A Man's Life- Men's Week

A vintage cover from Man’s Story, a typical form of “sweat magazines” that were commonly published between the 1950s to 1970s. Photo courtesy of Dan Century.

Written By: Jennifer Smith

In the heyday of 1950s pulp fiction, masculinity had a special place in the glossy pages of men’s adventure magazines. The lurid covers of “men’s sweat magazines” such as Stag , For Men Only, and Man’s Life pitted dashing heroes against savage beasts like snakes, Nazis, and bashful brides hell-bent on ruining the American male. These exemplary men employed daring, stoicism, and virility to overcome impossible odds, while their female companions barely managed to keep their clothes on.

Vintage cover of Man’s Life. Photo courtesy of Stagmags.com.

Current men’s magazines don’t depict this particular brand of masculinity with such vibrancy, but the idea that men are supposed to be bold, emotionless and philandering persists in today’s magazines and in the media at large. But since the emergence of men’s studies as an academic field in the 1970s, masculinity has enjoyed much closer examination than the pages of Man’s Life previously allowed.

“I think the very beginnings of the study of masculinity really starts with feminism,” says Dr. Michael Kimmel, Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and a leading researcher on men and masculinity. “Feminist theorists have always had to talk about masculinity and the male role. It’s partly because gender is so relational. Because women become women and men become men in a system of gender inequality, it’s pretty hard to talk about women alone without talking about men.”

In the 1980s and into the ’90s, the seminal works of R.W Connell, Jeff Hearn, Robert Griswold, and E. Anthony Rotundo firmly established men’s studies, also called masculinity studies, as its own focus under gender studies. Since then, researchers have examined how men are depicted in popular culture, offering insights into how dominant definitions of masculinity are formed, how they’ve changed over the years and what they mean for a man’s life.

“Our academic work is often geared toward creating policies, assessing movements or assessing statistical differences between women and men, and that’s one contribution that it makes,” Kimmel says. “But masculinity studies, as part of gender studies, is part of a set of academic disciplines that researches with the idea that such research will actually improve the lives of real people in the real world.”

In his historical overview of masculinity in the United States, Manhood in America: A Cultural Perspective, Dr. Kimmel mined magazines, political pamphlets, novels, and films to show how American men have struggled with the constructs of masculinity over the years. Historical insights from Manhood in America would influence his work on Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, a book based on more than 400 interviews with mostly white and middle-class men between the ages of 16 and 26. Kimmel went into the research for Manhood in America thinking much of the peacocking among men is aimed at impressing women. Ultimately, he found that these displays of masculinity have more to do with peer dynamics — a sort of social policing that leads young men to a specific definition of masculinity.

“Masculinity is largely what I call homosocial,” Kimmel says. “The homosociality means that men basically posture and pose for other men. You’re constantly being policed by other guys, constantly having to perform for other guys. How much you drink, how many women you score with, all of these things are ways of showing other guys that you’re a man.”

In Guyland, Kimmel describes how homosociality rules the lives of college-age men, conditioning them to reject adult notions of settling down in favor of video games, booze, and casual sex. When finally faced with adulthood, these young men find themselves drifting into it without much of a road map or plan.

“There’s a ton of media representation of this kind of drift,” Kimmel says. “Any movie with Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill … these are the sort of guys’ guys these days.”

Copyright 2012 Conde Nast.

This idea of prolonged adolescence would seem innocent enough if it weren’t cut with homophobia and sexism. According to Kimmel, a cardinal rule of earning the respect of other men in his so-called “Guyland” is proving you’re not gay, sometimes to violently denigrating ends. “Guyland” also breeds resentment towards women, who might try to end the party early by saddling men with adult responsibilities like marriage and fatherhood or worse, take the jobs they feel entitled to on the other side of adolescence. But even still, these guys aren’t wholly uninterested in being good partners or fathers eventually, according to Kimmel.

“If you ask young men, they will say ‘I want to have a great relationship with my wife. I really want to be a good father. I want to have rich emotional friendships with other men, and I want to have a good, meaningful purposeful life,” Kimmel says. “Gender equality will make it possible for men to live that. How is it possible for us to be the traditional kind of stoic, unemotional, utterly shut-down man who’s completely focused on his career and not his family … How is possible for him to be a good father?”

Copyright 2012 Hearst Communications, Inc.

Today’s men’s magazines show thematic traces of the adventure magazines of the past. While they aren’t beating back wild animals, modern cover men appear to be at odds still.

In a May 2010 issue of Men’s Journal, the adventure special, Iron Man Robert Downey Jr. describes his “fighting life.”

Copyright Men’s Journal LLC.

On the June-July 2011 cover of Esquire, Bradley Cooper is surrounded by headlines promising insider-knowledge on “how to be a man.” This double issue offered “new rules for living,” complete with “the current thinking on drinking, driving, loving, fighting and everything else that matters.”

Copyright 2012 Hearst Communications, Inc.

Meanwhile, the August 2010 issue of GQfeaturing three separate covers graced by Zach Galifianakis, Tracey Morgan, and slacker-comedy regular, Paul Ruddbecame the second highest-selling issue of the year behind the January issue, which featured a topless Rihanna on its cover.

Copyright 2012 Conde Nast.

The highest-selling cover of Details that year was its tenth-anniversary issue, starring Robert Pattinson between a model’s legs and a single cover story: “The Remasculation of the American Man.”

Copyright 2012 Cond Nast.

From men’s men like Robert Downey Jr. to guys’ guys like Paul Rudd, models of masculinity in the media vary. But from Man’s Life to Esquire to the more youth-oriented Maxim, men’s magazines continue to sell the aggressive, womanizing ideal of a man as normal and desirable when in fact, it is neither.

“It is in your interest as a man to support gender equality,” Kimmel says. “Because only when women and men are equal will you be able to actually live the way you say you want to live — will you be able to have the kind of relationships with your wife, your partner, your children, your friends … the kind of perspective and balance of work and family that you say you want.”