Friday, December 13, 2013

Annotating Men's Health

Occasionally, in my spare time, I take a twisted sort of joy in reading the magazine Cosmo just to see what I'm missing out on by not subscribing to this magazine and getting an idea of how some people actually construe femininity. Every once in a while, Cosmo does something to surprise me and I feel a little better about its existence - only to have that destroyed by another article about how to change yourself to please your boyfriend.

I always wanted to start a series on this blog where I analyzed the covers and the content on some of the magazines I'd managed to acquire, but somehow never got around to it - perhaps because I'd be discussing the same issues over and over again with every issue. But then over the Black Friday weekend, I was sitting in the break room at work and saw this magazine sitting on the table:
I started annotating it in my mind and couldn't stop, nearly breaking out into maniacal laughter in the middle of the break room. Why discuss the content of Cosmo when I could discuss Men's Health, and take a look at the constructs of masculinity, which are just as weird and bizarre and alarming as the constructs of femininity? So I'm going to do just that and break it down piece by piece of this cover. It's important to know that I didn't actually read this magazine, I only looked at the cover. But that's what many people will do - and the cover speaks volumes about what it wants to represent.

The first thing I noticed was the hunky photo of Luke Evans, paired with the description of "three power moves for career success" and close to the other article tag of "hard muscle made easy." This is a very clear expression of the desire to be a muscular, physical, successful man that is continually idealized - and not often recognized for its effects. The pairing of hard and easy in the tag for gaining muscle mass is interesting - perhaps because gaining muscle like Mr. Evans' here is likely not easy at all. The way in which magazines lead women to believe that weight can be easily shed lead men to believe they can gain muscle mass in the same way.

And yet men also have the fear of weight, with the largest tag reading: "Blast Belly Fat! Amazing 30-Day Plan." This could have come from a Comso cover - it's the same rhetoric, same fear of weight in the same area of the body.

My favorite, however is: "Smoke Fire Meat: Cook like a man." As apposed to cooking like a woman, I suppose? Why exactly barbequing and cooking with fire is so gendered is obnoxious - but the fact that cooking is gendered at all is far more obnoxious. The title also reads to me more like a series of nouns that don't really tell me anything - except that perhaps the editors of the magazine want simple direct titles so that their assumed "simple direct men" can get a clear idea of what this article will be about. None of that sissy complicated cooking stuff - all you need is smoke, fire, and meat and you can cook like a pro.

"Say This, Live Longer" is just confusing. Because I'm annoying, I read is as saying, "If you say the word 'this', you will live longer." Clearly that's not what the article is about - you have to actually read it to find out what magical phrase will give you Dorian Gray-esque longevity.
"Charm the pants off her" is the most Cosmo of all the taglines on this cover, I think. Here we're going to idea that men are meant to be the seducers - but it also speaks to a re-emerging desire of masculinity: to be charming, suave, and get women just because you're so likable. This seems to be resulting in a lot of flattery and 1950s style bravado, which makes me think that maybe we should be focusing a little more on charismatic part of charm as apposed to the alluring, seductive aspects. I'd really appreciate it if this article talked more how to support your girlfriend's life choices and be supportive and open-minded as apposed to a donning a Don Draper-like swagger (oh my God I did not mean to make that pun) to get girls to sleep with you. Again - didn't read the article, but the focus is on sex, not relationships so I wasn't getting the vibe that charm means what I thought it meant.

The bottom tag got cut off a bit, but if I remember it correctly, it read: "Strip Away Travel Stress" which assumes a certain role for the readers: that men are traveling for their work, they're stressed out about it, they want relieve from it, and they probably won't assume like I did, having read the charming the pants off line before, that this has anything to do with visiting strip clubs or partaking in stripping to ease stress. But really, who decided that a line about removing pants and another about stripping away stress belonged right next to each other on the cover?

The top corner has the tag for the best new tech for men because, you know, the technology that men need is so different from that of women (read: sarcasm). I'm not going to go into the issues in the tech industry for how women are treated versus men, but if you ever want to get me angry, ask about the time my mother and I went to the Apple store to get my laptop and saw how vividly different we were treated than we had all the times before when my father was there with us.

At the top of the magazine, just above the title, is the tiny line: "Full of Useful Stuff" which is the sort of motto put on each issue of Men's Health. This is interesting and seems to emphasize the fact that this is not just a fluff magazine, this has useful, helpful information inside. This read as, "This is for your health, men, not just about how to look good and be manly. It's about your well-being, it's about you, presumed white athletic handsome male reader. This is stuff to help you and this is the most important useful stuff. You don't need those other magazines making things all complicated. You're a man - you need simplicity and you need consistency. It's worth the money to buy this magazine and because it has a buff handsome dude on it (no homo!) no one will think you're reading the male version of Cosmo." I could have taken this magazine kind of seriously. I could have given it a chance that it wasn't belittling masculinity down to a simple, flimsy construct of meat-eating, sport-playing, sex-driven muscle-bound individuals, but that tag line ruined it for me. I don't know why that was the breaking point. But it was.
Maybe it's because I've developed an overly critical mind or maybe it's because I see so little TV now and read so few magazines that when I do see them, I'm walloped over the head by the rhetoric and intent of it all. All I can see are the ways in which the magazine is trying to work on its readers, to develop a certain audience. And it weirds me out. Perhaps most unsettling is how similar this is to the way in which Cosmo works. It yearns to build up an audience base of witty, clever, young women who want everlasting beauty, skinny bodies, successful careers, and hot, loving boyfriends. Men's Health operates in the same way, creating similar expectations of its audience and addressing similar desires. The biggest fallacy I see about feminism right now is that feminism doesn't help men, it hates men, it hurts them. Lies. The pressures that men feel are as much of the patriarchy as the pressures women feel, because it isn't good enough to just be a man - you have to be a certain kind of man, the alpha male who is physically strong, successful, and alluring, who is an expert as sports and technology and doesn't take shit from anyone. Continuing this idea perpetuates sexism because it assumes that a certain kind of man is superior, not just to women but to other men. This magazine subtly speaks to that idea and doesn't leave room for men who don't have a six pack or are vegetarians or are not interesting in charming off her pants or don't look anything like Luke Evans. Not that there's anything wrong with looking like Luke Evans - there's just a lot more to men that one archetype.

It's probably a good thing I didn't actually read the magazine, or this post would be far longer. Perhaps on the inside, Men's Health is the most diverse, equality-driven men's magazine on the planet. But if they are, their cover certainly doesn't support that. Given that I just saw someone on Tumblr reacting to Beyonce's new song "Flawless" (which discusses feminism) negatively because, as they stated, all genders are equal in most parts of the world now and feminism promotes double standards because it really is about making women superior, it's extremely necessary to recognize that no, men and women are not treated equally in much of the world at all and men are not even treated equally to each other. The double standard is believing that feminism should account for men but thinking that we're already equal, that feminism doesn't care about men's problems while only focusing on the problems of certain men, that feminism is about superiority when it's the patriarchy that purports that. And if you feel threatened by feminism - well, I don't know what to say, mate. Perhaps its time to re-evaluate what something like Men's Health says to you.