Spring 1997

Mags out for the lads

British men’s magazines rely for sales on female flesh. Harmless fun, “post-feminist” irony, or a desperate ploy to turn back the social clock?

I have just returned from another world where women are long-legged and large of breast. They have blonde hair that whips around their faces as though a permanent breeze was blowing and brilliantly coloured talons for finger nails. They wear few clothes and rarely speak. Existing only to please and oblige, to be there when desired and then to disappear, they are uncritical and, except for their determination to ensnare the male gaze, undemanding.

What sounds like the scenario for a low-budget fantasy film describes the state of contemporary British men’s magazines. It is a sector of the publishing industry which didn’t even exist in Britain until just over a decade ago – it was ten years old on the occasion of Arena’s last birthday in November 1996 – but is keeping the advertisers excited with its increasing sales and rapid growth. After observing Arena for two years, Condé Nast chanced its luck with a British edition of GQ in 1988 and the National Magazine Company joined the fray in 1991 with British Esquire. By 1994, the London publishing giant IPC realised that not only was it missing out, but that a change in attitudes had opened a space for a different kind of men’s magazine and started up an unashamedly smug and smutty organ for the new lad called Loaded. Emap, London’s other big magazine publisher, retaliated by snapping up the dowdy FHM (For Him Magazine) from an independent publisher and slapping some female flesh on the cover. Dennis Publishing saw the potential for another men’s title directed even more strictly down-market, and brought out Maxim in 1995.

The market splits conveniently into two groups: the up-market Esquire, GQ and Arena; the déclassé FHM, Loaded and Maxim. The latter three have been joined in recent months by two new titles. EatSoup is an extraordinarily esoteric food and drink title “for men who’d rather spend £100 on a meal cooked by Marco Pierre White than a new lawnmower” and comes, we are told, “from the makers of Loaded.” Stuff is a glorified shopping catalogue. Within the divisions, each title strives to assert its own brand identity, but all are united by one thing. British men’s magazines in the mid-1990s both lure their readers and define their masculinity with overtly sexualised images of women. There is a circulation war on in this robust and growing part of the market, and women’s breasts sell copies. In the case of FHM, they help to shift over 370,000 issues a month.

As if to pay the price for the political correctness of the early 1990s, the section of the newsstand now called “Men’s Interests” offers up cover after glossy cover of babes in black lingerie and ice-blue mini-dresses. And as if to pay the price for the onward strides of feminism, these women are here in the service of men. The most passive among them – heads tilted, eyes blank, and variously described as “hot,” “hottest” or “blonde” – want only to be looked at: their limp posture and loose abundant hair representing the female at her most powerless. The more assertive ardently pursues eye-to-eye contact with the male consumer, her burning gaze stolen from the old image-bank folder marked “naked desire” and “sexual hunger.” The heaving cleavage below adds an unrestrained physical dimension, encouraging sexual fantasy to expand in the viewer’s mind. But whatever the provocative and evocative power of the cover girl’s gaze, she is deprived of any agency, depending on her desirability for her existence.

Susan Faludi’s book Backlash, published in 1991, elaborately exposed how the British and American media had taken a stand against feminism in the late 1980s. She detailed stories from print and television, as well as messages conveyed by Hollywood movies, all suggesting that women who stray from the true path of marriage and motherhood into the transgressive world of career and independence meet a sorry end of physical illness and mental misery. In the mid-1990s, like a sequel to Faludi’s findings, the British magazine racks tell a story of men who appear to defend their traditionally dominant role in society by reducing women to nothing more than bodies with underwear. Or so one reading would go.

“The old feminist line would be that babe images represent a visual denial of feminine power,” says Lorraine Gamman, editor of The Female Gaze, an analysis of women as viewers of popular culture. “I’m supposed to be against objectification, but I wonder, is it moral puritanism to rail against it? I think it’s only terrible when you are dehumanised.” The post-modern view might be to take the imagery as an ironic acceptance of the achievements of feminism, a tickle rather than a slap sent in the direction of society’s new power group: women. But, as Gamman adds, “the magazines have taken the content of post-modernism – being ironic about the objectification of women – and then put it in a very specific context, one created by men for men, which changes the message.”

