Another Perspective

You Are What You Read

What happened to men's magazines? They've become lad mags.

4.8.02

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The differences between men's and women's magazines were once stark. Men's titles offered feature-oriented journalism, edgy short fiction, and a somewhat stodgy look at food, spirits and style, while women's books served up a predictable diet of sex tips, relationship quizzes and empty celebrity profiles.

Those days are over. Consider these recent cover lines:

"Jump-Start Your Sex Life!"
"Earth's Wildest Parties!"
"Fall Fashion Spectacular"
"Where You Go Wrong in Bed"

These gems hail not from Cosmopolitan or Glamour, but from the new breed of glossies aimed at the Y-chromosome set. You've certainly seen the titles -- Maxim, Stuff, Gear, FHM (For Him Magazine).

Other, more phallocentric content has included "100 Good Girls Show You Shortcuts to Their Beds" and "Tongue Twist Her: How to Kiss Her Where It Counts," regularly coupled with provocative layouts of near-naked women. Service pieces (cheating on your résumé); a glossary of slang for masturbation; how-to (get the condom ring out of your wallet); Q&A with the girls of wrestling; and first-person accounts ("I Saw My Wife Get Killed by a Bear") may round out the editorial mix.

These informational innovations have their origins in the U.K., that stronghold of Victorian modesty that brought us "The Benny Hill Show" and topless women on page two of the daily newspaper. The Brits call them "lad mags," and in 1997, Maxim became the first to land an American version on this side of the pond.

A mere five years later, its monthly circulation stands at 2.5 million, making it one of the fastest-growing magazines in history. In one of the weakest-ever markets for print products, it currently averages 900,000 copies sold on the newsstand. For the second time in as many years, Adweek named Maxim to its annual "Hot List," this time in the #1 slot. This success has spawned a host of followers, both domestically and from Britain -- and it's not because they strive to differentiate themselves. On the contrary, so confident in their formula are the various editors that, save the titles, their publications are virtually indistinguishable, right down to the sex surveys, jokey photo captions and recognizable editorial ("Do You Know How to Have Sex? Or Are You a Two-Pump Chump?"). Nevertheless, the numbers make a powerful case: The latest industry figures have Stuff's circulation up 35.9% and FHM up 63.5% over the year prior. Gear (published by the son of Penthouse's Bob Guccione) has just passed the 500,000-copies-per-month threshold. Meanwhile, old warhorse GQ, despite a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses effort to hurry scantily clad women onto its covers, is down 15%.

Of course, Maxim et al. are only part of a larger trend that dumbs down traditional notions of masculinity. As the culture demands that men get in touch with their feminine sides, any masculine venting takes on a vulgar, frat-house incarnation. According to National Review's Rich Lowry, "There is absolutely nothing masculine about toilet humor, and it is no accident that, when the masculine ideal has been run down by feminists and other liberals for decades," men simply behave like "very large boys." Throw in Comedy Central's "The Man Show" and morning radio shock-jock shtick, and you arrive at women's worst characterizations of men come true.

But isn't that the point, after all? To react against the new, hyper-PC order so guys can just be guys again? Don't we do well to put a feminist in a huff now and again? Well, yes and no. While irreverent humor undoubtedly has its place in deflating the trial balloon that academic leftism has floated over society, it need not be so base. Consider "The Simpsons," which takes nuanced jabs at society's pretenses despite tongue-in-cheek stereotypes of Indian convenience store owners and aspiring Ivy League feminists. The indispensable satirical weekly The Onion burns down PC pieties with headlines like "Auto Workers Strike For More Acrylic Novelty Baseball Caps," "Diversity Celebrated With Compulsory Luncheon" and "'98 Homosexual-Recruitment Drive Nearing Goal." These are written by the guy in college who always seemed ready with a witty quip. Maxim seems to be written by the guy who thought it was funny just to repeat the word "penis" over and over.

In fact, rather than help to arrest the slide, the lad mags embrace liberal pieties by contributing to the feminization of men. They accept that today's guy wants just as much advice about relationships, sex and abdominal exercises as his girlfriend, all packaged in bite-sized articles that don't challenge the attention span. Men's Health latched onto this trend a decade ago with covers that screamed "Fat to Flat" and "100 Ways to Look Better." Clare McHugh, Maxim's first U.S. editor, noted at its launch that men "have many new roles. In this post-feminist era, men are not like their fathers." Indeed, they appear to be more like Cosmo Girls, only with a larger helping of cheap beer and cleavage to wash down their dating advice.

So who consumes this stuff? For your answer, look no further than Marketing 101. Maxim identifies its target audience as college-educated men aged 18-34. This demographic is as coveted by advertisers as it is notoriously difficult to reach. Thus, as a marketing vehicle, the lad mag is a stroke of genius. It never approaches the suave pretensions of GQ, nor the in-depth interviews and clever fiction for which men so famously claim to buy Playboy. Perhaps more importantly, the women who grace its covers and centerfolds have just enough material covering their natural assets so that a self-conscious young man need not be embarrassed to pick one up at Barnes & Noble. The irony is that apart from the nudity, Playboy is a far more sophisticated product than any lad mag, and one that the average FHM consumer probably would not enjoy reading. But these are still kids, right? Their tastes have yet to grow up? Not so fast. A recent poll of Fortune 1000 executives found that investment bankers are five times more likely to read Maxim than Business Week.

GQ editor Art Cooper once memorably quipped that Maxim's readers are "men who not only move their lips but drool when they read." Esquire Editor David Granger chimed in that Maxim's "goal is to give downscale readers exactly what they want." He may be right, but who knew there were this many of them?

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