Media Circus: Girly mags

Exiled in Guyville? Why men's magazines are starting to look more and more like Cosmo.

Published December 13, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

in his "editor's letter" in the December issue of Details, Joe Dolce brought up a delicate subject: change. Magazine subscribers, like cats, don't really like change: whether they're devotees of Readers Digest, The Nation, or Juggs, they want to keep getting the magazine they've subscribed to, not some other magazine with the same name. So Dolce did a little dance around the subject. Though he briefly mentioned a couple of new sections (one of which seemed to be little more than a list of places to buy stuff), and made a few portentous pronouncements on Big Topics like the tribalization of America and "the new postmodern religion: technology," Dolce managed to avoid telling us what exactly the changes would be. I looked and looked in the magazine itself, but no big changes could be found.

Then I got the January issue and saw what Dolce had meant. Details, it seems, is well on its way to becoming a women's magazine ... for men. A new section called "Twenty-First Century Man" offers advice for an (allegedly) new kind of man: those who've "[t]ried on more than three shirts before going on a date ... [d]one push-ups and sit-ups as a last minute attempt to pump up before a beach weekend" and (in bold letters) "[c]onsidered plastic surgery."

The section itself looks like a testosteronized clump of Cosmo set down in the middle of the hipster mag: the lead article promises to provide "what you need to know" about, er, sperm. In the pages that follow, one finds a seven-point list of self-improvement tips for aspiring guys, a Cosmo-style multiple-choice quiz, and some eminently practical answers to the age-old question: "Why do my feet smell?"

It's a far cry from early days of men's magazines in the 1930s, when Esquire editor Arnold Gingrich felt obliged to overcompensate for his fashion spreads by running features titled "Women are Like Gongs" suggesting that, like gongs, women should be beaten regularly. (It was, writer Bruce Henry opined, "the regular, dispassionate, day-to-day lickings which produce results.")

These days, men's magazines are much less circumspect about their role as advisors on fashion and life -- and they are more and more openly like the women's magazines -- Mademoiselle, Glamour, Vogue -- that the original Esquire man would have held in such scorn. These days, most men's magazines don't feel the need to apologize for their fashion spreads and their advice columns. (Esquire still does -- and its barely-concealed nervousness about masculinity seems to make its readers nervous as well.)

Men's Health -- the biggest of the bunch, with a circulation of 1.3 million, meaning it has approximately as many readers as Esquire and GQ combined -- 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 ten pounds over the holidays. Men's Fitness tells its readers not only how to bulk up but how to overcome "shy anxiety." Jan Wenner's Men's Journal runs articles on everything from life extension and exercise machines to hairy-chested evocations of the joys of dogsledding, and seems designed to appeal to men in the grips of early male menopause. P.O.V. presents itself as a "guy's survival guide." Changing Men (despite the title, it's not a manual for Adult Baby enthusiasts) offers a vaguely New Agey home for drum-toting Men's Movementists and other sensitive souls. Next year, several big-name publishing companies (Times-Mirror, Conde Nast) plan to unleash a whole host of new men's mags, including an American version of the boisterous-yet-slick Brit lad mag Maxim.

In a recent New York Times survey of men's magazines, Robin Pogrebin suggests that these mags are "giving readers the thing they seem to crave but dare not admit: advice." That's partly right. Increasingly, these magazines seem designed not simply to celebrate masculinity, but to shore it up: The endless "how-to" articles on sexuality actually offer precious little in the way of actual advice, instead providing anxious men with a great deal of hand-holding.

In the pages of a recent Men's Journal, 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 sensitivity-training text, but the bottom line on breast play is simple: Find out what your partner enjoys -- and do it," Curt Pesman writes. Then, to assure his readers that real women actually appreciate this novel technique, he quotes from several representatives of the species. "'Girls like guys who ask them what to do during sex,' says Debbie, a 26-year-old real-estate agent from New York City." Several paragraphs down, Pesman finds another appreciative Debbie (this one a 33-year-old sales manager on the West coast), who assures him that "the more a man pays attention to my breasts, the better I feel about my body."

Most of the female advice-givers combine their reassurance with subtle attempts to soften men still a little too bristly for most women's taste. In an issue of Men's Fitness devoted to the cultivation of "toughness," novelist Rosemary Daniell reassures men that they don't have to be Rambo to be masculine gods to their womenfolk. And in the latest Details, Sarah Miller lets it be known that "[r]egressing into some protoguy defined by beer and fear of commitment isn't as charming as Ed Burns would have you believe, or half as funny as Tim Allen hopes."

Ironically, the advice columns in the pages of Men's Fitness are much more straightforward than those in the other men's magazines. Perhaps, having insulated themselves behind walls of muscled flesh, safe from charges of latent sissyhood, the readers of this magazine don't feel so guilty about asking for a little help.

And so, nestled away between the pictures of bulging biceps and the ads for sports drinks, one finds a little article suggesting a little masculine heresy: maybe, just maybe, relentless competitiveness might not be the best approach to life. Sounding almost alanaldesque, the writer tentatively suggests that the reader "begin the process of interrogating yourself about the legitimacy of some of your core beliefs. ... Is it that important to be right or have the biggest biceps or drive that fully-decked out Limited Edition Explorer?"

Other articles in Men's Fitness read like nothing so much as the service articles in Mademoiselle. "Should you call your old girlfriend?" one article asks (the answer: maybe); is it wise to get involved with an older woman? asks another (it could work, experts conclude). There aren't any makeup tips to be found in the pages of Men's Fitness, but there are suggestions on how to make a good first impression, with specific instructions on how to attain a properly masculine handshake. "Facing the person directly," the magazine explains, "extend your hand with your thumb up so you can lock the web of the thumb with the other person's."

A guide to handshaking? Quizzes on relationship dos and don'ts can't be far behind. And then, of course, the ultimate, the inevitable -- male makeovers. I have no problem with that. After all, I can never figure out what to do with my hair.

By David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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