“Men feel emasculated by feminism,” she continues. “They stopped being allowed to lech after women at the same time that women were allowed to start leching after men. These magazine covers are proof that men won’t be restrained in their sexual impulses. There’s almost a heroism about this mode of representation. It’s about men fighting back.” Maxim, in its third issue (May 1995), even goes as far as encouraging its readers to find certain images exciting. “If anyone expects you to feel guilty about being turned on by a photo like this [of a scantily clad woman], just tell them you’re programmed that way,” says Doctor Glenn Wilson, who goes on to explain that from birth we develop a mechanism which looks for signals that “identify” the opposite sex. Observation of women around us when we are babies, he continues, further consolidates details of what our “ideal target” ought to be. Singling out mothers and babysitters as these women, Wilson concludes that: “We learn to identify female characteristics like long hair, high-heeled shoes and suspenders and other lingerie.”

Maybe Dr Wilson’s baby-sitter did dress as a French maid, but in the 1990s, it would be hard to argue such accessories as see-though negligees and stilettos still “characterise” femaleness (if, indeed, they ever did). Faced with the rusty outdatedness of these essential elements of men’s magazines – the basques, the over-glossed lips and the tumbling perms – one begins to question whether this is a valid attempt to regain ground, or a concerted effort to turn back the clock to the days when men were men and women were their intellectual and social inferiors.

In every title, from trendy Arena to smart GQ to FHM’s middle-of-the-road environs, women are represented as having vital statistics, not opinions; their visual allure is matched by their lack of voice. Just look at who is included, who is excluded. The first group – the included – are constructs, to a woman, at least in their professional lives, mostly performers (singers, soap stars, models, actresses) who operate safely within the fantasy realm and whose real selves are invisible. Starlets such as Pamela Anderson or former Playboy centrefold turned MTV presenter Jenny McCarthy are custom-built cover fodder. Gillian Anderson, admired for playing the intelligent and modern role of Scully in the X-Files, also gains admittance to the pages of this new kind of men’s club but only through a visual reinvention that suggests her sexual availability rather than her theatrical or intellectual ability. On the cover of Esquire she crosses her naked breasts with gloved hands and stands legs apart, revealing her pubic hair through tight lace trousers. In an FHM spread, she adopts a classic Bardot-on-the-bed pose. Whatever the content of the accompanying interview, the power of imagery means that she is forever reconstructed for this particular audience as a disempowered sex object.

The second group – the excluded – are non- or self-constructs, whose real selves are visible and audible within their arena of activity. Sportswomen, however physically impressive, are not only active and self-motivated but come with a list of well-documented achievements. Politicians and businesswomen are perceived as decision-makers who operate in the male world on its terms. However great their physical beauty, they are unlikely to summon up the requisite vulnerability with which the visual language of these magazines must be punctuated.

Instead, you get Caprice Bourret, the Wonderbra girl. Bourret does not even appear in Wonderbra’s advertising, but is a “face” for the product, paid to “be seen” at parties and premieres. In effect, she does nothing, represents nothing except a mass-produced piece of lingerie in a slightly disconnected way, and says absolutely nothing. In November 1996, she appeared in Loaded, Maxim and Arena. The previous month, GQ featured the new Gossard bra girl, Sophie Anderton, on its cover. It was, apparently, a very good seller.

In 1986, when The Face’s publisher Nick Logan and its art director Neville Brody worked on the first edition of Arena (“a new magazine for men”), with Logan as editor, an unlikely blend emerged that looks today like a mixture of machismo and homoerotica. Robin Derrick, then art director of The Face and a contributing editor of Arena from the beginning, takes credit for issue one’s double-page spread of singer Lisa-Marie. Sandwiched between two men’s fashion shoots, and showing more fabric than flesh, Lisa-Marie is curled cutely on a bed looking clean, healthy and make-up free. She is followed by four smouldering pages of a sultry square-jawed Latino man.

“I thought the pin-up represented part of the picture of what men were interested in,” says Derrick. “And we didn’t want Arena to be a gay magazine. It had to be a masculine thing, so we had to define masculinity. I was taken with 1960s Playboy. It wasn’t aesthetically interesting, but it was a good magazine and fuelled the liberalisation debates of the 1960s.” More significantly, Playboy had helped confirm the idea that for men enjoying images of apparent sexually available women was a way of asserting their masculinity. By publishing intelligent writing between the pages of satin sheets, it sold a secondary idea, that intellectual muscle is also a powerful sexual tool, a sort of cerebral virility.

