The Consumer Republic: Walk Like A Womag

Why can’t a woman’s magazine be more like a man’s?
Back in the days of pre-postfeminism, this was the lament among my women journalist friends. We knew that the best-written, hottest stories would be in Esquire. We read Playboy for the interviews. Yes, there were plenty of broads, booze, cars and sports, but the men’s books engaged the world at large. Why couldn’t women’s magazines–womags, for short–see beyond the reflection of our thighs in the mirror? Why, in issue after issue, did they obsess on “10 Ways to Know If He’s Ready to Commit” and “What Really Turns Him On”? Why were they so focused on women’s anxious-yet-aspirational narcissism?
Now our frustrated plea has been answered–though not quite in the way we imagined. The gap between men’s and women’s magazines has been bridged, but from the opposite direction. Men’s books now take their cues from the womags, proving that anxious-yet-aspirational narcissism knows no gender boundaries.
Last summer, the men’s category was shaken by the appointment of a slew of new editors charged with attracting the New Man. David Granger moved from GQ to the ailing Esquire. Michael Caruso arrived at Details. “There’s something going on in man land,” averred newly appointed Men’s Journal editor Terry McDonell, formerly of Esquire and Sports Afield. Yes, there is: They’ve been migrating into woman land, complete with fashion, beauty tips, recipes and “8 Signs It’s Over.” Now, as the new guys approach their first anniversary on the job, we’ve seen the New Man emerge–and he looks a lot like the old Cosmo Girl.
Despite stunning, if unsurprising, duplication of content from magazine to magazine, each one borrows from the female formula in its own way. The well-oiled editorial machine GQ, having played this game longer than anyone, is the mass-market gold standard. Maxim, a competitor from the U.K., is a kind of goof on the men/women’s magazine formula for the Comedy Central crowd. With a tank full of testosterone and plenty of cheeky ‘tude, Maxim mixes features such as “Fun Things to Do After You Die” with a really terrific recipe for chicken marinade (which I clipped). Details, complete with that womag staple, a horoscope, is aimed at the Cosmo Boy, for whom it performs services such as answering brain-dead fashion queries: “I just purchased my first suit. Should I leave those little tags on the sleeve or are they meant to be taken off?”
The strangest case of all is Esquire, devoted less to the surface of the New Man than to his inner life. It supplies lush guy prose by guys writing self-lovingly about being guys. Esquire readers love the delectable curves of a beautiful woman as much as the readers of Maxim do, but in Esquire, they’re asked to think about what it means that they love them. As the table of contents of the current “Brothers” special issue asks, “What is a brother?” “What is the story behind the stories we tell each other?” To which we might add, what is the point?
Because it is the least formulaic magazine in the men’s category–the best, most hopeful thing about it–Esquire is least like the womag model. But in its rapt introspection, it’s the most girlish of them of all.
Mind you, this shift did not come over night. Twenty-five years ago, GQ pioneered the “feminization” of men’s magazines, as evidenced by a heavily gay readership in the ’70s. More recently came the debut of Men’s Health, which was nothing but a cross-dressing womag from the start. “Fat” screams the coverline from this month’s issue. The eye then moves to the bold-faced “Sex,” and on to the promise of “Quick Tips” at the bottom. Together, these three topics form the holy trinity of a thousand womags. It’s Glamour in drag.
The odd thing about the womag-for-men phenomenon is that, as far as this woman can tell, men are no more like women than they’ve ever been or, I’ll wager, ever will be. It turns out that sharing hair mousse, designer labels and plastic surgeons across genders is a superficial bond at best.
Yet even if men are not being feminized, their habits of consumption are. Long before the “lifestyle” arts got their name, they were known as women’s work. It was only women who were concerned with their appearances–personal and domestic–and charged with the responsibility of stage-managing the private sphere. Which is why women have always served as consumption’s cutting edge. As advertisers used to say, the customer is your wife.
Today, of course, the consumer is not only your wife, but children and teens and men as well. We are all students of the lifestyle arts, all engaged in women’s work. In essence, the more we become consumers, the more like women we become.