I am [spoiler alert!] a woman. But women’s magazines have nothing for me. They’re great when I’m in the salon, but when it comes to reading magazines with bones, with guts, with something to say, the men take it every time.
I’m not talking about lad mags, those British imports from 15 years ago. I’m talking about “gentlemen’s magazines”: namely Esquire and GQ, but I also love Details, the dandier kid brother of the other two.
I have subscribed to these Big Three for years. I first started reading my father’s Esquire when I was a teenager. Its commentary on music, film and literature was second to none, and its tone was hilarious. Plus it was so cleverly wrapped: a high-end glossy chock full of honest, no-nonsense stuff that I felt smarter for knowing. Sure, it was peppered with self-indulgent photos of female celebrities barely concealing their ladyparts. But to me, it was an obvious statement on American consumerism: that to get people to read smart content, you’re going to have to sell it with sex.
My girlfriends were engulfed in the world of Self, Glamour and Marie Claire. Some of us even dabbled with Sassy, and later, Jane and Bust. They were the cool smart chicks of the bunch, but I always felt they were just…lacking. Sassy and Jane fell under (but Jane Pratt is going strong on xojane, and though Bust is still chugging along, its voice has gotten younger, cheekier and hipster. It may be the major magazine for a good pop-feminist read, but I’ve outgrown it.
Consider the sequence of a typical women’s magazine: letters, trends, fashion spreads, maybe an interview with a celebrity, more on trends (fashion, beauty, exercise), some obligatory group of “light” recipes, along with a longer editorial on A Serious Topic like genital mutilation or being catfished by a prisoner. It’s content crafted to make women feel guilty for not knowing what’s hot, smart for knowing that this magazine will reveal it, then ashamed for not being able to afford whatever this magazine has revealed. It’s cyclical, and it’s boring.
I thought perhaps I was in the minority, being a woman who loves men’s magazines. All of the Big Three’s media kits boast audiences with 30 percent women, so I’m clearly not the only one. Do women read men’s magazines differently from men? In a very unscientific survey (of my two brothers in their twenties and my friend Greg, in his forties), I asked what they liked about Esquire and GQ. My brothers prefer GQ and its fashion tips, the profiles of the women and food. Greg only reads Esquire. As he puts it, “Esquire is not about being a well-dressed, cool man. It’s about being the best man you can be. And even though you can’t necessarily glean any of that knowledge from a magazine, it does a valiant job of trying.”
Men’s magazines revolve around cultivating taste: fashion, music, film, books, food, celebrity, sports, cars and (in Details’ case) design. They review where we’ve been and where we’re going, culturally speaking. They’d do better to incorporate more female writers—Stacey Grenrock Woods is a shining example of excellent men’s writing by a female and Jessica Pressler has pushed out some decent profiles for GQ. They don’t always get it right, but the point is: they dare. Yes, they, like women’s magazines, often commoditize gender and make money on reinforcing certain gender stereotypes. But they’re just so glib about it. Where women’s magazines champion us, trying to help us channel our inner sisterhood and answer our Burning Questions, men’s wryly acknowledge that, like most Americans, they’re just stumbling through this crazy mixed-up world, and even they don’t have all the answers.
I have plenty of female friends who read women’s mags because they’re mindless entertainment, and I get that. More than anything, I’m an advocate of reading what you enjoy.
But that’s just the point that men’s magazines make: entertainment needn’t be mindless.
Men’s magazines don’t curate culture; they curate content. They tell me what’s going on culturally and how they feel about it. Women’s magazines ignore what’s going on, because they themselves don’t know how to feel about it. They seem stunted, like the world is just too big for them to comment on—or worse!—that we won’t appreciate a woman magazine’s commentary on larger cultural paradigms. So women’s magazines overcompensate for telling us nothing by telling us everything about nothing (the healing powers of purple fruits! animal prints!). Men’s magazines have their share of frivolity, but they give me the thought stuff too—the national budget, war and PTSD, robotics, a profile of the Vice President. One of the best articles I read was Chris Heath’s coverage in GQ about the massacre of the escaped exotic animals in Zanesville, Ohio. It was a tragic story brilliantly told; and the story of the war between GQ and Esquire competing for the story was just as good. Both magazines published accounts of tragedy; both had writers (Chris Jones for Esquire) on site in the same hotel chasing the same story; both ran in each’s March 2012 issue. I read both articles voraciously, and came out in favor of GQ’s coverage. To my happiness, GQ got an ASME nomination for its story; Esquire didn’t.
That’s the other thing I like about men’s magazines: they’re nominated for awards for their journalism, like actual awards, against giants such as The New Yorker, the Atlantic and Rolling Stone. GQ and Esquire are for literary-minded people, for people who care about the actual words on the page.
Women’s magazines don’t say anything interesting about the state of culture, they just buy into it. They don’t have a sense of humor about themselves.
That’s why I’m sticking with the men—they’re funny, self-effacing and have some of the best editorial content around. None are offering the keys to the universe, but they have a good time trying.