women's position in society, and as they fought to change their roles, some men felt pressure to change too.

Exactly how this new form of magazine publishing hoped to intervene in the life of men is open to question since publishers obviously approached the matters not as ethical or political dilemmas, but as a question of business. Clearly therefore, any defining of new identities and styles of life were intimately bound up with the search for markets, as well as being linked to the wider sense of their (rather vague) social mission. In any case, contrary to the early 80's views of Simon Marquis and Zed Zawada, the 1990's have seen this market demand for men's magazines realised.

It can well be argued that men are not changing their attitudes and ideals of masculinity in response to magazines but the very fact that this publishing revolution has occurred at all, particularly in Britain, is as a response to the already changing attitudes of the male population. During the 1980's for example, men started to take a greater interest in buying clothes, with the result that a magazine could be supported with advertising, so there was and is a commercial base. Ten years later, men have become more comfortable with considering various parts of their lives so they are happier with things like moisturisers and style articles and suggestions than they would have been ten years ago. They are more comfortable with their masculinity, and magazines taking advantage of this fact have become a viable enterprise.

"People are always saying that men are becoming peacocks and while that is certainly true in Europe, I'm not sure whether we've got the full plumage here yet. But we are almost there and what we want to find out is whether it's enough to make a separate Vogue for men viable."
(Campaign, 26/9/86:7)

So commented Richard Hill, deputy-managing director of Conde Nast publishing company. He too was arguing that men in Britain had not changed, certainly in terms of masculinity, to guarantee the success of a men's magazine. Are we to assume therefore, that if magazines are simply responding to the changing man, they have little actual influence over them and so cannot really be called a progressive force in society? This view of men's magazines as being purely and simply a form of entertainment is widely held. However, on a similar level, confronted by the loss of traditional gender certainties, many men are now being forced to question their social roles and may or may not seek answers or at least guidance from the pages of publications such as Men's Health.

The idea of men's magazines emerging as a response to the feminist movement is certainly worthy of attention. As Lee Eisenberg, editor of the American magazine Esquire put it, in the wake of the contemporary women's movement, "a different type of man came about."

Men in turn may be influencedby such publications to the extent that they are almost being moulded into this vision of a 'new man'. The 'New Man' is a more sensitive kind of guy, altogether more in touch with his 'feminine' side whilst at the same time maintaining certain masculine qualities. These days men's magazines are much less circumspect about their role as advisors on fashion and life, and as a result are more openly like the Cosmo-style women's magazines. Most don't feel the need to apologise for their fashion spreads and their advice columns (the exception to this might be Esquire, which still does - barely concealing its nervousness about masculinity!)

Men's Health offers up tips on such subjects as 'How to make a low fat cream sauce', 'How to make up with male buddies', and how to avoid putting on 10 pounds over the holidays.

Men's Fitness on the other hand, tells its readers not only how to bulk up but also how to overcome 'shy anxiety'. In a recent New York Times survey of men's magazines, Robin Pogrebin suggests that these magazines are…

"…giving readers the thing they seem to crave but dare not admit: advice."

This is certainly true in part. Increasingly these magazines seem designed not simply to celebrate masculinity, but also to shore it up. The endless 'how - to' articles on sexuality actually offer precious little advice, instead providing men with a great deal of hand - holding. In the pages of a recent Men's Health, for example, one finds an article promising to explain the "Mysteries of the Breast." The piece is filled with extravagantly simpleminded -- even apologetic -- recitations of the obvious, gently nudging manly men into a vague recognition of their partner's needs, all the while reassuring them that simple consideration isn't a sign of incipient sissiness. It may sound like a page straight out of a sensitive training manual, but the bottom line on the breast is simple: "Find out what your partner enjoys - and do it," writes Curt Presman, the author. Then to assure his readers that real women actually appreciate this novel technique, he quotes several. "Girls like guys who ask them what to do during sex," says Debbie a 21-year-old estate agent. Several paragraphs down, Presman finds another appreciative young woman who assures him that, "the more a man pays attention to my breasts, the better I feel about my body."

Admittedly it is important to acknowledge that men's magazines are not entirely universal in style and content, but for the purposes of this essay one can also assume that there are distinct similarities since all are a celebration of masculinity to a certain extent. Whilst Loaded for example might approach advice columns as cited above in a different manner to other similar publications, perhaps adopting a more laddish or mocking style, the principal of the magazine offering up 'comforting' advice, remains the same.

Whether set in an ironic style or having a particularly laddish or even sexist tone, the pages of the modern men's magazine are lined with snippets of advice on how to do things better. Every month, the pages of FHM test everything from computers to kettles; is this really the substance for a progressive force in society? Possibly -- especially if you want to know that the 'Morphy Richards Fast Boil Designer Kettle' is quite possibly the best fast boil kettle on the market! But I would say that even though this advice may be somewhat obvious or trivial, the male reader still holds a great interest in it. The May 1998 issue of Maxim contains an article about oral hygiene that is aptly titled 'Oral Sex'. Typical of the advice articles, this article addresses a mundane but nevertheless relevant topic of everyday, rather nervously hidden behind a 'comfortingly' male-orientated title.

