The Representation of Masculinity in Men’s Magazines

Rob Miller | Friday February 24, 2012

Categories: A LevelAQA A LevelAQA A2Key ConceptsRepresentation & StereotypingHot EntriesMagazinesImage AnalysisMasculinity in Men's Magazines

Men’s Magazines, in their printed form developed in terms of publication and circulation in the 1980s. Many reasons were offered for this, particularly in light of the fact that Women’s Magazines have been around for hundreds of years. A manifest, obvious reason could explore changing cultural representations in reference to how masculinity was perceived and that the 1980s was just about the right time for men to finally embrace a magazine genre of their own that was previously, stereotypically associated with feminine culture. The hegemonic cultural stereotype of masculinity was slowly changing; New Romantic bands likeDuran Duran and Spandau Ballet wore make up on Top of the Pops - surely this was now the time to make that gendered leap in the same way that 1990s and 2000 men struggled with idea of grooming products aimed at improving their appearance from hand cream to hair gel.

The contents of Men’s Magazines, however did not reflect this so called evolutionary, cultural change – quite the reverse in fact with advertising copy seeking to reassert traditional, masculine values devoting pages and column space to technology, watches and motorbikes in contrast to anything remotely designed to enhance the appearance. Without doubt, the 1980s ‘new man’ was here and this was reflected in other media at the time but the negotiated reading as to why Men’s Magazines originated in the 1980s is as a complete rejection of this representation of the manufactured construct of the new man circulated in other media, in preference for a text that grounded old fashioned masculine values once again but this time in print. Early Men’s Magazines focussed on stereotypical male pastimes like sport, bar room banter and womanising presenting their audience with a direct, inclusive mode of address that, like Women’s Magazines spoke to their audience and made men (the readers) feel that they were all part of an exclusive club, a collective identity where the ideology of patriarchy is king.

Even in the 1980s though, Men’s Magazines were diverse in content and although similar in terms of codes and conventions differed in terms of the type of images and photography used (framing, dress code) and the narrative content – magazines like Loaded first published in 1994 offered crass, overtly sexualised half naked images of woman underpinned by a restricted language code that had a similar audience to The Sun in terms of white, C2 and D working class mainstreamers while earlier 1980s magazines were less ‘obvious’ in their encoded objectification of women. FHM and Arena, first published in 1985 and 1986 respectively suggested a pretence of sophistication in relation to content, particularly Arena taking a more ‘cultural’ approach suggesting a more upmarket B, C1 demographic who would find obvious nakedness and stories about beer drinking limited in terms of sustaining their interest.

GQ (Gentlemen’s Quarterly) will claim to have started publishing in 1957 but as more of an arts based magazine that catered in part for a male audience – it was only when publishers Conde Nast acquired the magazine in 1980 that they repositioned themselves as a Men’s Magazine with Esquire as their key competition in the mid 1990s. Maxim started in 1995 and positioned itself as competition in terms of style and approach to FHM while Men’s Health, an American magazine first published in 1987 specialised in Men’s fitness, the body beautiful and healthy lifestyle as their USP.

FHM cornered the market in the 1980s and became the market leader in terms of circulation – their mainstream representations (provocative, sexualised images trying their best to be aspirational and not too obvious) worked with their target audience while Arena and GQcatered for a more upmarket audience who wanted to buy into a more sophisticated, branded representation of masculinity with Men’s Health publishing to an audience who were interested in improving their physique, performance and along with this their chances of making them desirable to the opposite sex. The publishing oligopolies and advertisers quickly became interested in this media product that, in terms of FHM was suggesting in the 1980s a circulation pushing one million. The publishing giant EMAP (later to be acquired by Bauer in 1998), responsible for developing a range of successful Women’s Magazines like Closer,BellaTake A Break and Music Magazines like Q (1986) and Kerrang (1981) took control and branded FHM (previously known as For Him Magazine). Strong circulation within the genre of Men’s Magazines continued for over a decade into the 1990s (hence the mid 1990s launch of Loaded and Front magazine by Piers Hernu) and tapped into, and benefitted from the new cultural representation of the ‘new lad’. Just like the 1980s heralded the ‘new man’, stereotypically in touch with his feminine side along came the new lad – presenter Chris Evans, actor, musician, womaniser and heavy drinker Keith Allen and Brit Pop (Oasis, Pulp etc) epitomised this new representation. The 1990s new lad representation would be (by new lads) espoused as being ironic with middle class audiences adopting stereotypically middle class attributes including a love of football, violence and pub culture. The new lad, as represented in Loaded and Front magazine was anti intellectual, liked breasts, a pint and ‘freedom’.

