Eat The Press

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This month's issue of the Atlantic offers a lengthy dissection of the Playboy era and its replacement by so-called "lad mags." Senior editor Jon Zobenica waxes nostalgic on the lessons he learned back in Hugh Hefner's heyday, when men were Euro-sexualized bastions of high-class seduction, women were air-brushed vixens in all shapes and sizes (or at least, B to DD) and hormone-delirious adolescents were devouring it all like ants on a honey comb. In particular, Zobenica describes his youthful lessons on love and relationships learned from reading the Playboy Advisor, the magazine's eponymous dispenser of wisdom on all matters sexual, romantic and otherwise intimate. To illustrate his point, he offers the following:

In the October 1973 Advisor, a man on the verge of marrying a small-breasted woman wonders if he can honestly go ahead with the nuptials, given his fears of desiring more-ample women. To which he gets, in part, this response:

It's not a question of honesty; it's a matter of maturity - yours, not hers. A marriage is more than the sum of its anatomical parts; success depends on qualities of love, respect and compatibility.

Zobenica then jumps to March, 2006, citing this Advisor response to a reader who "defended (on grounds of 'intimacy or commitment issues') another man's reluctance to label his partner a girlfriend":

You may be correct about his issues, but he should work them out on his own time rather than wasting hers. Labels may be confining, but after three months "girlfriend" threatens no man.

These words of wisdom he compares to the current mindset of men's magazines, led by "laddie triumvirate" Maxim, Stuff and the now-defunct FHM (all titles that have encroached on Playboy's circulation dominance for over a decade). Zobenica observes that Hefner's world of hot tubbing by snow-capped mountains with a Montecristo in one hand and an intoxicating (and presumably monogamous) brunette in the other has dissolved into a testosterone-fused playground where video games, beer chugging contests and headlines like "Stooge Luge! Now people can ride something dumber than your sis!" reign supreme.

The author notes that, as Playboy's idealized (and generally unattainable) eroto-sophistication is replaced by monogamy-scorning and glorification of pubscence, women are reduced from willing participants in the seduction game to bikini-clad male Doppelgangers who host pro wrestling and squeal their love for football and X Box. To illustrate the conceptual contrast with Hef's Advisor, Zobenica offers this FHM excerpt by Richard Roeper on reasons to "Stay Single!":

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 int he 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.

Zobenica's point is astute, though it comes a bit late in the game. The "lad" genre, born and raised in the mid '90s, has hardly gone unnoticed by the media and publishing industries, spawning books, magazines, blogs and more. But the promise of perpetual adolescence, like the promise of hyper-sophisticated sexual dexterity, can be fleeting, and the laddie craze appears to have passed its peak, with lad lit titles fetching disappointing revenue for publishing houses and the beer-swilling, chick-scoring mag titles hitting a wall. FHM has folded in the U.S. after circulation plummeted and ad pages fell 19.7% in 2006, while Maxim has seen its advertising drop 5% in the past year. Plus, with Maxim's leading circulation of 2.5 million and Stuff coming in second at 1.3 million, none of the lad mags have ever surpassed Playboy's dominance in the men's general interest department (though, despite maintaining a circulation of around 3 million, the brand itself has seen plenty of trouble in the internet era).

As for whether lad mags themselves reflect a large-scale shift in views about women and a solidification of stereotypical gender roles, well, who really knows. Zobenica doesn't bother to hide his scorn for the consumers (and, by association, the creators) of the genre, asking:

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.

Perhaps he's right in assuming that the exaggerated man-child antics popularized by Maxim and its cohorts are nothing but a failed attempt at post-feminist backlash, a "pantomime of sexism" that results in unintended "compliance with the harshest feminist critique." But regardless of their ulterior motives, lad mags may soon be turning down the juvenile volume as they court former twenty-something readers into their thirties. Still, all that overload of NASCAR, Grand Theft Auto and tarted-up sitcom stars may have produced at least one result.

Though for the record, pizza for breakfast is one of life's small but inestimable joys, all gender aside.

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