Masculinity on sale

Submitted by cathy n on 26 February, 2007 - 11:43

By Sofie Buckland

To write this article, I decided to go and buy some lads’ mags; they’ve become a byword for sexism and I wanted to see for myself quite how bad they are. I wasn’t disappointed — both the notoriously crude cheaper weeklies like Nuts and Zoo, and the glossier monthly “lifestyle” magazines like FHM and Loaded are plastered from cover to cover with a representation of women that could have walked out of a Carry On film. We’re all either the butt of sexist jokes or reduced to a perfect tanned and toned figure.
And it’s not just the pictures; Zoo magazine is offering female readers the chance to win a breast enlargement (pitched at men as the perfect present for their partners), with readers being given the chance to vote on who most “deserves” the £5000 prize. The magazine has previously caught media attention by offering men the chance to apply to have sex with a virgin glamour model. Lads’ mags are clearly incredibly sexist.
But alongside what these magazines say to men about women, they say something about men and masculinity too. What struck me the most on reading through some of them was the fakeness of so much of the content — from Zoo and Nuts’ constant repetition of the same faux-lesbian poses, to FHM’s arch is-this-all-irony post-modernism, lads’ mags peddle a very superficial masculinity. Women might be breasts and legs and fluff between the ears, but men aren’t any more three-dimensional. Instead of these magazines satisfying an existing market, a whole generation of young men who only care about football, girls and gadgets, the magazine companies are constructing this identity.
EMAP, the media giant which publishes FHM and Zoo, also owns Heat, Grazia and New Woman magazines. The laddish identity it creates for young men helps it sell huge chunks of advertising space to beer companies in much the same way that its appearance-is-everything women’s magazines are a lucrative source of income from make-up advertisers. For years, feminists have been deconstructing the way magazines perpetuate sexist stereotypes, with women’s lifestyle titles telling us to keep thin and please our men, and men’s titles turning us into hyper-sexed brainless bimbos. It’s time we started talking about how these magazines stereotype and influence men. The guys who buy Nuts, Zoo and FHM aren’t all the dribbling, emotionless Neanderthals they’re made out to be. Sexists are made, not born.
Basically all of Britain’s media is sexist. I can’t remember the last time I went to see a film that didn’t have some irritating stereotype of the typical woman in it. Advertising across billboards, TV and newspapers colludes to tell us that all women look a very specific way. And while lads mags are one of the most shocking examples of a society which still sees women as a one-dimensional schoolboy fantasy, I can’t help but think they’re sometimes scapegoated because they’re explicitly sexual in a way other sexism isn’t.
Anti-lads’ mag activism is becoming a big deal on university campuses. Young women are understandably angry at being confronted with this sexist rubbish every time they enter their uni shops, and are carrying out direct actions like stickering (“real women don’t look like this” and “can’t you get a proper date?”). But there’s an uncomfortably censorious undertone to some actions.
In a recent interview with the Guardian, the women’s officer of York University declared she was running a campaign against “sexual publications” on campus; in this instance, Nuts, Zoo etc. are being targeted because they show women in a sexual way, not because they peddle a superficial, sexist, commercialised view of female (and male) sexuality.
Quite aside from the censorship issue (see, these kind of campaigns miss an opportunity to say something about the massive commercialisation of sexuality. They miss the chance to educate people about the creation of a generation of young men who will readily consume these false, boring, repetitive images of women, and the reasons EMAP and others might be interested in that. They don’t talk about capitalism, and they don’t have any answers. Putting white covers over lads mags, or sticking them on the top shelf won’t challenge any of the content and seems motivated by the view that men are irredeemable, and the only solution is for women not to have to be confronted with any evidence of their sexist natures.
Instead, lets call lads’ mags out for what they really are; a very canny attempt by capitalist corporations to construct, own and sell a narrow masculinity in the same way they’ve constructed, owned and sold femininity since women’s media were created. The problem is not that young men want to look at pictures of naked women; the problem is the way these pictures are part and parcel of a lifestyle sold by sports channels, beer companies and Topman.

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