From the front covers below Loaded and Front took a very specific approach to representing the female form that could neither be describes as tasteful or sophisticated.

Arena magazine first popularised the notion of the new lad in 1983 as a negative reaction to the new man. Proposed, and represented was a return to hegemonic values of sexism and and acceptability in reference to the objectification of women. The new lad could also be seen as a reaction to the 1990s notion of ‘girl power’ and extended beyond representations within the covers of LoadedFront (and by now FHM and Maxim) who had repositioned and were riding the wave of the new lad). Films like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrelsand the British gangster film paralleled well the editorial and advertising copy of Men’s Magazines – Loaded’s masthead declared “For Men Who Should Know Better” foregrounding notions of the naughty boy, of illicit and underhanded behaviour but behaviour all the same that should be forgiven. The 1990s gave Men’s Magazines a raison d’être, justifying their existence though repeated and circulated representations of the new lad in a range of media; magazines defined the concept of hegemony by not only reflecting the concept of the new lad but also by reinforcing and circulating this representation as common sense. Throughout the 1990s Chris Evans (now presenter of The One Show) promoted male excesses of drinking, womanising and inappropriate behaviour as acceptable in television programmes like The Big BreakfastDon’t Forget Your Toothbrush and TFI Friday while Liam and Noel Gallagher attempted to put back feminism by 100 years. American rap and hip hop also gained in popularity in the 1990s with their misogynist lyrics and overtly sexist representations.

The bubble ultimately had to burst however. Throughout the 1990s Men’s Magazines likeFHM and Maxim still sustained monthly circulations in excess of 400,000 (down from the 1980s but still enough to attract advertising revenue) but ultimately began to suffer as the rise and rise of lad culture began to wane but also because of the inevitable march of technology that has affected the circulation of most print media. The internet and new digital media led to the decline to circulation in Men’s Magazines to just over 200,000 on average. Gaming culture as new media developed offering predominantly men another form of cathartic release, particularly the growing genre of Shoot em’ Up games targeting young males. Video and Computer Games offered everything Men’s Magazines could including collective identity, competition, sexualised representations and physical violence. This time it was moving image and on screen. Semi pornographic representations in Men’s Magazines were also available in new media formats and the whole idea of a magazine for men seemed a bit old fashioned itself in a short period of time. Hegemony however, if commercially supported can continue and many magazines kept publishing but with the odd notable casualty (Arena andMaxim magazine folded in 2009). Most Men’s Magazines were and are published by large publishing houses like IPC, Bauer and Conde Nast who can sustain losses as their commercial success is apparent from other business interests. In the same way that a Hollywood distributor like 20th Century Fox whose parent company is the News Corporation can spend millions advertising a film that flops, Men’s Magazines remain on our shelves as media products, albeit with a reduced, arguably more niche target audience.

The current Men’s Magazine market (February 2012) includes FHM as the ex longstanding market leader (purchased Men’s Magazines) but with only 140,000 hard copies sold monthly still claiming on its website to target a “broad, heterosexual audience”. GQ has 120,000 readers, Loaded who still target more working class audiences with representations that are closer to ‘soft porn’ only attract around 34,000 after suffering a massive 30% drop and Men’s Health as the new market leader from FHM have a 220,000 monthly circulation (see in depth analysis below). National Magazine Company’s (NatMagsEsquire struggles at 56,000 while other Men’s Magazines in the marketplace include weeklies Nuts and Zoo and the niche, heavily ironic, independently funded magazine The Chap targeting an upper middle class demographic who are resplendent in tweed. Technology magazines like Wired andGadget and Car magazines like Top Gear borrow from the conventions of Men’s Magazine but offer their own unique selling point. New Editors come and go but fundamentally the circulation of Men’s Magazines ‘seems’ irreversible taking into consideration cultural as well as technological change.

