Greg Beato’s column in Slate’s Double X, “Real Men Cry and Do Laundry,” purports to give the reader “an anthropology of the new male self-improvement mags,” of which, naturally, the Good Men Project Magazine is one. Forty-eight hours later and I’m still trying to figure it out. But let me see if I can encapsulate it for you:
The new male self-improvement sites (Good Men Project Magazine, Made Possible, Man of the House, and The Art of Manliness) are like women’s magazines, but for men. This is bad. Men’s magazines should be about near-naked ladies and top-shelf booze. What a car commercial is to a car, men’s magazines should be to men; they shouldn’t reflect reality, but some idealized vision of what men should be, as dreamed up by someone who is trying to sell them something. Women’s magazines’ obsessions about trivial matters and “compliant ideals” have a direct correlation to their recent ascendance as the dominant sex in business and academia. Therefore, if men’s magazines become focused on virtue, guys will start having less virtue, and will make “Charlie Sheen look like Ozzie Nelson.”
Got that? Keep in mind, Beato regularly writes for Reason magazine. Reason.
Before we turn to what he gets wrong, let’s look at what he gets right:
The instruction [Men’s Health and Maxim] 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.
Bravo. Most men’s mags are irrelevant to men’s actual lives. Of these, Maxim is the only one I’ve ever seen on a buddy’s coffee table, and … wait, it wasn’t on his coffee table, come to think of it. It was crammed in between the toilet and the wall, covered with soap scum, dust, and a sprinkling of pubes. And it was seven years ago, when I was 26.
For research purposes, I recently went to my local newsstand and picked myself up the latest copies of Men’s Health, Maxim, GQ, and Esquire. (Esquire, I reminded myself, once featured stellar writers, like Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe.) But despite being in the demographic wheelhouse of all these publications, I found that just flipping through them was an insufferable exercise. One of the articles featured on the cover of GQ was “We Give the Jersey Shore Guys a Makeover.” C’mon, GQ, are you fucking serious?
My wife picked up the Men’s Health and was captivated by a story about the crazy stuff people don’t know they’re doing when they take Ambien. From the living-room couch, she read me the good parts and I actually chuckled a few times as I studied the inside of the fridge. That was the extent of the entertainment I got for my 30 bucks.
As Beato rightly points out, the reason they’re not entertaining is that they’re not relevant—not to my life now, not to my former life as a city-dwelling, girl-chasing (emphasis on the chasing) 26-year-old, not even to the life I’d like to have if I made a lot more money.
Indeed, established men’s glossy mags have their finger somewhere other than on the pulse of manhood. And that leaves room for a different kind of men’s magazine.
But let’s turn to what he gets wrong.
First, who ever said we were a self-improvement mag? We didn’t. Yes, we ran John Badalament’s “How to Be a Good Dad” when we launched. Since then, we’ve run Stefan Lanfer’s “How to Survive a Road Trip with Your Kid.” That’s about the extent of our self-help fare.
Granted, many people have had a hard time figuring us out. It’s been more a source of amusement than consternation, watching people try to find a neat little conceptual package to cram us into. But in the context of these trend pieces, which make it out as though we’re running “How to Be an Emasculated, Ponytailed Douche” stories every day, it does get frustrating.
Having a name like the Good Men Project has created some confusion, but our editorial vision, believe it or not, isn’t aimed at changing our readers. It’s about taking them seriously and printing stories that are relevant to their lives—stories they actually want to read. Admittedly, we test the limits of what Madison Avenue marketers deem guy-appropriate. Our most-read stories (like the ones here, here, here, and here) have done just that, proving that the common conceptions of what guys will read are terribly misguided. And that only strengthens our belief that we’re onto something big.
Despite our name, we’ve never intended to be a “virtue factory.” And we are certainly not saying, “You’re not good enough. Try harder. With these thirteen steps you can be a better person.” We think that guys are more open-minded than the average beer commercial would have you believe. And the success we’ve had since our launch only reaffirms that suspicion.
The rest of Beato’s argument—that “virtue factory” mags are going to make “Charlie Sheen look like Ozzie Nelson”—isn’t meant to be a real argument, so there’s no sense in pointing out how illogical it is. It’s just a way of packaging his emotional response to all this recent talk about the End of Men, and our supposed cultural imperative to “reimagine masculinity,” which he finds “downright intolerable.”
And it’s hard to argue with him there. It is getting intolerable. Because, trend-pieces notwithstanding, men haven’t really changed that much, despite the sociological shifts that the country is undergoing. If the Good Men Project Magazine is interested in changing anything, it’s the idea that men are only interested in chicks and booze. But that’s not to say that we’re trying to make men give up either of those things. We’re just offering them stories they may actually want to read, and giving them a forum to talk about stuff that other men’s mags don’t talk about.