Dylan Jones, who is now group editor of Arena, and joined the magazine shortly after its launch, says,“We were very self-conscious in the early days, especially because there was a perceived view that men’s magazines were either sport or porn. I think that made us nervous. It seemed easier to be specific about men’s bodies. We were wary of photographic portrayals of women.” Cover stars included clever architect Richard Rogers, macho actor Kurt Russell and nice footballer Gary Lineker; Martinis were perfect; jackets were leather; watches were chunky Tag Heuers. An “Arena pour Elle” sixteen-page special bound into the Spring 1990 issue showed images of tough, confident girls with no naked flesh and lots of attitude. In the same issue, it is a male model who reclines seductively in a sequinned dressing gown. A “Girls” special issue from Winter 1990/91 puts Tatjana Patitz on the cover as a power maiden in a futuristic white Thierry Mugler waistcoat. The reality matched the image. “I had wanted to rip off a Lilliput cover [a postwar British men’s magazine] and have her dusting the Arena logo in a maid’s outfit,” says Robin Derrick. “But Tatjana refused. She probably thought it would be tacky. It probably was tacky.”

When GQ launched in 1988, it too was an all-male preserve. Issue one contains only one image of a woman, the architect Gae Aulenti who with her steely grey hair and formal black suit exudes little femininity. Issue four contains archive pictures of the actress Charlotte Rampling and shows a woman in a Boucheron watch advertisement. The promotion to editor of fast-living Michael VerMeulen in 1992 did elevate the flesh level, but only on the inside pages. A voluptuous Anne Nicole, for example, reclines semi-naked in the issue of April 1993. A year later, she would doubtless have been on the cover. In January 1994, model Justine Oliver strides across the front in a stiff black bra and black leather shorts. But her presence is justified by some hard-hitting cover lines that were the result of a recent readers poll, and the conventional reading of the image itself brought into question: “If this woman said No to sex, 24% of you would think she meant yes. . .”; “If she was raped and you knew who did it, 68% wouldn’t tell the police.”

Three months later, the whole market was to change with the launch of Loaded, the self-styled “magazine for men who should know better.” Arena had marketed itself on new man-ism in 1986. Loaded was the new read for the latest arrival in British society: the new lad. Put together by a talented and knowing team headed by former New Musical Express journalist James Brown, Loaded’s priorities reflected those of a younger generation of men cowering in the shadow of a female liberation they were unable or unwilling to understand. The concerns of the new lads were beer, football, drugs and, with a dashing touch of whimsy, biscuits. And women, or at least birds.

Birds sit on the fringes of Loaded’s agenda, reinforcing its masculinity with their presence, listening to its jokes and probably tittering in all the right places. They have the look of women from 1970s soft pornography with a little too much going on in the hair, make-up and breast departments. They wear the kind of lingerie associated with strippers and high-class prostitutes that is more theatrical costume or uniform than underwear – highly decorated plunging bras in slick red PVC or lilac lace; elaborately frilled suspenders; white stockings. All are key components of the fantasy female, a comic-strip conception of womanhood. Loaded layouts are often hectically assembled montages of badly composed pictures. Huge headlines race at diagonals across the page. The entire visual language has been co-opted from the pages of Britain’s tabloid press and given a gentle twist, as has its repertoire of working-class totems.

But for all that Loaded’s middle-class staff are milking the absurdity of tabloid journalism and its modes of representation, are their unsophisticated and impressionable adolescent male readers really getting the joke? Or are they going for the belly laughs, and making the most of the girls on its “Most Wanted” pages as soft porn that you can smuggle in past Mum?

“Loaded is funny,” says critic and journalist Suzanne Moore, “but I suspect that its irony is lost on its readers. James Brown is a clever guy. But the readers are blokes who are losing out in every possible arena – jobs, education – to women. They aren’t leading the Loaded lifestyle, travelling all over the place and shagging models. Presenting them with an unobtainable lifestyle means they are being squashed down even further.” Staff writer Michael Holden insists that, “we don’t have a surreptitious porn agenda,” but Moore considers that “sexing up all the magazines is part of the tabloidisation of all the media. And that is a problem for women, you have to be aware of what it means. Once it takes hold, women are reduced to nothing more than images.”

There is no denying that the “sexing up” has taken place. “When Loaded launched in 1994, it did make us perk up our images,” admits Philip Watson, editor-at-large of GQ. “They show tits, and babes and birds. So we started showing more of them. Now we show more women, more flesh. It makes it difficult to show women without them looking sexy. When we had Sigourney Weaver on the cover not looking like a siren, it bombed. The same with Uma Thurman. Emily Lloyd looks like a dog on October 1996, but she’s got her tits out, and that issue did well.” GQ aims for its “window dressing,” as Watson describes the cover babe to be “chic,” possibly French or Italian, and often photographed in black and white, taking the edge off the cheapness of flesh baring with the implication of “art.” “GQ is a glossy magazine,” says Watson, “It takes an up-market approach in its choice of imagery. Other men’s magazines take a more tacky tabloid approach. GQ is more glamorous and erotic. We wouldn’t do anyone from Baywatch. We look at new young French actresses, attractive women with interesting careers.”

