blurring boundary lines

rebecca grant

The cover girl’s breathless beauty fuels the existence of men’s and women’s magazines alike. Whether readers desire to be or to possess her, her allure is undeniable. Despite this common adulation of the feminine ideal, the similarities between men’s and women’s magazines are disputable.

While a nipple-exposed model snorting diamonds may appeal to the average male Toro reader, more than three times as many women picked up the ornately iced Thanksgiving carrot cake recently featured on Chatelaine’s cover.

Kim Pittaway, editor of Chatelaine, says women’s magazines have done a better job of reflecting society’s dramatic gender changes than men’s magazines.

As gender lines fuse, Pittaway sees male magazines increasingly mimicking their feminine counterparts.

“There used to be this artificial divide that women’s magazines are about doing things and men’s magazines are about thinking about things,” said Pittaway. “I don’t think that that’s the case anymore. I think that there are fewer and fewer differences.”

Pittaway points to increasing men’s coverage of health, fashion, relationships, food and cooking as examples of this trend. Chatelaine, which boasts 700,000 readers, accommodates the increasingly frenetic pace of women’s lives by providing a mix of quick fixes to their problems along with more in-depth features.

The rise of men’s radio, magazines and television stations may indicate that men are increasingly comfortable in defining their interests by their masculinity. While the United States has specifically targeted male readers for decades with magazines like GQ and Esquire, Canadian marketing trends are lagging behind, says Derek Finkle, editor of Toro magazine.

Urban Male Magazine (UMM) is one of Canada’s few male magazines. The UMM website is dominated by scantily clad, buxom UMM girls. The “Featured Babe” link provides scintillating conversation about their interests, which usually revolve around working out. A profile on UMM girl Holly Riley reveals her biggest turn-ons to include “ his ability to get me to do anything he wants, any way he wants.”

Despite adopting some aspects of women’s magazines, a growing market of “lad mags” which combines sex, bombshells, sports and humour has raised the ire of some feminists. Maxim, for example, has published a “How To” guide on sex tourism trips to Thailand.

Canada ’s Media Awareness Network website criticizes men’s magazines for continuing to define masculinity as "being in charge, acting decisively, containing emotion and succeeding with women.”

Magazines like GQ and Toro, although avoiding the raunchier, almost soft-core porn aspects of their counterparts, also seem to consider beauty the prerequisite for featuring accomplished women.

Nonetheless, Toro’s witty, intelligent articles coupled with a refusal to dispense the self-improvement advice that permeates women’s magazines, may be refreshing to female readers. Although targeted to men, the magazine reaches both genders by being distributed to 175,000 Globe and Mail subscribers.

Chatelaine’s Pittaway says women are naturally more inclined to turn to each other for advice than men are. Chatelaine readers seek guidance from fellow women “in the trenches” rather than exclusively from experts, she says.

Women seek a wider emotional range of articles in their magazines. “I think there’s an aspect to women’s magazines that’s like a good chick flick,” explains Pittaway.

In contrast, Toro avoids the typical relationship and advice columns that dominate women’s magazines. Finkle says people are already over-inundated with advice on how to live their lives. He believes Canadian men are less anxious to fit in with the crowd than their American counterparts. “I think that’s a Canadian trait. Canadian men have a bit more of an independent streak to them.”

Humour and entertainment are the common threads in men’s articles. Although they may occasionally include emotional or relationship coverage, they are more likely to cloak such topics in humour, or an emphasis on the bizarre. “I think humour in women’s magazines, when it exists, is generally kind of earnest and not really all that funny,” states Finkle.

The fiercely competitive women’s magazine industry tends to listen more to the dictates of market research and focus groups than men’s magazines, according to Finkle. Consequently, Toro is willing to take risks on stories that he doesn’t think women’s magazines would touch.

Chatelaine does rely on reader feedback to monitor the pulse of people’s thinking, says Pittaway. But Chatelaine strives to avoid the cookie cutter stories of some women’s magazines that ignore the emotional complexity of the world, she noted.

In contrast to the standardized beauty formulas that dominate their counterparts, Chatelaine has won praise for featuring women who reflect their readership. For their fashion spreads, they seek healthy women in their thirties who are not too thin.

Reggie Modlich, managing editor of Women & Environments International magazine, is concerned about the attitudes women absorb from many women’s magazines.

Women’s magazines “are going backwards rather than forwards of women critically evaluating their environments,” says Modlich.

Far from being beacons of female empowerment, women’s magazines “focus back on the passive relationships towards society, towards men, towards making yourself acceptable rather than becoming a stakeholder or a participant in issues and decision-making,” says Modlich.

Perhaps women’s magazines could learn from the new breed of lad mags that do not try to sculpt their readers with moulds that do not fit.

Photos by Rebecca Grant and Scott Jordan