Well, I’m all done with finals. It’s the best! over the break I’m going to relax, read a few books (Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida by Caputo, Totality and Infinity by Levinas, and Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens), and write all the shitty poetry I can! OH, and I’m going to finish the essay below. I ran out of time, since it was for a grade and all, and was unable to synthesize psychoanalysis and eating disorders into the piece. So, that is what I will be doing over break…more research. If you didn’t know, I’m pretty passionate about eating disorders and their causes. So, look forward to January when I will publish the finished text that seeks to explore the thesis I previously put up on here about Men’s magazines and eating disorders. In the mean time feel free to read this essay: a close reading of Men’s Health through the lenses of Marxist critique, Gender studies, and post-structuralism. A serious site-scroller (blog equivalent to page-turner).
Men’s Health and Mass-distortion:
Production, Consumption, and Performance.
The 20th and 21st centuries have witnessed the proliferation of the masculine discourse into realms, which in the recent past and now in the present, have privileged, and certainly negatively, the female body as it is located in the matrix of power relations, being imposed upon and assimilated by capitalism, utility, and sexuality. The marketing and branding of the male body has grown in recent years as a result of the saturation of the discourses that define the female body as a consumer, sexually free, and financially independent. Cosmo, Elle, Good Housekeeping, and teen magazines like Seventeen, now have their masculine counterparts in periodicals such as Men’s Health, GQ, Sports Illustrated, Esquire, Playboy, Popular Mechanic, and Boy’s life. The dramatic magnification and inclusion of the male body by the systems of power and control that turn the sprockets of a capitalistic mechanism have inflated the language of inadequacy among men at such an alarming rate that it is now ascending and competing for equal status with the aesthetics, performances, and utility written on the female body. Maintaining a language particular to the masculine ideal but adopting the instruments of distortion that have proven successful in exploiting the female body to the ends of the surrender of capital, submission to various forms of cosmetic alteration such as extreme dieting and medical augmentation, and the oppression of inappropriate sexualities, the men’s magazine has become a significant discourse in the writing of the male body, and thereby a critical component of the pathologies, myths , and expectations that plague the masculine discourse; simultaneously preying on a perpetuating the insecurities and inadequacies of men. That the apparent masculine ideals of muscularity, impeccable style, excessive grooming, extra-satisfactory sexual performance, and high economic status, are emphasized and expressed, disproportionally to reality, within the pages of popular men’s magazines, is evidence of an intentional distortion of the male body that circulates and manipulates the masculine discourse beyond the physical space the magazine once occupied. It is written on ads, films, locker rooms, performance enhancing products, power tools, automobiles, books, and the bodies it subsumes, including the female body, which it intends to bring under its control through relational, economic, and sexual dominance. Because of the success of feminism in challenging the cultural pressures imposed on the female body, the masculine discourse is in a state of withdrawal, no longer openly announcing its influence on the public; nevertheless, it remains a secret discourse that conceals itself in the unexamined cultural norms and performances of the body. It continues to pervade the feminine discourse; and it writes itself secretly on the bodies of men.
The History of Esquire: America’s first men’s lifestyle periodical
For the first third of the 20th century, the male body and its mythic ideal remained relatively unwritten. Esquire, the first magazine dedicated to the “leisurely pursuits” (“The Esquire Timeline 1932-2003”) of men, published its first issue in 1933 (“The Esquire Timeline 1932-2003”). The history of its conception by the founding editors, Arnold Gingrich and David Smart, reveal an already implicit discourse of masculinity that privileged the language of misogyny. Smart and Gingrich didn’t experience a breakthrough beyond the incubation of their ideas until Ernest Hemingway, now known extensively for his misogynistic depiction and objectification of women, offered to write an article for the first issue (“The Esquire Timeline 1932-2003”). Dropping the popular authors name proved successful for securing ad sales and endorsements. In October, the first issue was published, featuring articles by writers such as Hemingway and Bobby Jones, covering popular interests like golf and boxing, fiction, humor, health, and clothes (“The Esquire Timeline 1932-2003”).