The future for many newspapers like the Evening Standard and The Metro is to be distributed free to consumers relying exclusively on advertising revenue and not cover prices – one Men’s Magazine, ShortList, published by ShortList media has taken the same approach. Launched in 2007 it has a monthly circulation of over 500,000, the biggest by far of any Men’s Lifestyle Magazine.

At the helm of ShortList is Mike Soutar who as former editorial director of IPC Media, editor of FHM (UK) and Maxim (US) understands what has happened to the market. The magazine claims to target a broad demographic of ‘professional males’. Circulation in this instance means 500,000 copies handed out at train stations and gyms in London and other major cities and not consciously purchased - a similar approach was taken by Sport magazine in 2004. offers a high production value webpage with convergent links to ‘Cool Stuff’, Style, Entertainment, Grooming, Quizzes, Competitions and ‘Women’ (still the mainstay of these publications which it is hoped consumers will divert to before binning their magazine or leaving it with The Metro on a tube seat.

Purchased weekly competition to ShortList and Sport included IPC’s Nuts and Bauer’sZoo. Nuts’ weekly circulation is now 114,000 – a dip of nearly 20% while Zoo also struggles at 55,000, another dip of 20%. The whole sector is in commercial decline in terms of circulation if ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulation) figures are referenced every 6 months over the last ten years and particularly over the last three years. ABC headlines state, “Men’s Magazine Sector Dives” which is why the future may indeed lie with free publications funded by advertising revenue with key focus on convergent, online links as part of the marketing process.  Nuts and Zoo were first published in middle of the naughties and offer similar representations to Loaded – as weekly magazines their production values are low and are obviously thinner with less advertising copy. Images are aligned with that of a gossip magazine including ‘upskirt’ pictures of drunken celebrities, topless pictures of celebrities caught by the Paparazzi skulking 400 yards away with high powered telephoto lenses and posed topless and overtly sexualised images. Representations in Nuts and Zoo, as inLoaded leave nothing to the imagination and cater well for blokes that want to look at girls; nothing more, nothing less.

FHM Magazine

As identified earlier many Men’s Magazines follow standard conventions with FHM as typical of the genre. Sexuality provocative, hegemonic covers see always young models, actresses or celebrities framed centrally in medium shot making direct eye contact with a male audience. Challenging cover lines include masculine put downs, “Are you tough enough?” with the rhetorical question frequently utilised as and marketing tool. FHM’s typography is stereotypically male with the masthead FHM itself red, bold, sans serif, upper case block text with clear connotations of masculine culture. The design and layout is simplistic, not particularly sophisticated with plenty of white space and intended to make a direct link with the audience are hand written fonts used to encourage a mythical, personal communication. Production values are still high (choice of model, use of glossy super calendared paper) as you would expect from a magazine that although in decline is still published by one of the major publishing houses, Bauer. The cover includes pull outs, free offers, calendars all intended to seduce the reader both before and after purchase (70% of magazines are impulse buys based on the front cover).

The FHM mode of address is informal, upbeat and speaks to the audience in the first person with other stereotypical male preoccupations referenced including technology and ‘machines’ whether cars, motorbikes or boats. The idea of power, speed and elegance is seen as a key appeal for a target audience who are 16-35, primarily male, C1, C2 and D, mainstreamers and aspirers. The audience of FHM has in terms of age and social class come down over the years and the magazine now appeals more to the younger reader on a much less sophisticated level than it used to. The older target group would very much be the secondary target audience who think FHM still looks good on the coffee table not knowing if they want to go upmarket then GQ would be ‘the way forward’. The FHM target audience does however think they are a cut above LoadedNuts and Zoo with some respect for the feminine form and some cultural capital in terms of their knowledge of the Men’s Magazine genre. As with most Men’s Magazines the target audience are fiercely heterosexual and wear this as a badge as it is worn as a badge by the magazine. They tend to be more urban and city living with some disposable income reflected by the cover price (£3-90) and advertising copy. As with Women’s Magazines and male readership there is still estimated (NRS – National Readership Survey) to be a 15% female readership to magazines like FHM.

