Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Why Are Women's Magazines So Much Dumber Than Men's?

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.


Anonymous said...

Honestly, I never thought much of Jane and it's hipper-than-thou attitude. I really didn't think it had much "substance" myself. I never read men's magazines (aside from the occasional interview with a male celeb I admire, like Christian Bale), mostly bc I don't care about gadgets or the latest trends in shirt cuffs. But maybe there's some good stuff in there I'm missing? I can say I am unhappy with what mainstream women's magazines put out there. I got rid of Allure bc of it's elitist bent (if you can't buy Chanel lipstick you shouldn't be reading this) and got rid of Marie Claire bc I didn't want to read the VERY detailed sexploits of "everyday" women every month. BTW, love that tagline on the cover of MC you have in your post- "Find your Inner Fembot!" I think that proves your point right there.

Unknown said...

I don't read any magazines anymore - you can find more authentic voices on any subject in the world for free or near free on the internet. Everything from Chanel Lipstick to Guantanamo Bay. And I can rely on other people to point me to pieces in the main stream media that are, in fact, helpful, interesting, informative, or amusing.

Sometimes the main stream media has access to places or people "normal" bloggers don't, but I've never seen an article that can't be enriched by other people discussing the information within after publication.

Oh... except sometimes I buy fashion mags when I'm flying so I can look at clothes porn.

R said...

Women's magazines make it seem like 89% of a woman's purpose is to be sexy. I hate that!

I also hate how much magazines send the message 'Buying is the Answer! Shop your way to Happiness and Fulfillment!' Stuff is stuff, and it can't compensate for love, success, or peace of mind.

I don't watch Oprah, but I subscribe to O Magazine--- it's a decent mix of fluff and substance, and the writing is worlds better than average.

For me, Vogue and W are the worst--- soooo elitist. The day I pay $2000 for an article of clothing is the day I turn in my Thinking Woman badge and membership card. =)

Black Patent Stilettos said...

Meg that's an interesting thing you mentioned when you stated that perhaps women just opt for different avenues to get their 'serious' reads. Personally, I don't pick up a fashion magazine such as vogue or elle expecting to find a compelling read. Does this happen because we know magazines lack this content or do magazines lack the content because they know we don't pick them up expecting this content?
All the same this doesn't answer why men's magazines are better than women's magazines!!! But for now, until there is substantive revisions to the written cotent of magazines, I reserve them for easy reading when i'm bored or merely to browse at the editorial fashion spreads and make-up pages.

Tracey M. said...

i completely agree. i have read many articles in Vogue and Glamour where i find false information and superficial examinations. if i already know more on the subject than the article presents, why publish the overly condensed and vapid writings? it is like they don't do their homework because they have a "women don't dig that deep into the minutia anyway" mentality. i am sick of reading articles on iraq or rape victims that are shorter and less involved than an expose on lipstick trends.

AK said...

I just wanted to speak up in defense of Vogue for a moment. While there certainly are plenty of pictures and the sheer number of advertisements in some issues is overwhelming, I think that Vogue does at least attempt to include some well-written and intelligent pieces. A recent issue had an incredibly well-written piece by a writer who told of his experiences growing up with Dustin Hoffman as a family friend. There have also been interesting profiles of Alek Wek and her journey from Sudan to becoming a model, a profile of Condoleeza Rice, and as you mention Jeffrey Steingarten's pieces are always fantastic. I think Vogue also works really hard to give writers space to talk about how and why fashion is important to them in a way that demonstrates that fashion is not just clothes we wear but that it's an art and the way things like a cut of a jacket or a the feel of a fabric can remind you of people and places. Those pieces are interesting to me because they do more than just say "Buy this dress."

Anonymous said...

i basically stopped reading women's magazines, except for the september issues. i stick to blogs. but i have to say i LOVE gq and details. love.

my boyfriend gets them (i think it's actually his moved-out older sister's subscription, haha) and i read them obsessively. they are so much smarter, funnier, and racier. and they treat fashion as something necessary to present yourself well in modern society, and for your own luxury, but something to be taken with a grain of salt. there is no hysterical "you MUST have this bag!!" or "use this eye cream or you'll look old in 5 years."

not to mention the articles are witty and current. they treat their audience as intelligent and educated, and capable of picking up quips about literature, music, popular culture, politics, etc.

and the bonus.. all the fashion ads and spreads are of guys! i could look at guys in designer suits and jeans+cashmere sweaters all day long.

willikat said...

i think you are right on about so many things in this post. i think men's magazines have less fear--which is funny, since cosmo will never stop selling gajillions of issues each month, despite their misogynistic, boring, redundant crap. and yes, i think that magazine is misogynistic and refuse to read it even. those magazines you mention (elle and mc) do attempt the stronger articles, but they are often underreported (or edited to look underreported) or not enough space is given to them (ad sales!). jane had some really annoying aspects to it, but i liked that it addressed real women and real budgets and that sort of thing. i htink it's sad that some of hte best women's mags around have such small circulation--bitch an dbust coming to mind. most women complain that mainstream mags aren't good enough...
i know a LOT of women that prefer men's mags, the nudity be damned. and that's sad.

