Reviews > Culture

Sinking standards

Culture | Men's magazines: sex and status equals sales

Issue: "Passing of a peacemaker," Feb. 20, 1999

Men's magazines used to be divided into two main categories and it was easy to tell the difference. There were skin magazines and there were earnest, high-brow publications, like GQ and Esquire, that mixed Armani suits, investment advice, and "literary journalism." The former appealed to lust; the latter, primarily to vanity and ungodly ambition. But a new generation has sprung up, magazines like Bikini, Details, and P.O.V., that appeals to all three vices with varying degrees of sophistication. The newest and most brazen of the lot is Maxim, an Americanized version of the British magazine by English publishing magnate Felix Dennis. Maxim's American circulation shot from 175,000 to 800,000 in a mere 15 issues using frat-boy humor and lots of, uh, pictures. "LINGERIE RUNWAY" screams this month's cover, which features a scantily clad Bridget Fonda. Inside are articles on bribery ("creative tipping"), "Confessions of a strip-club bouncer," and a profile of Tie Domi, cast in the magazine as the toughest man in the National Hockey League. "Guys know they have their inner swine rooting around in there somewhere, and they're dying to let it out," Maxim editor-in-chief recently told Newsweek. "People say its a clarion call to go out and be a pig, when really it's to be a bit more honest." "Honesty" means that this month's Details takes its readers to the Amazon rain forest to taste ayahuasca, a powerful hallucinogen extracted from a plant South American shamans call "The Vine of the Soul." The same issue explains that "Pro wrestling is for wimps. Real men have their fights while wearing skates," in an article about a new in-line skating Roller Derby league. In a rush to beat the crowd, Maxim, Details, and Bikini all came out with Year 2000 issues 10 months early. "Male synchronized swimmers, Shari Lewis' head, and foul-mouthed Teletubbies add up to one thing: the world ends not with a bang, but with a laugh," asserted Maxim. Details did a round-up of exotic Year 2000 New Year's events. "Party 2000, California" is to be "five days of premillennial music and mayhem in the California desert. Meals are covered. Streaking is a sure thing." The magazines occasionally mentioned and mocked religion. For its "Special End of the World Issue," a Bikini reporter brushed up on Revelation and then toured the country looking for signs of the Apocalypse. She found a few, like locusts and floods in the Midwest, but divine judgment was unthinkable. "Oh man, if this really is the end, embrace it, put your arms around it, caress it like a newborn baby. It might actually be fun," wrote the editors. The highbrow magazines take faith more seriously. GQ ran an article by Thomas Mallon about how "modern American [fiction] writers have tended to cut God down to size, to make Him fit for democracy." GQ's cover story is a respectful portrait of heavyweight boxer Evander Holyfield, a professing Christian. Although GQ and Esquire have different readers than the likes of Maxim, pressure to compete on the newsstand is driving the cigar-rolling set to new lows. "Breasts: The Triumph of Cleavage Culture," is Esquire's current cover story headline over a revealing shot of Pamela Anderson. "An emblem of empowerment, the fruit of technological advances, or the symbol of a new culture of falseness that pervades the corridors of power?" asks Esquire, apparently with a straight face. More cheesecake is on the way. Besides new American competitors like Gear and Stuff, British men's magazines (which are far less bashful than the Americanized Maxim, which began in Britain) are now on the racks of mainstream distributors like Barnes & Noble. The cover story of Front, for example, is about the model behind cyber-babe Lara Croft, star of the video game Tomb Raider. Other stories include panning for gold in Scotland, an interview with a porn star, and a review of a Web site described as perversion "24-hours a day. Splendid stuff." The inner swine never had it so good.

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Les Sillars
Les Sillars

Les directs the journalism program at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Va., and is the editor of WORLD's Mailbag section.

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