The fourth issue of Esquire published in March 1934, featured on the cover, for a third time, a cartoonish male figure who would become their trademark “gentleman of all trades,” a man of Aryan complexion and a respectable handlebar-style walrus mustache. The “Rich Uncle Pennybags” look-alike is depicted shirtless, lacking any muscle definition, and hoisting two deep-fried chicken legs triumphantly above his head. While he glorifies the masculine macro-nutrients, fat and protein, a poster of a body builder in the background comically works to contrast the gentleman’s flabby and featureless form to the ideally-robust and hairy-chested muscleman. The disproportional size of the body builder’s pectorals is juxtaposed to his slender waist, which, naturally, disappears like the funnel of an hourglass into a cheetah print speedo. His bicep is flexed and hulking, powerful enough to break the metal chain that we can assume was, only a moment before, a kind of measuring tape incapable of containing his mass. Written on the poster, in large capital letters are the words SISSY and HAIR, overshadowing the other words of their larger syntactical units: “Are you a SISSY?” “HAIR on your chest…in just 4 days.” The masculine ideal, to which Esquire’s pipsqueak aspires, has no time to waste, and is able, despite his busy schedule, to ensure that he has hardly a waistline at all. Over the years the Esquire gentleman would not only fail to age, but he would become more youthful. And not only in appearance. Although his blonde hair grows more sunny, his blue eyes a brighter blue, and his mustache more precisely groomed, it is the language of his achievements and interests, which can only be described as upper-class, undeniably Caucasian, increasingly privileged, and luxuriously American, that are continually emphasized. On later covers, he is depicted skiing in the Alps, golfing at Pebble Beach, playing the ponies, hunting for ivory in Africa, and circumnavigating the globe by sailboat. From 1936 until his pseudo-retirement from the cover in 1953, the Esquire gentleman is rarely seen without one or two female companions at his side; all of them slender and well endowed, like Marilyn Monroe in their wardrobe and hairdos. 1945 was the last year the gentleman dominated the cover, although his caricature top-hot and mustache was still inscribed into various objects: hubcaps and Christmas ornaments, matchboxes and artwork, watches and road signs, presidential campaign paraphernalia and license plates, hard-boiled eggs and coffee tables.
By 1953, a new image re-branded the magazine: the female body. Esquire became a periodical that men could flip through and fix their gaze on female bodies that best represented the booming economy of 1950’s America. Striped swimsuits, beach umbrellas, and sunbathers, replaced the aesthetic of the early years. Cleavage, thighs, and naked shoulders would dominate the cover until 1962, when two major pop-culture events changed the cover of Esquire, and likewise, the masculine discourse, from that point on and into the present: the election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency, America’s first playboy commander-in-chief; and the release of the first James Bond film, starring Scottish super hunk, Sean Connery. Masculinity became, from that moment on, a combination of lifestyle choices appropriated by images of the swinger, the CEO, family man, and masculine romantic icebergishness.
Today, the narratives have undergone some transformations—muscularity, genuine fatherhood, and the convoluted notions of wellness and health, being the most recent additions—but for the most part remain relatively unchanged. Men’s magazines no longer focus on a single niche, like the peddling of female flesh that once defined playboy. The Esquire model has evolved and expanded to include not only the masculine knowledge it depicts as essential to being a man, but the products and images which have commoditized the male body, hiding within and behind the new catch word: lifestyle. The mass producers have capitalized on the marketplace, and its methods of circulation, to construct a masculine discourse that benefits the capitalistic mechanism while arguing that it benefits the consumer. Coincidently, Rodale Inc., the self-proclaimed “global voice for health and wellness with a mission to inspire and enable people to improve their lives and the world around them” (“Rodale”), monopolizes the market on lifestyle. The GFK MRI Spring 2014 data revealed “that Rodale Inc. [had] reached an all-time high gross readership. Reporting 37.7 million readers, 1.7 million more than a year ago” (“Rodale”). In the summer of 2014 the privately owned company “posted a 5% increase, with Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Runner’s World and Bicycling all experiencing print audience gains” (“Rodale”). The success of Rodale Inc., marketing itself as a “global voice for health and wellness,” is rich in irony. Recognizing that one company, Rodale Inc., dominates the marketplace in relation to the bodies of both men and women, reveals a hegemonic control over the discourse of the body. A skepticism about the inherent values of such a company operating on a global scale, and the institutions through which its power is maintained and circulated, demands a critique of one, if not all, of its subsidiaries. Men’s Health magazine offers a rich contemporary text to deconstruct and read through the theoretical frameworks of Marxist critique and Gender Studies.