The rewards to be gained from following these routines are not only centred on the aesthetics of looking good; they also result in the satisfaction of greater self-knowledge. Striking a mock evangelical pose, writers frequently claim that they are 'speaking out' about those aspects of men's lives, which had for too long been repressed. As Steve Taylor put it about shaving, in a piece written for Arena's opening issue:

"Shaving is one of those mass, everyday social phenomena which are utterly taken for granted."

At last a source of knowledge about how, and what it is to be a man!

The issue of masculinity is finally open for discussion. This advice, as has already been noted, may not be wholly useful. But whether meant as pure entertainment or serious advice surely any publication that makes men more comfortable with who they are or what they are doing has to be a progressive force in society.

However, in an essay discussing the impact of men's magazines it is necessary to also look at the possibility that they are actually a negative force in society. There is a well-rehearsed argument that condemns this genre of publication as being a definite step backwards in the 'crusade' for equal rights between the sexes. The success of these new publications, which it could be argued, celebrate the reduction of women to sex objects, is further evidence of the nation's moral decline; but is this really the case? It is fair to say that there are many articles that depict and perhaps, to a certain extent, objectify women. But does this really mean that the middle class males of this nation are sexually naïve? This is clearly a question of media effect and its influence over people -- a famously complex and inconclusive topic [see media effects]. Many studies on this topic have been carried out and they have resulted in contrasting and conflicting viewpoints. Suffice to say that outside the confines of this particular essay I would endeavour to discuss the matter further. In the context of this essay, though, one can look at advertising in the magazines and ask whether they have a marked influence over the reader. Clearly companies would not advertise unless they thought they did, and I would argue that designer labels such as 'Full Circle' have been made or at least become far more publicly prominent as a result of adverts in magazines whose readership maintain a high interest in fashion. If adverts then, can be taken at face value as trying to sell items of fashion, are we to assume that the laddish sexism that is contained within the magazines should also be taken with this same face value? Tim Southwell, editor of Loaded magazine, certainly feels that this element of open sexism is not the problem that many claim it to be:

"Loaded was never conceived as an antifeminist backlash, with the swaggering, loutish lad ousting the cowed, feminized New Man. It was based on honesty about blokish lusts", he says, "not misogyny. We like looking at pictures of fancy ladies sometimes, but that doesn't mean we want to rape them."

He goes on to say that his magazine was kind of like being in an Oasis-esque rock band. Both Oasis and Loaded...

"...experienced massive overnight success, both celebrated life and got people excited, doing everything their own way, not caring what the literati said, cocking a snoot at the establishment."

This would suggest that Loaded was conceived to fill a significant gap in the market. Can this gap really have consisted solely of the desire for blatant male sexism? I would suggest not.

Of course there will always be those who disagree with men's magazines and call them a negative force in society, but this is nothing new. It used to be, and still is to a certain degree, women's magazines that got the flak from academics and pundits. They are routinely condemned for showing women who are said to be too thin, too fat, too sexy or too sexual. The fact is that magazines which question the stereotypical idea of identity portrayal will not fit the ideology of everybody and as a result are open to a certain amount of criticism. This having been said however, I do not believe that there is anything inherently wrong with promoting discourses which consider masculinity in positive terms, as these magazines do, in a world that currently seems otherwise loathed to do so.

Things originally covered in the pages of men's magazines often subsequently become part of the 'general culture', in the high street or on television, via a process of absorption. But I would argue that the majority of readers are not 'trendies', people who are being artificially moulded into a new image. They are just people who are interested in the way in which taste and style are formed.

Men's magazines contain, to a certain extent, a degree of sexism that harks back to a generation when women were seen very much as the weaker sex. In this way men's magazines do provide an escape route back to the comforts of boyhood. But I do not believe that this makes them a regressive force in society primarily since entertainment, not a gender based crusade, is their primary function. These magazines do entertain, and sales are testament to this. Whether the often clumsy advice contained within them is enough to be able to call them a progressive force in society is another matter.

 

Bibliography

Landesman, Cosmo (1997), 'Boy Zone', The Guardian - Media, 1 December 1997, pp. 8-9.

Nixon, Sean (1996), 'From "The world's best dressed magazine" to " the men's magazine with an IQ": magazine journalism and the new male readerships', in Hard Looks: Masculinities, spectatorship and contemporary consumption, UCL, London.

Dugdale, John (1998), 'Time to Reload', The Guardian - Media, 30 November 1998, pp.2-3.

Mort, Frank (1996), Cultures of Consumption: Masculinities and Social Space in late Twentieth Britain, Routledge, London.

Lacey, Nick (1996), 'Loaded - Lads and Lasses', in In The Picture, no. 29, pp. 16-17.

Carter, Hannah (1996), 'New Man, Old Myth?', in 20:20 Media Magazine, winter 1996, pp.14-15.


This essay was writen in April 1999, when Joe Sharples was a Level One student on the elective module Communications, Media & Identity at the Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds, UK.

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