“GQ would say its images are ‘erotic,’ not sexy, because sexy would lose them advertisers,” retorts Mike Soutar, the editor of FHM. “GQ is cold and unapproachable. And anyway, erotic sounds a bit pervy to me. We put women on the cover that we fancy. I think they’re sexy. Actually we’re known as the magazine of the black bra. It’s a kind of chauvinism, but an affectionate chauvinism. In the 1980s, we were all pretending that we were the same, and everyone was miserable with that. It’s better to appreciate the difference. It makes life so much nicer. And it’s lovely when a woman is a traditional woman.”

The “tradition” of woman as sex object is hardly new, but what has changed is the availability of this representation, and the context. Gamman says, “I would never try to ban Page 3 [the page traditionally reserved for pictures of big-breasted women in British tabloids]. I think The Sun is a worker’s comic, and Page 3 is a natural part of that environment. But in a thinking environment it matters more.” Indeed, the thinking environment gives the ultimate seal of approval to this narrow and exclusive representation of women. Certain editors even acknowledge the power of the printed image and the importance of context. Dylan Jones, for one, firmly believes that, “You have to look very carefully at images you are putting in a magazine, to decide what they will mean to the reader.” But it is not a view consistently borne out in the pages of Arena. In the February 1997 edition, for example, a fashion shoot is based on images of Charlotte Rampling in Liliana Cavani’s 1974 The Night Porter, a film which tells a perverse, and distressing, story of sexual domination.

Flesh is no more than a fashion, suggests Jones, “and this particular obsession will pass. People will get sick to death of it. Sex is used so obviously in design and marketing that it doesn’t shock or thrill anymore.” But sex does still thrill the publishers because it is still making people buy the product. This, in turn, means concerns that should be the remit of editors and designers – an exacting, informative and responsible choice of imagery – are no longer firmly in their hands. In the pressurised men’s market, it is the publishers who are dictating the look of the magazines by demanding higher and higher circulation figures. In such a competitive environment, the gamble of experiment and creativity will always lose out to the safe ground of conformity. Time was, when a compelling and graphically strong visual treatment of a magazine’s leading editorial story would be seen as a sales trick. Now, in a rapid descent down-market, big tits and cover lines have taken the place of the big idea.

Were this merely a print phenomenon, the passing phase theory could hold water. But in the 1990s this imagery has gradually colonized Britain’s mainstream media and pervades every part of popular culture, from television (the new cable channel L!VE TV is the tabloid newspaper brought to your screen) to the ultimate product of babe culture, the all-girl pop group, the Spice Girls, who have themselves become pin-ups and cover girls. “They are completely constructed,” says Lorraine Gamman. “Every item of female sexuality has been ticked off. They even appear to have elements of feminism. But ultimately they have no individuality. Instead they have a pack mentality.”

Anyone who thinks these images have little or no power to change or mould behaviour, should pay a visit to certain kinds of nightclubs, or look in the pages of the house music and club magazine Mixmag to see just how effectively “the babe” has been sold. Young women seeking approval are doing it in a Page 3 style that has its inspirational roots in the way, increasingly, that women are packaged for public consumption. The late-night British television programme The Girlie Show – with its skinny, sexily dressed presenters – would doubtless defend its stance as a post-feminist, post-modern celebration of a stronger, tougher, bad-mouthing, self-confident type of new femininity. But its leering male audience is being confronted with no more than a hysterical charade of pseudo-liberation and a satisfying amount of flesh.

The style of representation traditionally reserved for top-shelf magazines is normalised by its persistent, increasing presence in the public domain. Along with that acceptance of images of woman-as-sex-object must come a subconscious reassertion that women fundamentally are sex objects.

For those coming up with the goods, this probably sounds like great news. The people behind the process that constructs the cover babes and the Page 3 girls are as uninterested in the social implications of the imagery they are busy purveying as they are captivated by sales figures. “I think Page 3 blondes are a bit of a joke,” says Gill Hudson, the editor of Maxim, “but it works. I have sat in endless research groups with men saying that these types of images are the lowest common denominator, but then the pictures come out and all they want to do is look and look.” But what about your responsibility, as an editor, a female editor, towards women and the role they should be perceived to have in society, Gill? “I’m not trying to benefit mankind,” says Hudson. “I’m trying to sell a magazine.”

First published in Eye no. 24 vol. 6, 1997