Beyond Marx: the commodification of the male body
For Karl Marx, a commodity is an “external object, a thing which through its qualities satisfies human needs of whatever kind” (Capital 125). But the objectivity of externality is problematized by difference and relation. “Two Factors of a Commodity: Use-Value and Value” (Marx, 655). Values are inherently ideological, subjective, and paradoxically, socially constructed. The value of a commodity then is more than the science of its substance and magnitude. It is true that commodities satisfy “human wants of some sort or another” (Marx 655); and, as Marx points out, the “nature of such wants…spring from stomach or from fancy” (Marx 655). However, the mechanism that directs the desires of stomach and fancy, affectively constructs them through manipulation, both constitutes and conceals itself within the system of production and consumption. The centralized socio-economic system in control of the production and circulation of Men’s Health magazine exploits the consumer through the narrative of efficiency by selling products that appear to ensure the escape from the middle-class, and, through socio-economic ascent, become an insider of the capitalist system. The consumer transforming itself into the producer. But this narrative is an illusion that interpellates the “individuals as subjects” (Althusser 698). In the case of Men’s Health, the male body is a concrete subject constructed by a discourse and named; and intentionally misnamed. The man, therefore, and by extension all the signifiers appropriated by the images that constitute what is manly, is always-already, in the language of Althusser, a construction of the apparatus that both recognizes and disguises, as the ideological man, that which has been interpellated as consumer.
Because the masculine ideal is determined by the quality and quantity of his production, his consumer value, no image is more fitting to the masculine discourse than the wristwatch. In the December 2014 issue of Men’s health magazine, nine full pages of advertisements, and two full pages of reviews, are devoted to various brands of watches; in addition, in images that coincide with articles throughout, the men are often depicted brandishing watches made of stainless steel and gunmetal finish. For the man, the watch represents control; his mastery over the dimension of time. “Time is money” may be an old cliché, but it is not one that has faded into the background of the masculine discourse by any means; in fact, the old saying continues to dominate the contemporary depictions of men. “How to do Everything Faster,” a seven page article which offers various time-effective life-hacks, instructs men how to quickly “incinerate calories,” “fold a fitted sheet,” “clean up after a big party,” and “look younger”; evidence that the “time is money” ideology, which drives efficiency as a means of production to the ends of a more efficient process of production, is far from being overturned. On the title pages for the article, “How to do Everything Faster,” a male figure, stylized after D.C. comics’ The Flash, streaks across an otherworldly landscape, comet-like antitails trailing his limbs, and hoisting a paint roller like its Poseidon’s trident (Men’s Health 140-141). The language of the male body in motion is the ubermensch. On page 143 of the article, the blonde-haired and business-hero-casual masculine ideal, flies off to a fake appointment in order to avoid confronting his “perfectly-pleased-from-the-previous-evening” one-night stand. For the male body, which will always make time to flirt and fuck, time is certainly of the essence. Sex is time spent. But the ideal masculine narrative argues that time spent is money lost. As a result, the male body is written to accommodate for its insufficiencies in capital by acquiring products intended to counteract the negative effects of its inefficiencies. For sale in Men’s Health are $500 electric razors that can cut shave time in half (Men’s Health 20), $400 juicers with self-cleaning functions (Men’s Health 24), and $200 digital thermometers that regulate temperature so your presence at the stove is no longer needed (Men’s Health 28). The interpellation of the male body and the inauguration it being a consumer-subject, is both a component of Marxist criticism and simultaneously beyond it; and not just beyond Marx, Men’s Health magazine signifies an interpellation of the male body that is also beyond Althusser. For Althusser, the individual is always-already a subject. But the post-9/11 condition, emphasizing the reexamination of religious ideologies, also invites skepticism around Althusser’s formulation of the constructed subject; subject is not a sufficient description of the post-9/11 male body. Like religions, which have at their center a transcendental signified commonly expressed as god, Capitalism unmasked reveals the nexus of its transcendental signified: the consumer-subject. The consumer is always-already within the system.
