Are We Not Men?

Down the ladder from Playboy to Maxim

Who would ever have thought that where rude male self-indulgence is concerned, Hefner could be outdone by a bunch of patricians? Apparently so as not to suffer the same emasculating fate in their day, the laddies at Maxim, Stuff, and FHM take every opportunity to nudge readers, with eyebrows dancing, and ask (actually shout), “Aren’t we just so naughty?!” Which can only be answered, “Not really.” To open these magazines is to walk into a teenage boy’s room: the air scented with dirty socks and the contents of wadded-up Kleenex; the walls decorated with pictures of swimsuit models and he-man athletes and sports cars; the desk barely visible under piles of video-game cartridges, action figures, and forgotten junk food; and all of it colored by the boy’s glee in knowing it exasperates Mom. In fact, that phantom mom (or equivalent mother figure) is just about the only palpable female presence in these magazines.

Sure, there’s the cheesecake, all of it daintily low-cal. And it’s intriguing, if unconvincing, to learn that many of these lasses are part-time sapphists (which is meant, I suppose, to suggest a sort of compound interest). It’s equally intriguing—again—to discover that the theme of juvenile swinishness that pervades these magazines is celebrated without regard to gender. In the September 2006 FHM, a toothsome female wrestler informs readers of her signature move: “The Stink Face,” which involves her rubbing her butt in the face of a cornered opponent. In the February 2006 Maxim, in the Free Upgrades feature (“Dump Your Girlfriend for Me!”), one of the selling points of said upgrade is that “She’s Raunchy!” “It’s totally cool to burp,” says our next girlfriend.

Assuming this is what fires the loins of today’s young men, it’s worth mentioning as an aside that whereas Playboy suggested affecting Euro-sophistication as a way of landing women, these guys share somewhat the taste of a famous mid-century Euro-sophisticate whose truest sexual fancy was a crass American tween. In the words of Humbert Humbert himself:

On especially tropical afternoons, in the sticky closeness of the siesta, I liked the cool feel of armchair leather against my massive nakedness as I held her in my lap. There she would be, a typical kid picking her nose while engrossed in the lighter sections of a newspaper, as indifferent to my ecstasy as if it were something she had sat upon, a shoe, a doll, the handle of a tennis racket, and was too indolent to remove.

Elsewhere Humbert cursed his powerlessness against Lolita’s mixture of “charm and vulgarity” and her “diffused clowning which she thought was tough in a boyish hoodlum way.”

It’s just such boyishness in the females of lad land that’s most striking (or, rather, it’s that the lads seem to desire it so much). Aside from the C-list starlets, who come off like well-bred dames in this context, the majority of laddie girls profess exactly the interests of the lads themselves: roughhousing, football, beer chugging, NASCAR, girl-on-girl, muscle cars and motorcycles, pro wrestling, video games, burping, and being as dumb as humanly possible. In short, these women are but lads with tits, making all the leering that presumably goes on among readers of these mags curiously akin to looking across the table at your poker buddy, imagining him as a woman, and wanting to get nice.

If this represents a barreling return from the fringes of feminization, I think it’s safe to say we missed our exit a few miles back. It’s one thing not to want to attend coed baby showers (or even penthouse parties in formal wear, with all that snooty conversation); it’s another to frolic in a musky frat pad of our own making, where men are men and girls are boys. No wonder feminists haven’t bothered much with challenging this new chauvinism. What woman really cares that an awful lot of guys seem to love being segregated yahoos? (Maybe just the one looking for a decent date.)

Take Richard Roeper (the C-list Siskel), who urges FHM readers to “Stay Single!” His sermonette to the boys’ choir, which captures perfectly the laddies’ acute fear of girlfriend, was about the closest thing to the Playboy Advisor I could find in the lad mags—not counting columns in which Ted Lange (Isaac from The Love Boat) and Heidi Fleiss (the Hollywood Madam) answer delicate questions as only they can. And for comparison’s sake with the Advisor, here’s Roeper’s tongue-flaccidly-in-cheek list of the advantages of single life:

Never having to pay alimony.

Pizza for breakfast. And nobody to give you a hard time about it.

You know those baseball hats, video games and autographed sports stuff guys store in the garage when they get married? I have it all on display in my guest bedroom. If I was married, that room would be a nursery.

You don’t have to pretend to be interested in Desperate Housewives.

Vegas. Guilt-free.

Softball on Mondays, poker on Thursdays, boys’ night on Fridays, football all weekend. And never having to check with anyone to see if that’s OK.

Women. Plural.

