We’ll start off with my husband. He’s a Marine, so he gets his hair cut a lot. Like, a lot. Ever the diligent sidekick, I invariably end up tramping along to various barber shops on a weekly basis, sitting and sifting my way through the stacks of dog-eared magazines because I am, apparently, too old to play with Legos. And thus it came to pass that I ended up accumulating an immaculate knowledge of every mainstream men’s magazine that has been published this side of 2012.
It was 10pm on a Sunday night and there I was again, perusing through another issue of Maxim. The one with Emily Didonato on the cover, all sideboob and sandy buttcheeks. This woman is hot, of course. Like Maxim-cover-model hot. Vaguely disguising my choice of reading material from the stony-faced man next to me, I flicked over to her interview.
“This model is different. In fact, she soon confides that her dinner plans include gorging herself on a massive steak.”
They had me at “steak;” I was done. The interviewer’s thinly disguised shock at the prospect of a woman actually eating red meat was a wake-up call; I was about to have a major problem with the rest of this so-called “interview.” In that moment, I realized that there are two enormous, infinite problems with men’s magazines.
The “Cool Girl” Myth
Gillian Flynn says it better than I in “Gone Girl”: The formula for the ultimate Cool Girl, every man’s dream wife. Page 222 of the Broadway Books edition of novel lays it out for us.
“He wants the Cool Girl, who basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain.”
And the spiritual home of the Cool Girl? Men’s magazines.
Like I said, I’ve read a lot of those mainstream men’s mags. Every issue, there’s a featured interview with a nubile young lady, which begins with a breakdown of what she’s chosen to eat and/or drink, leading into a bit of light sex banter, and concluding that she, the month’s model of choice, is so very “different” from other models. “I sit down with [X] and she’s eating a burger because she’s not like other girls. She tells dirty jokes and we laugh over a beer. Man, this girl is awesome!” Other models eat lettuce and act aloof. Not this girl. She might look like a dream girl, but she acts like a man. AWESOME.
The actual women who feature in such shoots are awesome, badass, beautiful ladies, but the way they are portrayed–both in image and interview—is ultimately very contrived. We don’t get a real glimpse into their unique, interesting points of view about anything other than sex and food. I’d love to know Emily Didonato’s opinions on current affairs, or even her favorite books and movies, but I’ll never find out because all I know is that she likes steak, and she’s pretty, because that’s all the “Cool Girl” needs to have going for her.
Also, by repeatedly using very one-dimensional perspectives of women to sell magazines, Maxim et. al. are subliminally selling a very particular brand of relationship advice, namely: “If she’s not into the same things as you, you should probably ditch her.” Unfortunately for my poor husband, he has to endure a lifetime with a wife who’d take books over beer any day of the week. Bummer, right?
The “Hot List”
I highly recommend the June/July 2015 issue. It features Taylor Swift on the cover—looking like a wet, sexed-up labrador puppy—and includes the “Hot 100” list for this year. Maxim and Swift go hand-in-hand; they’re both masters at using watered-down feminism as a “get out of jail free” card. Taylor’s current PR game involves dragging out supermodel friends on-stage, embracing them for the camera with a sickly-sweet grin and proclaiming herself the new messiah of the feminist cause. Maxim’s prop, in this instance, was an article by Roxane Gay about the importance of looking past appearances and focusing on inner beauty, before they launched into the traditional titty catalog “Hot 100” list. Um, really?
In fairness, the essay is a good one; Gay implores the reader to “Consider the people behind these beautiful faces.” She goes on to discuss the fact that certain traits are celebrated over others (thinness, whiteness, blue eyes, blonde hair), at which point—one assumes—the Maxim editors step in with an addendum: “Yes, that description happens to apply to this month’s cover model—but Taylor Swift is more than her looks.”
While Internet clowns galore applauded this move, calling it a “Hot List for the multi-track mind,” I can’t agree. It was sweet of Maxim to try, but the chameleon’s disguise won’t last forever. There’s no denying that Swift is talented, generous, and fun, but I’m quite certain that if she aged 10 years and put on 40 pounds, she wouldn’t have stolen one of the world’s most lucrative stamps of approval. It’s also worth noting that precisely nine out of the 100 featured women were women of color. Nine percent. And of course, subsequent issues and a large portion of articles on their website still go back to the classic sandy buttcheeks formula.
Maxim, in its current state, is little more than fap fodder for 13-year-old boys, dressed up with a few nice watches and cologne samples. The first drop-down menu on its website is “women,” where readers can conveniently choose between “models,” “stars,” “Hot 100,” and “A-Z.” “A-Z” is cute: An encyclopedia of every pair of boobies an excitable pre-teen could ever want. Throwing a bone to feminism won’t, ultimately, change Maxim’s entire game. Furthermore, it’s offensive to think that publishing bigwigs would be cruddy enough to utilize feminism-lite for what was essentially a marketing move.
How can this change?
It’s very tempting to simply suggest to myself that, if there are elements of the media that I find to be toxic, I should probably just bring a book when I’m on Good Wife duty and stop reading these magazines.
But that answer isn’t satisfying enough.
Maxim was onto something when they started discussing feminism. Although I disagree with the finer points of its presentation, it was certainly a step in the right direction. But I’d hope that “The Feminism Show” wasn’t merely a way of transforming the Boggart so they can put it back in it’s closet; if they’re going to start talking about equality, it’s time to commit to it.
I’m not suggesting that the creative team ought to dress their models in pantsuits and grill them about politics in every issue. Diversifying the beauties that grace these pages would be a start, and interviewing women with more respect, demanding intellect, rather than relying on the tired “Cool Girl” formula. Furthermore, if feminism is going to be discussed in men’s magazines, it needs to be presented in earnest. These publications need to understand that feminism is not a commodity, briefly lusting over its current sexy spokesperson and dropping it before it gets too hot. Men go from puberty to adulthood, turning the pages of the same magazines; it’s time for the magazines to grow with them.