Man’s Limited Stage: Gender and Performance
Men’s Health appears to ignore the fluidity of gender while simultaneously exploiting the ideas contributed by gender studies centralized around gender and performance. “Gender in no way is a stable identity or locus of agency from which various acts proceed;” writes Judith Butler, “rather, it is an identity tenuously constituted in time—an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts” (Butler 900). The male gender, the essentialism of particular performances by the masculine ideal, are enacted by images that continue to privilege the narratives established in Esquire during the 1960’s. Central to Men’s Health’s paradoxical depictions of masculinity are the monogamous man and the playboy: the performances of the father and bachelor.
The Kennedy’s and their extensive family tree represent the strong bond that can exist between father and son, daughter and dad, or brother and brother. The image of the young and fit, wildly wealthy, and pervasively popular, Kennedy family, at the time of Esquire’s flourishing, has not diminished; rather, it has intensified, proliferating and projecting itself into advertisements and articles that speak to the importance of style and status for the young dad. Popular in Men’s Health are images of the expensive wardrobes of presidential-blue suits, typically depicted by tan young men with military-cut jawlines. To ensure their suit is filled out by muscular shoulders and a firm buttocks, Men’s Health devotes its centerfolds to work out routines that dads can perform on their office chair on those days when running errands or picking up the kids means skipping the gym. In the current issue, a whole page warns readers against vasectomies, advising men “to protect [their] fatherhood options” (Men’s Health 22). The article offers tips on how to keep sperm healthy, or counsels that men consider sperm banking as the alternative. Admittedly, storing your seed is a cryogenic option afforded only to the upper-class: “You’ll pay a few hundred backs to submit a sample, plus a yearly storage fee” (Men’s Health 22).
But fatherhood is not limited to the conversation of reproductive preservation; it is written onto ads for medicine like DayQuil and NyQuil. “Dads don’t take sick days,” says the top half of one ad, overlaid on and image of a young father and his three sons trying to get out the front door for a weekend camping trip; “Dads take [DayQuil and NyQuil],” reads the bottom half (Men’s Health 61).
One article, from the Sex+Relationships section, offers advice particular to the discourse of monogamous fatherhood: “Avoid the Honeymoon Hangover: your guide to conquering year one” (Men’s Health 108). Structured as a timeline, the article identifies six stepping stones to a successful first year of marriage: 1. secure the home: “Negotiate the Nest”; 2. manage the money: “Deal with Debt”; 3. please her parents: “Respect Her Folks”; 4. deviate from missionary: “Stir up the Sex”; 5. avoid the norm: “Break Routine”; and 6. procreate, procreate, procreate: “Plan for Kids” (Men’s Health 108). These articles and advertisements bear the significant trace of a still uneffaced stereotype: the quickly conceived and constantly growing Irish-Catholic family embodied by the Kennedy’s during the 1960’s, post Eisenhower America, the “Happy Days.” But the proper performances of the masculine ideal as written by monogamy, fatherhood, physical fitness, style, status, and financial success, are also assimilated by and contrasted to fatherhood’s natural antithesis: the bachelor.
