Before sitting down to write this story, I thought it best to buy a few men's magazines first. When I went up to the register, Maxim and FHM ("for him") in hand, I couldn't help but feel a little embarrassed. With half-naked photos of Tara Reid and Beth Ostrosky gracing the covers, I found myself placing the magazines face-down on the counter.
Why was I so embarrassed? It's not like I was buying porn, was it?
The focus of these magazines is easy to pick out. The banner on the top of Maxim says it all: "Sex, sports, beer, gadgets, clothes, fitness." From golf to girls to "How to Get On TV," these magazines target a specific niche readership in the magazine market: softer than Playboy but more provocative than GQ or Esquire. They must be succeeding because these publications have completely saturated the market. With spin-offs popping up monthly--from Details to Gear to Maxim's newest cousin, Stuff--the steam just continues to build.
This shouldn't be surprising. For better or for worse, these magazines' successes come from their unapologetic, no regrets attitude. Not only are they unafraid to publish articles about how to get, have and perfect sex, they flaunt it on their front covers--hence, a barely-covered Ostrosky, legs spread, lace just concealing the naughty bits. These magazines have been criticized for such attitudes countless times, but remain unfazed. After the 2000 Summer Olympics, the magazine industry was criticized for "objectifying" women athletes, exemplified by Canadian water-polo player Waneek Horn-Miller in the buff on the cover of Time. Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation of Long Island, N.Y, joined an outraged chorus of voices calling this portryal "insulting" and "degrading."
However, the men's magazine industry shows no intention of backing down.
"Let me put it this way," said James Kaminsky, then executive editor of Maxim. "If [U.S. Attorney General] Janet Reno were a babe, we'd put her on the cover in a second."
Criticism aside, you have to wonder: do these magazines have a place in society?
Financially, they're incredibly profitable. They've discovered this grand niche of the "men's lifestyle" and exploit it brilliantly. When you've got a handful of magazines with the same mantra and equal ability to capture the male audience, there's no shortage of money to be made.
Secondly, they do serve a larger purpose, like it or lump it.
Not only are these magazines advertising wonderlands, with almost half of the pages decorated in ads and the articles serving as advertising themselves--one of many fashion supplements in Maxim features a pair of $375 Calvin Klein boots-but they've become cultural icons. Just as teen-girl magazines and the infamous Cosmopolitan became catalysts for both reaffirming and denying female social stereotypes, magazines like Gear and FHM are synonymous with male ones as well--the belief that while all men think about is sex, sports and well, sex, we can also be adventurous, smart and well-dressed.
Whether or not you like these magazines, and there are certainly arguments for each side, they're not going anywhere. They've become an integrated part of male culture and even if they don't truly represent the male experience, it's an idealistic stereotype like any other: sex and girls masked with a thin layer of legitimacy.
Maybe next time I won't feel so embarrassed to buy one, even if I still feel embarrassed to read it.