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As for that query that so bedeviled Sigmund Freud long ago — what do
women really want? — we do have an answer of sorts if we look to all
the most successful women’s magazines around today: Sex; Hair;
Fashion. At least those are the reigning topics cover-lined every month
that guarantee those truly impressive newsstand sales with such great
regularity.

The advertising, which always takes up at least triple the number of
editorial pages, generally pushes the same three big topics dear to the
female heart. But in recent years — the Clinton influence perchance or
maybe just the zeitgeist — ads in women’s publications have been
getting, well, kind of provocative if not downright prurient. Check out
some of those relatively recent ads of a young woman lying slumped
against shining white tiles — white tiles as in a public toilet — with
a man’s legs standing over her. What is she doing on the floor? And
what is he doing above her? It’s like a modern version of the old
Rorschach’s Test for you, the reader, to bring your imagination into
play.

Cast your eye over the section on stands devoted to men’s
publications — the ones with pictures. I’m not including the primarily
print-oriented magazines like Foreign Affairs or the New Criterion — or
the ones with some fancy artwork like the Weekly Standard or The New
Republic. They don’t count. I’m talking about those magazines
ornamented with some fetching young thing displaying generous cleavage.
Of course, the likes of Playboy, which is staid to the point of being
stodgy, or Penthouse, whose pictorials deservedly merit being
shrink-wrapped out of the hands of children, are usually placed beyond
the reach of any but the paying customer.

I speak of those publications that cater directly to the halfway
affluent male in the roughly 20 to 40 age bracket. You get Outside,
true manly stuff for the real or armchair adventurer (with consistently
some of the best writing going today), followed by Esquire, a bit of the
adolescent still clinging to its humor, and GQ with some of the most
artistically shot pretty male models in its ads, but generally solid
copy.

GQ and Esquire just can’t help slipping a generously endowed mega
model or minor starlet on their covers now and again but usually stick
to male stars or major sports figures. As a recent press release from
that British import Maxim put it, summing up male priorities: First,
women, then — a little self-puffery — Maxim, and in third place, “it’s
a three-way tie: Sports, the Dodge Viper, and high-tech toys.” Fair
enough.

Of course, the giggle here is that Maxim wants to call attention to
the fact that it is really truly “a service book.” The women, God bless
‘em, are just eye candy to draw male eyes to Maxim above all others on
the newsstand. In terms of service books, you also have the likes of
Men’s Journal, Men’s Health and Men’s Health’s brand new baby brother,
MH-18 for the teen-age male of the species. (Actually, MH-18 is kind of
fun — consider coverlines like “Drink This, Get Stronger, Better
Grades, More Free Time” and “Get the Girl: How She Wants To Be
Kissed.”) These mags all offer on their covers sunny young men with
great white teeth and abs of steel month in, month out. Male role
models? Fantasy time for the gay among us? Who knows? They all boast
robust circulations and are filled with admirably sensible advice as to
bodybuilding and proper nutrition. They’re even kind of useful for
young wives or steady mates to keep their male fit.

And with all this array, you say, can the market bear yet another
men’s book? Well, Fairchild Publications, that bought Details from
Conde Nast in the spring, seems to think so. Details at Conde Nast (it
actually about 20 years ago started out as a women’s fashion mag) got
very flip, sassy and edgy in recent times and kind of lost its direction
– not to mention its advertisers. Hence, in stepped Fairchild. What
have we got?

For starters, on the cover (rather resembling in style and layout
Fairchild’s other big fashion mag, W) a semi-naked tattooed (discreetly)
Robert Downey, Jr. fresh from the slammer giving an exclusive interview
in which he expresses high hopes of finally flying straight. The
layouts are very arty — lots of small white print on black backgrounds
– a big piece on prostitutes in China, with a selection of young
professionals photographed as decorously as an ad for Vogue, and four
articles, including the one on Downey, about young men with famous
fathers: sons of Michael Douglas, Michael Eisner, and Bob Dylan. The
general tone is rather upscale — as are the ads. The editor-in-chief
kind of apologizes in his note to readers, explaining how all these
articles came together by complete chance. Not an intentional theme
issue, folks, he insists

How will the guys go for it? I don’t know. Personally, I think I’ll
stick with Outside — it offers more stories of men overcoming daunting
obstacles and displaying courage in difficult situations. Isn’t that
what being a man is all about, ultimately?

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