In 1953, novelist Ian Fleming published the first book in a series that would become an enormous global franchise, Casino Royale, which debuted the future icon for dangerous masculinity: international expert of espionage, agent 007—James Bond (Ianfleming.com). Between 1953 and 1962, Ian Fleming published 11 novels and one collection of short stories that chronicled the adventures of James Bond. Each novel introduced new and improved gadgets, indestructible sports cars, and steamier romantic interests. When the novel Dr. No was made into a film in 1962, Sean Connery starring as agent 007 (“Dr. No”), an entire mythology was born. Bond was the sexy, stylish, and punctual man that the average man fantasized becoming; his tech savvy made him efficient, his choice of cocktail characterized him as cultivated, and his determination to straighten his tie called attention to his class. The influence of the Bond narrative on contemporary masculinity is undeniable. The performances by various actors that have played the James Bond role, which are themselves not fully authentic in nature, but externally directed, constructions of a desire-pleasure relation that is exploited through the mass production of the male fantasies, i.e. wealth, status, and women, have contributed to the construction of a masculine discourse that can be imitated. The narrative written on the body of today’s bachelor is nearly indistinguishable to the male fantasy depicted on the cover of Esquire in June 1965. On it, Sean Connery, posing as his popular role, James Bond, is dressed in an expensive white tuxedo, and surrounding him are three women in black lingerie. He is both the good guy and the bad boy; the lap of worship by the female body that finds him irresistible. So irresistible in fact, that each of the women are leaned in intimately, their hands groping for some part of his body to possess. Ironically, as Butler reminds us, “the acts by which gender is constituted bear similarities to performative acts within theatrical contexts” (Butler 901): what is performed is implicitly performable.
Men’s Health magazine is over brimming with James Bond masculinity. Nearly one third of every issue is allotted to advertisements that sell men a performable flavor of masculinity. The December 2014 issue boasts nine ads selling exclusively cars, nine selling clothing, and ten selling cologne; and in some cases a combination of the three. The language of each advertisement varies. Some are blatant and forward with their messages: “For the Man of Today,” reads one ad for Hugo Boss cologne (Men’s Health 5). Some play the name of the product for sale off of the image selling it; like the language of the rule-breaker and the rogue written on an automobile ad for the Dodge Challenger: “they may be gone, but they left the keys” (Men’s Health 12-13). Aside from the company’s name, some contain no written word at all, but are written entirely by second order semiological systems. For instance, the ad for a zip-up fleece made by Spyder, depicts a male with a well-groomed five o’clock shadow, his attention turned nonchalantly away from the camera, the direction of his gaze a mystery hidden by his tinted aviator sunglasses (Men’s Health 57). Seven pages of the magazine’s content are reserved for specific columns on style and grooming. Featured in the current issue is the article, “The Well Dressed Party Animal,” which offers advice on how to dress for your upcoming holiday blowouts; be it a black-tie gala event, your office work party, or a best friend’s kegger (Men’s Health 85-90).
The Sex+Relationships section, though it makes space for a single page on matrimony, is primarily devoted to the enhancement of male pleasure and power. One lengthy article offers tips to help “expose her kinky side” (Men’s Health 14). The summary points of the article have as their counterpart, images that verge on the pornographic. The language of bondage, domination, and submission are implicit in the signifiers: black leather, blindfolds, transparent lingerie, and gags; chains, chokes, collars, and handcuffs. The article’s title page asks the question: “Tired of Dinner and a Movie?” (Men’s Health 103). Even if such traditional date ideas are in fact authentically enjoyed by a reader of Men’s Health, the message, as it is represented by the image that swallows the other four-fifths of the page, is clear: no matter how well you perform your sexuality, you’re still missing out. In the middle of the photo a man reclines, sandwiched between the bodies of two near naked females, his shirtless form captured in a pose that reminds us he has six-pack abs; his neck is collared by a leather band, and the woman on his right is depicted tugging on the chain-link-leash to which it is connected (Men’s Health 103). The article’s argument: “The more couples inject excitement into their relationships, the more their satisfaction levels rise” (Men’s Health 103) [emphasis my own]. But the difference between a couple and the kinky sex depicted by the images in the article is the obvious presence of a third. The male fantasy of being surrounded and satisfied by more than one woman at once is more primitive than Greek; but the stigmatization of sexual polygamy bears the sign of the process of erasure, likely initiated by the publicity, acceptance, and worship of male figures like James Bond and Hugh Heffner. The threesome offers an extra-satisfactory sexual experience, “a more productive gauge of sexual success” (Men’s