Leading Article: Magazines for men - but not for Mr Average

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The Independent Online
A new medium has come of age. As we report today, the best-selling men's magazine, FHM, has, for the first time, outstripped sales of Cosmopolitan, the most popular women's glossy. More than 600,000 men are expected to fork out pounds 2.60 for September's edition. Add to that the massive sales for Loaded, GQ and the rest of the middle-shelf fraternity and you have the publishing phenomenon of the Nineties.

As a mirror to the Modern Man, these new magazines reflect an image of a sex-mad male, gagging for fresh erotic adventure, a shopaholic, who dresses in the most expensive designer brands, reads cool fiction, enjoys the most exotic holidays. This man drives cars a la Steve McQueen, is in tip-top shape physically and likes his footie, but never has smelly socks or bad breath. Throughout his exertions, he remains immaculate, sporting a carefree stubble and a sophisticated fragrance. He's sexist, sure, and laddish, but in a charming, boyish sort of way, which only endears him to the bodice-bursting babes who wander through his life.

"Dream on," we suspect will be the response from most women - and from many men. The reality is a bit different. There may be a few urbane types who fit the mould, but most of us (a male leader-writer confesses) still dress badly, drive boring saloons and have not completely solved the odour problem. As for sexual athleticism, most of us aren't quite up to the Olympian heights that seem to be expected.

In short, men's magazines are largely a fantasy, the glossy pornography of aspiration. And it isn't difficult to see who is in the driving seat. Leaf through the latest bumper editions and what you will find is essentially a hymn to autumn fashion, as the men's monthlies sing their love songs to the likes of Armani, Hugo Boss, Paul Smith, Nike and Calvin Klein, to name but a few. For the truth is that these magazines are not so much about the modern male in general as about ways to persuade single young men to part with their considerable disposable incomes.

There is no great evil in that. In many ways, we wish good luck to the pioneers of this new type of publishing, who have spotted a smart way to make a mint. But there is also something sour about this success. For these innovators have clearly identified a need, a feeling among men that they want magazines devoted to their lives. Yet the new media ultimately fails to satisfy. There is a brittle, surface feel about men's magazines that springs from their superficiality, their obsession with appearances, their preoccupation with the mechanics of sex, as though eroticism was no more than genital rubbing. What's missing is emotion, depth, the sense that they are about real lives. They promise much, but often feel hollow.

Their hero is a narcissistic male, whose life is about premium lagers, designer drams and eau de toilette. They are thus a celebration of selfishness - FHM (acronym of For Him Magazine) says it all. They are cheerleaders for a rather narrow and particular lifestyle that has consumerism as its guiding principle. And so like many women's magazines, editorially subordinate to advertising, you find that most of the emphasis is on having or taking, with little thought devoted to that great aspiration - giving.

We're not asking for the purveyors of men's publishing to go on some moral crusade. But they should recognise that there is a vast swathe of men to whom they offer little in the long run. Fantasies are thrilling at first, but once replayed again and again in the same predictable format, they grow dull.

Women's publishing has long realised that there is more to their readers' lives than achieving 20 orgasms a night. There are now a wide variety of publications catering for everything from young women just beginning sexual relationships to women getting married to those raising families and those in retirement. These publications also spend much of their time tackling relationships, a dominant issue in everyone's lives, which might explain why so many men enjoy reading women's magazines.

There are a host of issues that men have to deal with, be it combining work with fatherhood, coping with downsizing or ageing well. The question of maintaining male identity and self-esteem without work faces many men, be they young unemployed, middle-aged sacked or retired and lost. But these are not people the advertisers seek, so they aren't getting a look- in at Loaded and the rest at the moment. If you are old, you will not see yourself reflected in these publications. And if your goal as a male is to be a provider, a protector, a guide, even just an organiser of fun for children, you will find little to help you amid the hedonistic, escapist lifestyle that is advertised as the ideal for all men.

There are signs that men's magazines are maturing. The translation of James Brown from the editorship of Loaded to the chair at GQ suggests some growing up. But perhaps we will have to wait until he is a Dad before even his latest organ fully emerges from adolescence. Which is a pity. Because men need more. Just as there is more to feminism than Cosmo, so there is more to rethinking men than what we are offered at the moment.

America inevitably goes over the top, but we have something to learn from a country where you will find whole bookshops devoted to every aspect of male development. We're lagging behind here, stuck with magazines that might have been innovative in the early Nineties, but now seem glossily formulaic. A huge market awaits the publishing entrepreneur who has the courage to break out of the laddish laager.