ARE WE NOT MEN'S MAGAZINES?
By Handy, Bruce, TIME; JUNE 9, 1997 Section: THE ARTS; SPECTATOR ---------------------------
HOW GQ, ESQUIRE AND MEN'S HEALTH HELP MAKE THE WORLD SAFE FOR MOISTURIZERS
If you are the editor of a men's magazine, a great deal of your workday must necessarily be devoted to answering the question, What does the man of the '90s want? The current issues of a number of men's magazines provide a possible answer: puns involving the words ball or balls. THE TRUTH ABOUT YOUR BALLS promises a piece on golf in GQ. DON'T DROP THE BALL says the headline to an article in Men's Health urging early detection of testicular cancer. Maxim, a rude import from Britain that has just published its premiere issue in America, features a photograph of author Tom Clancy standing behind a pool table. The caption? "He's got balls."
So how come women's magazines aren't rife with lame plays on the word knocker? "Women are comfortable talking intimately to other women. Guys are not comfortable with that." So says Art Cooper, the editor in chief of GQ, who, unlike Vogue's Anna Wintour, must somehow find a way to talk intimately to his readers without provoking embarrassed sniggers.
These are tumultuous times for Cooper and his competitors, what with flattening circulations, the introduction of a number of new magazines and the messy firings in the past month of the editors of two of the most prominent titles, Esquire and Details. A definition: by "men's magazines," I don't just mean magazines that for whatever reason have a primarily male readership--SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, say, or Rolling Stone or Juggs. I mean magazines that seek to define a masculine life-style, that are about maleness in the way that Martha Stewart Living is about an unnatural hunger for order.
So what else, besides crude puns, does the man of the '90s want? As masculine tastes have evolved from Old Spice to Tiffany for Men and L'Eau d'Issey Pour L'Homme (to name but two of the 10 fragrances advertised in the current GQ), men's magazines have kept pace--so much so that in certain respects, they are becoming hard to distinguish from women's magazines. LOSE THE FAT IN 21 DAYS... THE EASIEST WAY TO LOOK BETTER... POWERFUL LEGS... 67 NUTRITION TIPS are some of the cover lines from the June Men's Health, the decade-old title that epitomizes the trend and has been likened to a Cosmopolitan for guys. This month's cover image is a photo of an anonymous, bare-chested, well-built model whose shaving cream-covered face is partly obscured by his hand, as if he were halfheartedly trying to fend off the photographer, the way moms do in old home movies. It's rare to see a male model so clearly the object of the viewer's gaze; it's as if he were, well, a female model. His pose and sheepish grin suggest he has been caught out at something--consciously mirroring, perhaps, readers who might not want their friends to know they have practiced the magazine's FOUR MORE EXERCISES THAT WILL HELP YOU TRAIN FOR ATHLETIC SEX.
The success of Men's Health--its circulation increased 400% over the past six years; its ad pages were up 20% last year--has prompted competitors to ratchet up their own quotas of service pieces (the industry term for articles that are useful, as opposed to being about Tea Leoni). Esquire, which in its '60s incarnation published some of the decade's defining journalism, has just this month been remade in a more service-oriented mode: the president of its corporate division now describes it as a "tool kit for living." David Granger, a GQ editor who last week was named Esquire's new editor in chief, insists that "all aspects of a man's life are pretty damn interesting, including fashion, health, grooming." Sure, but this gets at an essential problem: while women have a long history of elaborate toilettes, men are still getting the hang of it.
What that translates to on the page is a stridently virile voice that seems to be saying to readers, "Just because you're into moisturizers or worried about the swell of your pecs doesn't mean you're not inviolately heterosexual." Take this intro to a GQ piece on wedding gifts: "The nuptials must be attended. He's your bud, man. And it's not like you don't know her. Besides, you're fairly certain she hasn't mentioned that incident in the bathroom at Roberto's wedding." This is a prevalent mode of writing that might be called men's magazine second person; "bro" and "dude" also turn up as forms of address. The noun stuff--so redolent of uncomplicated, gym-socks-on-the-floor guyness--is another key word, as in the slogan of Men's Health: "Tons of Useful Stuff."
But no amount of artful literary dishevelment--or profiles of starlets who seemingly hate bras (Rebecca Gayheart, the "Noxzema girl," poses with her sweater unbuttoned in GQ; the Drew Carey Show's Christa Miller poses with her shirt open in Maxim)--can disguise the creeping feminization of men's magazines. This brings up a terrifying specter from decades past that Cooper, for one, is quick to exorcize. "Alan Alda," he says during a discussion of potential cover subjects, "is not a GQ hero." Amen to that, bro.
By BRUCE HANDY
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