Health 104). The how to guide to better sex imitates the will to power. Nietzsche argued that the acquisition of knowledge masked the only essentialism of man: the desire for domination. Men’s Health privileges the physical and enticing forms of knowledge and power through the mastery of the female orgasm. Depicted in the articles are the men most capable of ensuring her pleasure, and therefore, her subjugation. The man who has the most knowledge, experience, the better body, and a diverse repertoire of sexual techniques and positions, is the man who is most sexually satisfied. The language of inadequacy in “how to” articles manipulates the eager male body to consume products that will enhance his sexual performance. According to the article, “you’re rookies” (Men’s Health 104) if you haven’t yet had kinky sex; and, since “three or four sex positions no longer does the trick” (Men’s Health 106), the knowledge of diverse sexual expertise is necessary: “anything to add a transgressive edge to your sex will work” (Men’s Health 106). But this knowledge is not applied toward “the will to logical truth” as it is in Nietzsche (Men’s Health 277); it is not an interrogation of the accepted epistemologies that lead to truth. In Men’s Health, the desire for knowledge, and thereby power is concealed in the “shared” pleasure of sexual intercourse, and represented by a false equality that masks the presence of masculine dominance. Frighteningly prophetic are some of the claims in Nietzsche’s The Will to Power. The process of making equal: “the will to equality is the will to power” (Nietzsche 277). In the subsection entitled “Pinch her as often as you’re willing to be pinched,” the article argues that “good sex involves compromise” (Men’s Health 106). “Shoot for an even split between giving and taking” (Men’s Health 106). The illusions of equality are represented by the imbalanced ratio of males to females, and the illusion of feminine control. The image of the threesome, two females and one male, is not evidence of equality; on the contrary, it is the fulfillment of a fantasy that privileges male pleasure over the female. Depicted on 106 is the illusion of feminine control. Down on all fours, the male enacts the role of the religious altar. He is straddled by two writhing females who sit on his back, appearing to have bound and gagged him. In reality, the women are his sacraments to consume. The position of control surrendered to the female through an act of submission by a male body is illusory. Her pleasure, insofar as it is experienced through the male’s mastery of her orgasm, is the annunciation of his power.
But the James Bond narrative would not be complete without an arsenal of highly advanced technology. The Men’s Health December 2014 issue is a special edition; it combines the regular content of a typical issue with an additional 41 pages: “The Men’s Health tech guide for 2015.” After flipping through 156 pages, over a third of which are ads, the reader can flip the over magazine and peruse from the other direction a catalog for all the gear required to shave more efficiently, dress better, entertain guests, and work out harder. The average price per item is $409.92, excluding outliers like the BMW i3 electric car: $41,350 (Men’s Health 40); and The Beam Smart mobile LCD: $16,000 (Men’s Health 32); or the Samsung 78” curved UHD-TV: $9,000 (Men’s Health 32). The Men’s Health gear guide, selling products such as running shoes, coffee tumblers, food processors, in home dry-cleaning devices, sex toys, and sleeping bags, is evidence of a discourse that privileges the CEO, the health conscious, and the well-dressed; it is a representation of the kind of products that accessorize the performances of masculinity. Men drive a certain car, wear a status declaring watch, dress fashionably, shave efficiently, wear cologne, act a certain way and always look good: in other words, men don’t forget to straighten their ties.
Conclusion: the myth of man and the face of simulacrum
The myth of masculinity has now overstepped the boundaries of the real; gone beyond the phenomenological precepts of gender performance. Masculinity, with its addictions to consumption and production, has itself been absorbed by the capitalist system; it is a fiction that markets and sells itself to itself. The masculine discourse inherited and participated in has gone beyond performing itself: it now simulates its own performance. An advertisement for a new cologne called 007 depicts the iconic gun-barrel design that opens each film, and the mythic James Bond figure, with visible tie and wristwatch, is posed in the spiral of the barrel’s grooves. Although the outline of his strong jaw is decipherable, his face is nothing but a dark shadow; he is no man and everyman (Men’s Health 41). Facelessness is the predicament facing, contemporary masculinity; the void that stares back. Difference, once fought for and embraced, has now been erased. The masculine ideal and the performances of the male body, like mass-production, have given rise to a discourse that can only re-produce itself. Masculinity no longer needs an identity, or even a face, masculinity has been successfully branded; it is a product on and of the market; it is constantly bought and sold. In Marxist language: The masculine discourse, for those who can afford it, is a life sans individuality; and for those who can’t afford it—a life of alienation.
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