The audience appeals of FHM are on one level obvious but on another more complex – applying Blumler and Katz’s 1974 Uses and Gratifications Theory diversion (escapism) and personal identity and even personal relationships would apply. Audiences can escape through not just aspirational images of women (who they would want to be with) but also aspirational images of men like Ryan ReynoldsDavid Beckham and George Clooneywho they would want to be like which is anchored by the advertising images. Personal identity would be from the recognition (hailing) of themselves within the discourse including letters, stories and personal accounts from readers. Personal relationships would stem from the convergent ability to share and comment on these representations in convergent blogs, social networking sites or any form of digital media that offers the opportunity of being involved in an interactive narrative about the magazine. Challenges and put downs also encourage this interactivity. Voyeurism and sexual objectification remain a key appeal mapping Laura Mulvey’s male gaze theory onto how women are framed and as also previously discussed using a bar room banter and restricted language code that is familiar to, and appealing to audiences.

Male representations are normally iconic whether in the field of sport, entertainment or technology. ‘Man of the Year’ reinforces this appeal with a better than average chance that the target audience could not come close to the degree of success represented. The iconic males often appear in advertising images for fragrances like Hugo Bossor BeckhamWatches, (which very much seems to saturate advertising copy in Men’s Magazines) Clothing Ranges and Computer Games. WithFHM the high end branding will be just within the reach of the reader but not as high end as other up market magazines like GQ.

Consumerism and aspiration work hand in hand within Men’s Magazines with the manifest desire to improve and better oneself driven by products and services. Brands will on occasion be ‘downmarket’ e.g. Puma reflecting the change in the demographics of the magazine (age and social class). The ratio of advertising copy to editorial copy in Men’s Magazines like FHM is still significant as is their heightened role in paying for the production costs because of falling circulation but is still less than Women’s Magazines at approximately 50:50. As the demographics of the magazine decline (in terms of so called upmarket and downmarket trends) then so will the advertising with advertisers like Rolex not wanting to waste their time with an audience who can only aspire to their products – watches and advertising images of watches carry with them connotations of upmarket social class which now found more within the covers of GQthan FHM.

The target audience want to look as good as the male representations they are viewing and the whole idea of aspiration is anchored by use of language – words like ‘we’ and ‘our’ encode a shared aspiration and ensure ideological notions of patriarchy are maintained (women are seen as the ‘significant other’). The syntax and choice of vocabulary appeal to the audience to ensure familiarity and the correct message is put across as far as the editorial team is concerned. Having said this, most of the representations are hyper real and deliberately use exaggerated stereotypes to attract audiences. These hegemonic cultural stereotypes would be represented and ideally understood by the target audiences iconic masculine images that are attempting to maintain the arguably mythical construct of lad culture in a changing world where lad culture is a reality but for niche audiences. Jeremy Clarkson, Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross however would lay claim to the suggestion that lad culture is still thriving, supported by the continued high ratings of programmes likeTop Gear and The Jonathon Ross Show which is a view held by media theorist David Gauntlett. An oppositional reading to this, held by theorist David Buckingham is that Men’s Lifestyle Magazines are no longer culturally relevant and that these dinosaur representations are archaic and offer a brand of gender that has become much more pluralistic, fragmented and broken up into a more individual rather than collective identity.

Men’s Health

Socio-political change has paved the way for more pluralistic representations in the media but some media texts, like Men’s Health magazine, the current market leader have the potential to by-pass social trends. Like Charlie SheenMen’s Health presents audiences with a hyper real representation of gender akin to Duke Nukem or any other extreme male representation including James Bond. Published by American company, Rodale Men’s Health can be categorised as a Men’s Lifestyle magazine but within the sub genre of Fitness and Health e.g. Running Time, Men’s Fitness. Men’s Health has much wider global distribution than FHM and in the United States is the best selling magazine perhaps reflecting hegemonic imperatives.

