An anthropology of the new male self-improvement mags.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Oct. 11 2010 6:47 AM

Real Men Cry and Do Laundry

An anthropology of the new male self-improvement mags.

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In the women's magazine realm, of course, the fascist cheerleading usually involves physical appearance and sexual desirability. "18 foods that fight cellulite!" "23 great things to do with your hair tonight!" "Little mouth moves that make sex hotter!" In the new men's magazines, it's not sex or body size but some philosophical notion of masculine virtue that's the oppressive ideal. Don't like to clean your house? Then you're not the charming slob in the beer commercial but some kind of a wuss, because "part of becoming a man is picking up after yourself." Have trouble crying, even when you've just been sprung from the slammer or you're confronting the cremated remains of a beloved pet? Come on, Petunia! Don't you know that "bawlin'" is just about the most virile thing a guy can do? Drop down for 20 and shed a few brawny tears!

This new male archetype arguably started in the 1980s, when Robert Bly led thousands of baby boomers into the woods to reclaim their masculinity by terrifying squirrels with poetry and bongo drums. Then there were the Promise Keepers, hijacking NFL stadiums to tailgate for Jesus and pledge their faithfulness to their beautiful subservient wives. More recently, the federal government's been dabbling in manovation, first in the Clinton years with task forces and conferences, then in the Bush years with the Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood initiatives, which allocated nearly a billion dollars between 2006 and 2010 to transform lyin' and cheatin' (but probably not bawlin') louts and deadbeats into responsible family men.

But if major government programs to retool the American male suggest a potentially disturbing trend toward heavy-handed social engineering, infringing on the sacrosanct territory of traditional men's magazines exacerbates this trend in a way that's downright intolerable. Just as there's an unwritten law that you can't show traffic jams or trips to the mechanic in car commercials, you can't show the real responsibilities of male adulthood in men's magazines. Or at least you shouldn't. Men's magazines are idealized Edens of irresponsibility, hedonism, wistful dreaming, places where all the women are gorgeous and underdressed, all the booze is top-shelf and on the house, and life's greatest challenges involve nothing more pressing than how to infuse your pocket squares with a little more rebel attitude.

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Turn them into virtue factories and pretty soon you'll have real problems. For decades, women's magazines have tirelessly evangelized on behalf of superficial, compliant ideals—"Curb Your Food Cravings!" "Orgasm Noises He'll Love!"—and look how that's turned out. Women are earning more college degrees than men now. Their wages are rising. They're waiting longer to become wives and mothers. Feed men a steady diet of stories mandating responsibility, loyalty, and "the best way to approach your pregnant wife about remodeling a nursery," and eventually you're going to produce a generation of men who make Charlie Sheen look like Ozzie Nelson.*

*Correction, Oct. 11, 2010: The article originally misspelled Ozzie Nelson's first name.

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Greg Beato is a contributing editor at Reason.

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