Wednesday, February 18, 2004

I'm a man, looking for a man's magazine. So I went to Barnes and Noble, the meeting ground for America's literary mainstream. I stumbled upon the quarter of the magazine section dedicated to Women's Interest. This section consisted entirely of fashion magazines, as far as I could tell. Glamour, Marie Claire, and a hundred other magazines each with paraphrasals of the same blurbs on their covers: What Men Really Want; How to Have Sexy Hair; and How to Have Better Sex.

Below these manuals for sex appeal were their antecedents: Cosmo Girl and Seventeen, among others. Rather than guiding them directly to their G-spots, as their mature counterparts promised to do, these more giddy magazines announced the confessions that teen celebrities were once nerds too, and tamely offered to help girls find the right prom dress for "the best night of your life."

The natural result of all this sex training is the need for the third Women's Interest subsection: "I'm Pregnant," "Mothering," and "Parenting". But hey, wait a second. Is parenting strictly a woman's interest? Pregnancy is, of course, more relevant to women -- not to mention that "I Got Someone Pregnant" just doesn't roll off the tongue. But let's at least visit the Men's Interest section to check out the array of magazines about fatherhood and other men's issues.

I walked past Crafts/Hobbies, House/Home, Art, and finally arrived at Men's Interest, just before Sports.

At first glance it didn't look much different from where I'd just come from; the glossy covers at eye level dripped with sexy models. I was greeted by the sensual flesh of women who, presumably, had read the magazines on the Women's Interest shelf, had worn the right prom dress, had the best night of their lives, found their G-spots, gotten sexy hairstyles, and discovered their calling as icons of masculine desire.

If women's magazines whisper the word sex, promising women to fill in the details their mothers left out, men's magazines state it frankly and almost belligerantly. "We will not allow our desires to be controlled by the puritanical grandmothers who rule the nation," they seem to say. "We will be free!"

The formula was clear. Six men's magazines followed it exactly. Each offered at least one bikini-clad vixen on the cover and the word "sex" on the upper right corner. Inside, each magazine made implicit assumptions about my manly desire; that I wanted to meet the girls of Croatia in their danties, that I wanted to turn my good girl bad, or that I needed a list of things I could buy that would make me a genuine man -- things like a better cell phone, a more gas-guzzling Hummer, or a more fashionable bourbon.

I was a little confused. A little angry, actually. Is this what it means to be a man? Is this what I should be striving for in my life? To desire unobtainable women, spend my money on expensive toys, and then when I'm still not fulfilled, drown my sorrows in a quality (or at least stylish) mixed drink?

These magazines, I told myself, sell to men who think those things will lead them to happiness. But what about the rest of us? I kept looking. Next to the Sex and Stuff mags claiming to represent -- and even create -- manhood, were special interest mags; media, music, tattoo, cigars, marijuana. There was nothing. Nothing about being a father, nothing about being a positive force in the world, nothing that proposed any other ways of being a man beyond a sex-obsessed toy collector.

Some hope rose in me as I returned to one of the men's magazines; I found a story about a trend toward abstinance among professional men. How novel, I said to myself, an article that offers an alternate perspective on sex. The story profiled several men who for various reasons weren't on the prowl, and as a result had been abstinant for over a year. It closed, to my dismay, by reinforcing the main message of men's magazines. If you're one of those men, it said, "There is something wrong with need to get laid."

There's something wrong with you, they tell us, echoing a voice we hear in our heads every day. We grow up without fathers. We learn from our mothers, sisters, and girlfriends that men are assholes. That men leave, men cheat, men are irresponsible, and men are insensitive. Unfortunately this is often reinforced when we observe men around us, sometimes from what little exposure we do have to our fathers. All we need is for a men's magazine to tell us that the pinnacle of manhood lies in chasing desire of sex and material objects, and that there's something wrong with us unless we're doing that.

Men's magazines do offer, at least by implication, their version of the character qualities of being a man; tough, rugged, and strong, even when swathed in fashionable underwear. And how to demonstrate these qualities? By objectifying the world, the magazines imply; by obtaining it, owning it, conquering it.

And so we live out the prophecies of our mothers and sisters -- we become irresponsible assholes, showing our strength in the only way we know how, by showing our mastery over the physical world. And if that isn't good enough, a drink ought to take the edge off -- ought to numb the feeling that something's wrong with us. And who knows, a few drinks might even help us get laid.

I've been around long enough to know that more sex doesn't make me more of a man. It makes me feel good, certainly, and good about myself, for a while. Eventually it leads to actually having a relationship. And that means actually needing strength -- not the strength of controlling the world, but the strength of including someone else in my big ego. The strength to stop trying to control the world and begin empowering others in their own lives.

I've also learned over the years that more and better stuff doesn't make me happier. Each new thing is a fix for my addiction, postponing the symptoms of withdrawal for a while, after which time they come on stronger than ever. It's a socially and economically sanctioned addiction, which puts each of us in the position of the junkie -- supporting our dealers by whoring ourselves at jobs we hate.

In attempt to be free of the values of our puritanical grandmother, we've become slaves to the multinational corporations who make the products we've been convinced it's our right to have. The fact is, there are no puritanical grandmothers to rebel against. The Moral Majority has fallen, strangled by the burning bras of feminists. It's been replaced by corporations who profit directly from the concept that there is something wrong with everybody, and their products can somehow fix it. But they never quite manage to, in spite of the new and improved products constantly appearing on the market. So-called Men's magazines are tools of these corporations, capitalizing on insecurities to sell products.

What I want to know is, where is the men's magazine that will tell us what we actually need to know? Where is the article that tells us what a man's real potential is, and how to go about reaching it?

I am a man, looking for a man's magazine. And if it doesn't exist yet, who's willing to stand up and speak about the glory of being a real man, with real inner strength, genuine confidence, taking responsibility for all aspects of his life? Who's brave enough to show himself as an example of one who uses his skills to bring balance to the world and power to the people around him? I'm still looking.