The target audience of Men’s Health is older than FHM as has much more of a preoccupation with the representation of the male body (male cover models are commonplace which is unusual for the genre). 21-35 is the age demographic, aspirers, obviously male and urban and city living, responding well to the anxieties placed upon men and women by ‘modern day living’ to conform to a cultural stereotype of gender. These images of men with six packs posing in tight shorts litter the pages of the magazine and the website again evidencing synergy and convergence – online images offer similar representations. The culture of the gym is clear with images of bodybuilders, unnatural, hyper real muscle tone and brute strength supported by advertising copy facilitating a possible transition by the target audiences into the this preferred male form e.g. protein shakes and supplements as prerequisites.

The irony however in Men’s Health is that although good health is seen as the ultimate aspiration it is potentially at the expense of what you can do to your body if you try too hard or get too obsessed – you could argue the magazine promotes this obsessive, compulsive culture. Apart from developing the body beautiful, narrative content does also include fitness, weight gain and weight loss, nutrition, and on occasion as secondary articles on sex, relationships, technology and style. The benchmark and standard for Men’s Health is bare chested male models with rippling muscles who are framed not for a female audience but for aspirational male audiences – the obvious criticism of this form of hyper real, hegemonic masculinity is that it has the potential to promote negative health behaviour such as excess protein and meat consumption, a highly regimented regime that your body that may not be ready for, aggressive behaviour associated with this lifestyle and almost an alienation from perceived society ‘norms’ as a result of a dedication to achieve fulfillment. Further criticism suggests that the promotion of body anxiety has been cloned from Women’s Magazines where the representations are equally unacceptable in what they have the potential to create in relation to their target audience.

Covers reflect the country of distribution with more recently scantily clad female models appearing with a ripped male model on the front cover for American audiences with the European classicMen’s Health cover normally a solo male image – changes have been made however to the traditional cover format to broaden the target audience from exclusively health and fitness to become the market leader. The following image is a UK 2011 front cover:

On the front cover, white and red as a colour palette predominate. As withFHM, the masthead is bold and red and also is sans serif with its stereotypical connotations but is in lower case. Cover lines reflect the focus of the magazine and are all about improving your body image – ‘flat belly’, ‘great abs’, ‘more power’ links with the consequences of following a recommended regime – ‘The better sex diet’. Men’s Health is not always so direct in linking improving your physique and performance and rarely references the opposite sex on the front cover until recently choosing instead to reflect nihilistic concerns and body self love. In the same way that a bodybuilder in a gym, in front of a full length mirror will admire his own body Men’s Health can be so hyper real at times that it suggests a dominant brand of masculinity that does not need feminine company. The model is as usual, an aspirational model (Chris Hemsworth is an Australian actor who bulked out to play Thor) who is framed centrally in medium shot. His direct eye contact challenges audiences to look like him and his ‘assets’ are on display. Fitness and health are even seen as the solution to not just sexual matters but issues relating to finances: “Strip away money stress” suggests once you look like this it doesn’t really matter what happens as not only will you have physical power, you will have the problem solving confidence this type of representation brings. The word ‘your’ is used on the front cover twice ensuring audiences buy into the inclusive direct mode of address.

The dominant representation of Men’s Health on the surface is that if suggests a powerful, hegemonic, heroic brand of masculinity capable of transforming you from an insecure, uncertain, insecure ‘normal’ guy into someone who is to be revered and respected brimming full of confidence. Despite changes to Men’s Health over the last two years involving more reference to women as significant others’ and its UK position as market leader oppositional or even aberrant readings using Stuart Hall can apply - the magazine front covers have homoerotic connotations with commonly a well built man posing in a pair of white shorts making direct eye contact with a male audience. Although on one level this reading cold be seen to be tenuous, if compared with the front cover of Gay Times there are obvious similarities – font, colour, choice of model, body shape and pose. This would suggest a secondary target audience of Men’s Health who are attracted to the magazine on this level. Wendy Helsby in Understanding Representation (2005) suggests that “Magazines use images of women for voyeuristic pleasure” – there is no reason why this cannot be subverted to reference the pleasure of male audiences gazing at the male body.