Laura V said...

I keep hopefully picking up women's magazines, reading them, and huffing about how they're not as good as the Esquire I keep nicking from my husband.

On the occasions when I am somewhere I can get ahold of Bust, I generally do, but it's not really the same kind of mag.

Gaia said...

Part of the problem is the incestous realtionship women's magazines have with their advertisers. Too much of their content is promotional and advertisment-driven.

Dave said...

"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."

Men's magazines are not conflicted about how they view women. You just don't understand it because you are not a man and do not have a male perspective.

Believe it or not, a man can both respect and like to look at "hot, nearly naked women", even the same woman at the same time.

Maybe you should try to stop reading so much into men and start trying to understand what is right in front of your face.

Anonymous said...

I've felt this way about men's magazines for years (Esquire and Details are my favorites). The way I see it is, women who want some serious journalism, humor, etc aren't embarrassed to read men's magazines, but most men would never be caught dead reading a women's magazine to get the content he feels he's missing out on. So men's magazines have it all, and women's are far more limited.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading my boyfriend's mags for ages now, a much better read than Marie Claire and other 'trashy' women's magazines.

I'll buy women's magazines to check out new makeup and fashion trends once in a while, but generally if I want a good read I'll pick up Time or New Scientist.

I wonder maybe if the female journalists drawn to work in productions like cosmo etc are just not interested in writing for the thinking woman, but sticking to traditional shallow stories about how to flirt/apply mascara/find vintage clothes

...And the more intelligent gravitate towards newspapers and generally publications that are taken seriously

Anonymous said...

this is once again a case of why are we always comparing ourselves to men?? for me, reading a women's magazine is a guilty pleasure- a rare escape from the daily grind. I don't expect to open Vogue for my world affairs. We can't expect one magazine to fulfill everything- I compliment my Vogue/MC/Vanity Fair subscription with the Economist and Foreign Affairs. It's our responsibility to keep ourselves informed- I am happy with the mags content the way it is. Plus I really don't understand any critique of Vogue or VF's writing as anything but excellent- I've always found inspiration.

Sometimes you all as a couch potato critics take things too far.

Tracey M. said...

why can't our guilty pleasure not surround an article trying to sell us unneeded products? why does our "easy reading" have to be petty and negative gossip that teaches us to debase others and ourselves? the main point is that we are still stuck in a mentality that women's magazines should subsist on superficial ideas and celebrity gossip. we should try to elevate our reading,(no matter what kind: easy or hard)to reflect how we want to be viewed and respected. i don't want catty remarks in my articles, no matter how funny, initially, they might be to read. it teaches us, and others that we shouldn't expect kinder and more educated things from and for women, because evidently all we really want to head and hear about are who is knocked up in hollywood, and where i can go to get botox/heavy makeup/surgery before i turn 23 and get ugly.
the product pushing and gossip columns have infiltrated our magazines, and we are paying for the privledge to be told we need to modify ourselfs, and think judgmentally of everyone in order to be mainstream or normal. easy reading maybe, but i still find it hard to stomach.

Anonymous said...

Agree men's magazines tend to have much livelier/better writing in them.

One of the reasons I actually read "O" (though was ashamed to when I first picked it up!) It was one of the only women's magazines I have EVER read that had some substance to the articles. Granted, it isn't exactly a fashion mag, but the articles at least provoke some thought.

Don't know why the writing elsewhere is so bland though. I guess the main selling point for the advertiser's is to push clothes and beauty products, and not detract from that message.

Anonymous said...

This is a brilliant post. I'm working on one about the sad state of magazines for black women. Vibe Vixen just folded, now there's nothing mainstream left besides Essence and Ebony. The only two women's magazines I get on a regular basis are O and Bust. And I dream of writing for both of them!

A.Y. Daring said...

Firstly, I must say that I love your blog and the insight you put into things. Secondly, let me say that it's so relieving to hear that I am not the only girl out there who is sick and tired of the Cosmo's of the magazine industry and really enjoys reading GQ and Esquire (which admittedly, are the only men's magazines I read. Anything more "manly" and I get into the Penthouses and Playboys on the racks).

I mean, seriously- am I actually supposed to belive that I won't be attractive unless I memorise the 101 hottest sex potsitions and learn how to do my own professional style blowout at home for my big night out right before using all the latest products to give myself the sultriest smokey eye availible at Sephora. Didn't Cosmo start out as being a female empowerment mag? I don't feel empowered when I read it, only frustrated that the media is trying to forcefeed me and women around the world these artificial ideas of what it means to be succesful, powerful, beautiful and sexy.
Men's magazines take on a whole different approach that is so overwhelmingly refreshing in that yes, they do try to pump up the sex appeal and they do sometimes get rather superficial, but they put a kind of effort in it that you don't really get from the mainstream women's magazines. Honestly, I desperately want to start my own magazine, that fills in the void the we ladies need. Something that actually goes into what beaing a woman ACTUALLY all about!