What sort of man reads FHM? Apparently the sort who fetishizes his own headgear and hasn’t charm or confidence enough to negotiate the tricky ritual of breakfast for two; the sort who gets a licentious thrill from not having to ask permission to stare at his TV all weekend. In short, a weird little nebbish.

As in so many circumstances, we do right to consult a man who was, by some accounts, himself a weird little nebbish with women: George Orwell. Sixty-five years ago, in “The Art of Donald McGill,” Orwell turned his eye to a genre of postcard that specialized in vulgar humor, from marital to sexual to scatological. “They have an utter lowness of mental atmosphere,” Orwell wrote. “But,” he added, “at the same time the McGill post card … is not intended as pornography but, a subtler thing, as a skit on pornography.” Which nicely captures laddie fare, and the childlike tone of the mags in general. But rather than see malignancy in McGill’s work, Orwell felt that it was nothing but “a harmless rebellion against virtue,” and that such relatively timid rebellion in itself pointed up the sturdiness of the virtues being mocked. The postcards, with their ceaseless portrayals of browbeaten husbands, clapped-out wives, and despotic mothers-in-law, inadvertently demonstrated, according to Orwell, “a stable society in which marriage is indissoluble and family loyalty taken for granted.” In other words (and coming at it from a different direction), since men and women had by and large submitted, and committed, to the hard work of relationships, they’d earned the right to do a little bitching and belittling—and McGill’s postcards gave a safe outlet to these collective moods.

Of course, marriage these days is as soluble as cotton candy, and family loyalty has less opportunity to prove itself (or not) when so many people shy from starting families in the first place. But the lads aren’t really flouting that old convention. That was more Playboy’s beat, decades back. The laddie burlesque of male chauvinism is almost purely a reaction to feminism’s ascendancy, which people of both sexes have long taken for granted. And feminists are quite right to feel unthreatened by the lads’ rebellion. Because in fact, it isn’t a rebellion at all but, rather, a capitulation. It’s as if American masculinity has finally surrendered to decades of feminist criticism, criticism the lads have assimilated fully, because—unlike the Playboy men of yore—they’ve known no other world. One can wish that the lad shtick were subversive minstrelsy of a sort, an absurdist attack on unflattering male stereotypes, but more likely, and all pretend insensitivity aside, the laddies are sadly sincere in their embrace of buffoonery. They’re adopting—before the fact, and with the cold comfort of intent—the very characteristics that would most ensure further criticism, further rejection, which is essentially to take control of defeat by forfeiting the game rather than risk another losing effort. It is, in short, to take control by running away.

In this—paradoxically—the lads’ be­hav­ior is much more closely connected to that of the sensitive, New Age, pantywaist male than to that of the devil-may-care rogue of old. Along with most of their critics, the lads have preferred to think that they represent a male backlash, a testosterone-soaked atavism, a rude if somewhat ironic return to the pre–James Taylor days. But their fear of women is nothing but a rueful extension of Mr. New Age’s obsequiousness, their pantomime of sexism nothing but utter compliance with the harshest feminist critique—nothing but a dancing-bear routine in the feminist tent show. It’s enough to put a real man off his popcorn. The Playboy guy of old didn’t fear women; he surrounded himself with them. And where the battle of the sexes was concerned, he gave as good as he got, not by running from or validating the criticism directed at him but by refusing to let it define him, one way or the other. To borrow some New Age jargon, he knew who he was—he was comfortable in his skin—and if certain people found him abrasive at times, so be it. He made sure to have other qualities that recommended him, qualities that included a social seriousness that was reflected as well as cultivated in the pages of Playboy magazine.

This current state of affairs is a sorry one for all involved. Women understandably wanted to fend off, or reform, that lecherous Playboy man. And no matter how pointed their criticism may have been, implied in it all was a belief that men could, well, take it like men. The typical guy might have chosen to see it as a compliment, an endorsement of the competitive spirit, an invitation to some social and intellectual roughhousing, as it were. Yet if the man-children captured in the lad mags are any indication, the typical guy has chosen instead to fly off to a laddie Neverland where he amuses himself with boys (and maybe the occasional Tinkerbell) and refuses to grow up. Wendy Darling, Peter Pan’s girlfriend manqué and Neverland’s own ultimately exasperated make-believe mother, knew well this boy-on-boy dynamic, more than once exclaiming (albeit with a mother’s good humor), “I’m sure I sometimes think that spinsters are to be envied.”

You said it, Darling.

Jon Zobenica is an Atlantic senior editor.
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