Images in Men’s Magazines have a direct connection with consumer culture, as with Women’s Magazines. John Berger’s stereotype of “Men act, women appear” applies as this old fashioned hegemonic culture tries to convince male audiences that images of femininity are framed through how the women sees herself in the eyes of the man. Representations are largely mythical but did and do now to a lesser extent have the potential to passively affect their audiences. Many young men today still engage with images that promote women as objects of sexual desire to be looked at by men. Men’s Magazines have a place as a product and still make money for advertisers but the heydays are over as circulation sinks rather than falls. Magazines like GQ and Esquire that consciously attract a more ABC1 target audience with more sophisticated representations are ironically more likely to survive because of the higher end brand advertising revenue targeting a more niche audience. LoadedNuts andZoo are relics of page 3 culture that has dwindling appeal – not because men don’t look at women anymore but more to do with the way they look at women that is extending beyond the primitive, obvious representations in the above publications. The future again is for free magazines and online versions with the idea of going into WH Smiths and paying for a magazine that is 50% advertising less appealing, even if it is covered in foil because you can’t open it until you get home to look at FHM’s (insert your magazine name here) ‘Top 100 Women of 2011’.

Learning Objective: 
to analyse how masculinity is presented in This Is England

Success Criteria:
- deconstruct the idea of masculinity (AO1)
- consider the identity of males represented in the film (AO2)

One of the key themes in the film is masculinity. Earlier we looked at the oppositional characteristics between Woody and Combo; both these characters offer very different representations of masculinity and we also see other versions presented in the film. Through the character of Shaun we see a number of factors come together that form part of his identity at that particular time, such as his relationship to his father, his relationship to the various members of the gang and how this manifests itself in terms of a sense of confidence and control over his life. KEY QUESTIONS ✛ How much do you think the ways these issues are represented are gender specific? ✛ Can you imagine this same narrative if the lead character were a girl? Masculinity is a theme that has been returned to by the director Shane Meadows in this film. This theme is important to him on a personal level as a motivating force toward filmmaking, as well as being a theme we can see evidence of in his body of work. 9 ©Film Education 2007. ©Copyright Optimum Releasing 2007. All rights reserved. Shane first hit on the idea for This Is England whilst working on his preceding film, Dead Man’s Shoes, a story of victimisation, abuse of power and revenge in rural England. It was a project that made the director reflect on the nature of bullying and violence. Specifically there was an incident from his own life, when he was about twelve-years-old and had become a skinhead, when as he explains: ‘I thought the be all and end all in life was that kind of hard masculinity in men. I craved to be like a Jimmy Boyle, or a John McVicar, or a Kray. It’s like kids who are into Beckham, I was into Jimmy Boyle in the same way. I wanted to see men fight, and there was an act of violence that I almost prompted, and that was something that became very difficult to live with.’ Ironically it was this experience, alongside the example set by a figure like Jimmy Boyle, a criminal who became an artist, which ultimately became very influential for Shane in a positive way. Of his childhood in Uttoxeter in the eighties, then a small Midlands town with a population of around 10,000, high unemployment, and the epitome of Thatcher’s rural dispossessed, the director reflects: ‘Coming from a town like Uttoxeter, nobody expects you to leave and become a filmmaker. In a way my reaction to that act of violence was the first stepping stone to getting out of that way of life.’ KEY QUESTIONS ✛ Do you think the different aspects of masculinity that are shown through various characters are realistic? ✛ Can you relate to them? ✛ Do you think that the boys and young men we meet in This Is England are under pressure to conform to a ‘hard masculinity’? ✛ Do you think that these pressures are still prevalent? ✛ Does the meaning of the phrase ‘what it means to be a man’ change as individuals get older?
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