Gazongas slathered in unctuous prose

A furtive read of Esquire's 10th "Women We Love" issue begs the question: Who's this "we"?

By James Poniewozik

Published July 22, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

when I heard the footsteps coming toward me in the lobby, I almost dropped my mail: If anyone -- if any woman -- saw me with the magazine, I'd die.

High Society? Juggs? If only. What I was stowing under a copy of J. Crew and clutching to my chest was Esquire magazine; specifically, the August 1997 10th annual "Women We Love" issue. Buttman I could rationalize, but the garbage I'd have to spew to talk my way out of this one -- "I only get it because they let me cash in these spare TWA flight miles and it was either this or Soldier of Fortune. I only read Mark Leyner every month and then I throw it out. I only read it for the articl ... I mean, for the pict ... I mean, for the, um, the ads."

This is a lot of fear and trembling, I'll admit, over a publication with Julianna Margulies on its cover. (But for her hand teasingly straying toward the zipper of her black dress, I could be holding the Delta in-flight magazine.) That a national consumer glossy to which I subscribe publishes "15 Great Photos" of "15 Great Women" in various degrees of submissive repose is, to be sure, no great stride forward for the sexes, but it's hardly the first step toward mandatory chadors and forced-breeding camps either. So why should I feel like I'm feeding a notch up the chain from snuff literature?

The problem is this we character. See, if I wanted to ogle PG-rated boobs-on-a-stick, I could just as well grab the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue or the Victoria's Secret catalog. I could watch E! network. And that might make me a pig or a sexual clichi or just a healthy heterosexual man, but I would remain a me -- an individual possessed of free will using a product of his choice. But as soon as I pick up this issue, I am no longer alone. I have signed on, like it or not, for a Tanqueray-fueled circle jerk with a hot, steamy demographic group and the cream of the androliterati.

"Women We Love" is first and foremost an advertising vehicle -- a "perennial reader favorite" according to the company's online rate card -- one of the many spawn of Rolling Stone's 100 Favorite Albums of Potential Sport-Utility-Vehicle Buyers dynasty. But in form and title it is the spiritual descendant of the magazine's Vargas Girl heyday as the fashion magazine that grew balls, that brought the postwar American man the New Journalism and the sexual revolution -- all with a swinger's sensibility and a damned firm wrist.

So it is that with our 15 fabulous women we get 15 (or so) marquee male writers to dollop creme frbiche on our cheesecake. For we, unlike the patrons of certain other men's books, do not purchase magazines to leer at big gazongas slathered in suntan oil. We purchase magazines to look at big gazongas slathered in the unctuous prose of Ron Rosenbaum. Hence, beside a shot of Patricia Arquette sprawled over a countertop, letting a bent chrome faucet gush erotically across her mouth, we read Rosenbaum's meditation on the actress's Jewish-Catholic-Islamic upbringing: "In fact you can look at this photograph ... as a kind of spiritual allegory of her partaking from the pure fountain of unmediated spirituality before it is subdivided into sex -- I mean sects." Or you can look at it as a prostrate woman in a tight dress giving a kitchen fixture a blow job. It works on so many levels!

The Women We Love are largely major babes drawn from entertainment, but because we're men of the world they include sapphists actual (Anne Heche) and honorary (Lucy Lawless). Because we respect women with brains, one is a famous author (Kathryn Harrison, photographed laughing; the bank is not pictured). And because, well, we have to cover our ass, one is even a senior (Katharine Graham) -- but let's not get carried away. The only four women pictured in the appendix "And a Few We Don't" are Ellen DeGeneres, Mia Farrow, Claire Bloom and Madeleine Albright. The epithet "Woof!" may not actually appear on the page, but we're evidently welcome to supply it.

And yet this isn't finally why the issue seems so retrograde. Yes, Esquire could drop babe-a-liciousness a bit further down its judging criteria. Yes, it could do without heebie-jeebie-rife lists like "Women We'd Be Willing to Wait For" (this year's invites us to count the days until -- brr, excuse me -- Tara Lipinski turns legal). But none of that damns Esquire any more than an armload of newsstand covers offering teenage girls Six Great New Reasons to Induce Vomiting. What Esquire misses most, in fact, is not the woman of its postwar glory days but the man.

Who, after all, is we? It's not me, I swear -- in fact it's not any male Esquire reader I know. And it's not the American homme moyen sensual, whose choices are relegated to a random telephone poll headed "The Women You Love" (he, by the way, remains reassuringly constant in his uncomplicated affection for Pamela Anderson Lee).

But I think I've found we, hiding, elsewhere in the issue, in a John Mariani column on dining alone. Mariani notes that "Ernest Hemingway insisted a man can never (eat at a bar) with dignity." And there is your vanishing Esquire male in a nutshell -- the phantom, well-heeled, well-sexed, well-read American man who still gives a rat's ass whether Papa H. would have approved of his dinner. The category includes perhaps five living American men not directly employed in publishing. And that does not bode well for Esquire, if not as a magazine, then as a cultural institution.

The men's-magazine we is no mere above-the-masthead pronoun reserved for the occasional editor's note. It is life and death: to thrive, a lifestyle magazine must offer a life, and its readership must be an organism -- one that won't pinch its gut next month and decide to buy Men's Health instead. Thus the magazine's declaration that it is you as you are it as it is me and we are all together, goo goo ga joob.

That a subscriber might instead want simply to catch the David Brock piece and the occasional Michael Chabon story is antithetical to this survival strategy. And the magazine's too-desperate nudging -- "Does that Salma Hayek have a sweet can on her or what? I said, does ..." -- only underscores how far we've grown apart. Esquire wants to mentor us in literature and lust, to teach us to dine like Robert Jordan. Whereas its demographic, increasingly, just wants a good 15-minute recipe for skinless chicken breasts.

Esquire still indisputably publishes some of the finest writing in American magazines. Yet it no longer publishes Esquire writers, because there are none of them anymore -- only writers who don't happen to be in Vanity Fair this month. The "Women We Love" guest-writer lineup underscores that, witty tidbits by Leyner and Roy Blount Jr., bumping up against a Wayne-and-Garthesque droolfest over cover star Margulies by Matthew McConaughey and Richard Linklater (if you enjoy Linklater's movies, for the love of Jesus never read pages 40-41 of this magazine).

The we that declaims itself too loudly is a relic of the Era of Big -- Government, Networks, Magazines -- when you got your truth from Walter Cronkite and your lifestyle from Esquire. In the Era of Niche, when we all have our own truth and a boutique journal to go with it, Esquire is scrapping with GQ and even Details over the remnants of an audience dispersed by cable, cigar magazines and the Internet. In this environment, that we is perhaps too poignant to seem truly patriarchal or offensive, even when it's breathing Canadian Club down Jennifer Lopez's lithe young neck. It is the pronoun of a lonely man conversing with ghosts.

James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

MORE FROM James Poniewozik

Related Topics ------------------------------------------