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.

The Art of Manliness Web site. Click image to expand.

Men, you may have heard, are having a major midlife crisis. They've lost more than 7 million jobs since 2007. Their wages are dropping. Increasingly superfluous, they're now the human equivalents of newspapers: out-of-step with a changing world and struggling to stay relevant, in some limited fashion, before they disappear entirely.

This is bad news for the necktie industry, but great news for aspiring men's magazine publishers. Adrift and rudderless in the tricky currents of post-feminism and globalization, men need guidance, mentorship. Established men's magazines like Men's Health and Maxim are struggling to do that, but the instruction they offer is superficial and glib: "Beach muscle now!" "Shave my what?!" "Do you deserve a hotter girlfriend?" The oldest of the old guard—GQ, Esquire, Playboy—are even less tuned to the tenor of the times. Sequestered in their cashmere bubble of designer cologne ads and exquisitely curated layouts of super-premium tennis shoes, they're the cocksure house organs of male privilege, not male crisis. They do LeBron James in $8,000 suits, pithy guides to the world's best beers, in-depth investigative pieces on what Lindsay Lohan looks like in her underwear.

Their complacency leaves an opening for newer, younger voices who face the twilight of the patriarchy head on—and yet also provide a formula to restore men's cultural potency. Brett McKay is the twentysomething creator of a Web site called The Art of Manliness. A few years ago, he had a revelation while browsing the men's magazines at his local Borders. "I realized that every month it's the exact same thing," he explains in a video FAQ. "There's always an article about how to get six-pack abs, how to score eight chicks this weekend, how to go on this $50,000 safari adventure that no average guy that I know could afford and that's it. And I remember sitting there thinking, 'Is this what manliness has become? Is this all there is to becoming a man—six-pack abs and Megan Fox's boobs?' "

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In McKay's estimation, his wayward peers didn't need celebrity glitz and consumerist fluff so much as they needed ab crunches for the soul. Masculinity 101. Along with his wife, Kate, McKay created The Art of Manliness, which aims to teach men how to be "better husbands, better fathers, better men" via a curriculum that plays a little like Oprah channeling a Black & Decker catalog: "Be a Modern Knight," "Toolmanship: How to Use a Screwdriver," "How to Split Firewood," "Our Disembodied Selves and the Decline of Empathy."

The idea, apparently, is to rebuild the American Man, vertebra by vertebra. Out there in Apatowpia, confused and directionless slackers are heeding its call. According to Compete.com, The Art of Manliness attracted 337,128 unique visitors in August 2010. This doesn't put it in league with Maxim, Esquire, or GQ, all of whom have larger print circulations and attract more unique Web visitors, too—but for a two-year-old site run by a husband and wife in Oklahoma, it's pretty impressive.

In recent months a handful of similar sites have emerged to help rescue manhood. There's Made Possible, which promises to "empower America's 40 million young men under age 35" and "inspire them to maximize their potential in every way." There's Man of the House, which explains that it's "not the glossy fashion magazine that tells you that you need to have a pair of $3,000 shoes," but rather a "real man's magazine," for guys who are "trying to be better -- at work and at home, as a father and as a husband." There's The Good Men Project, which believes that the world needs a "new kind of men's magazine – one that takes men seriously" and understands that it's the "most macho thing in the world" to be a loving father and a faithful husband, and "even more macho … to come clean about how hard it is to try to be all those things at the same time."

Or to put it another way: Out with the chest bumps and in with the hugs. These are men's magazines that nurture, men's magazines that wrap today's downsized, outsourced, overextended, underappreciated males in a cozy but masculine fleece of understanding and sympathy. But such comfort comes at a price. In feeling the pain of today's beleaguered males, these new men's mags also co-opt the dog-whistle decree that has informed women's magazines for years: You're not good enough. Try harder. With these 13 steps you can be a better person.

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