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.

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.

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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