If you've ever read through an issue of Esquire, GQ or Men's Vogue and thought, "this is just like my favorite women's magazines, only a lot smarter," you're not alone. Lately I've found myself getting more excited about picking up the latest issues of these popular men's mags than my own Lucky, Vogue and Glamour.
Why are men's magazines consistently better?
Where these magazines succeed is in the merging of style and substance, pairing beautiful fashion spreads with really intelligent, well-researched articles about current events and pop culture phenomena. And they don't take themselves nearly as seriously as women's fashion mags do, prioritizing humor over pretension.
Every year I pick up the latest book in the "Best American Magazine Writing" series and notice how many articles were plucked from men's mags, with no representation from women's publications (with the exception of columns by Jeffrey Steingarten, Vogue's resident food writer). These mags regularly publish pieces by famous authors (Tom Wolfe, Stephen King) and have award-winning journalists on their masthead. They don't see a conflict between placing a 15 page article on Iraq next to a gadget guide or a profile of a hot actress. And they're often really funny (at least GQ and Esquire are) in the way that those "Most Embarrassing Moments" stories never are.
Sometimes I wonder what the publishers of mainstream women's magazines (your Vogues, Cosmopolitans, Luckys and Marie Claires) really think about their readers. Do they believe that women are simply uninterested in having to think while reading their magazines? Do they think our attention spans are too short for a long, thoughtful article?
Or that when profiling a celeb, we'd rather just hear about her favorite mascara than what she thinks about the treatment of female actresses in Hollywood? Maybe it's just that they assume that if we want something deeper, we'll look to newspapers and news magazines to get it... I'm not really sure.
I gathered a few recent issues of popular men's and women's magazines to test my hypothesis. I left out fluff titles like Maxim, Stuff, Lucky, Cosmopolitan, and the like, as these are not publications that aspire or claim to provide their readers with substance. I chose two of my favorite men's magazines, GQ and Esquire, and two of the better women's magazines, Elle and Marie Claire. After reading through all four and thinking back to my many years of reading all kinds of women's magazines, I noticed the following trends:
Men's magazines take on a much wider variety of important issues (political, social, cultural) and are willing to do serious investigative journalism.
The July issues of GQ and Esquire feature a number of well-reported investigative pieces on topics as varied as Al Qaeda's presence in Muslim Africa, prisoners rights at Guantanamo Bay, the man suing Google to take down YouTube, Ave Maria, Florida, the newly developed all-Catholic town banning pornography and contraception, gang violence in Long Island and the 13 Russian journalists who have been murdered since Putin took office 2000. And these are just the long (more than five pages) pieces. And even if it's not journalism, Esquire should get some credit for featuring a 20-page, uninterrupted exclusive novella by Stephen King.
Marie Claire had a good piece on the trend of American women outsourcing their pregnancy to surrogate mothers in India and a short article on hoarders. More typical, though, is a photo spread of supermodels boasting about their favorite charities, photographed by Helena Christensen. Elle fared similarly, with a longish piece on partial birth abortion and an article on Princess Diana's cultural impact. When it comes to "serious" pieces, you're most likely to find plastic surgery exposes, articles about celebrities doing volunteer work and how it changed their lives, first person rape stories and anything intended to scare you ("The ten things your gynecologist never told you!"). Gag me.
Women's magazines miss out on opportunities to inject more intelligent information in their articles.
Reading through Marie Claire and Elle, I was struck by how many times I'd read an article and wonder why the writer failed to dig a little deeper to get more insight out of her subjects. In an Elle interview with Bruno Frisoni (designer of Roger Vivier), no question is longer than 7 words. In it, you can find out information about the famed designer like the fact that his favorite band is Blondie and his least favorite food is tripe. For a serious fashion magazine, this is pretty sad.
Marie Claire had a piece on Eve, arguably the most famous female rapper, and asked only one question regarding the recent controversy over Russell Simmons' comments about removing the misogynist and violent elements from rap music. They skimmed over the fact that she's succeeded as a woman in a male-dominated industry, barely touched on her music and spent a lot of time talking about her beauty and style.
And in Elle's cover story on Sarah Jessica Parker, no one thought to ask about ethical questions surrounding her line for Steve & Barry's, or her hypocritical remarks about "real women" having no access to fashionable, well-designed clothes, when her own line most closely resembles what you'd find on the sale rack at Old Navy.
These magazines have access to important people, but they prioritize giving their readers silly anecdotes about a star's love life or a few facts about her beauty routine, instead of delving deeper into the issues surrounding the person.
Men's magazines present superficial topics in more intelligent ways than women's magazines and insert humor into serious topics.
Women's magazines turn on their "we're journalists!" sign near the back of each issue when they attempt to tackle "important issues." There's nothing funny in these articles, and the writers' voices are so dramatically different from the earlier pieces on lipstick trends and cellulite cream that it can feel as though you're reading a totally different magazine.
Men's magazines seem to put the same amount of effort into short, silly articles as they do into long, serious pieces. Often the first 30 pages of GQ or Esquire are just as entertaining and readable as the meat of the magazine, and they have actual writers contribute to the short segments on gadgets, fashion and sports. Just compare the ratio of words to pictures in the early parts of a women's and men's magazine. It's incredible to see how much space the women's magazines waste by refusing to spice up these sections with humor and good writing.
Humor is subjective, but I challenge anyone to name a mainstream women's magazine that's as funny as GQ or Esquire.
One thing I'll miss about Jane was it's humor and laid-back style, which was so refreshing compared to the stuffy, ultra-serious attitude of most women's mags. I don't think men's magazines have the same fear that they won't be taken seriously if they're funny, and use humor liberally in all sections of the magazine. Everyone likes to laugh and it makes reading these magazines a far more enjoyable experience.
I'm not going to pretend that GQ and Esquire are perfect. This issue of Esquire had one of the worst, most nauseating celebrity profiles I've ever read (Slate agreed with me on this), and there are more photographs of hot, nearly naked women than I'd like to see. And generally, the articles accompanying these hot, nearly naked women suck because they attempt to be serious and high-minded, when really it's just a guy going on about how dumbstruck he is to be in the presence of someone as mind-bogglingly gorgeous as Angelina Jolie. In general, men's magazines are conflicted (as conflicted as most men are) in how they view women, and this can be frustrating to read as a woman.
But I still can't fathom why women's magazines don't aim higher and I'm curious what you guys think. Do you think the failure of Jane has taught publishers that trying to be different and offering their readers more substance only leads to loss of advertising sales and drops in subscriptions? Are most women happy with what they're given in mainstream magazines? Let me know what you think in the comments.