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Looking for Mr. Right : The Readership Battle Among Men's Magazines Is Also an Identity Crisis

November 28, 1990|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — The "Museum of Modern Male Art" in the offices of Esquire magazine, features neatly mounted trout and salmon flies, spoked wheel covers, an electric drill, billiard balls and a martini glass.

Back in the simpler era that collection represents, it was easy to define the American man. Everyone knew what kind of man read Playboy. Or Argosy. Or True.

But in the wake of the feminist and sexual revolutions, general and special-interest women's magazines overran the newsstands and their male counterparts languished.

Now, 25 years later, publishers are trying to corral male consumers and readers with general-interest men's magazines.

The problem is that no one can agree on what it means to be a man anymore. Is he the aggressive executive who's studying haiku to expose his feminine nature? Or the gentle painter who gets in touch with his "inner warrior" at male-bonding seminars? Is he embittered by feminists or outraged by the photographs in Penthouse? Does he go bear hunting with Dad or bare his feelings about his conflicted relationship with father figures?

If this were a barroom debate, would it end in soulful blubbering or someone getting his face bashed in?

With those sorts of questions in mind, the small fraternity of men's magazine editors find themselves tangled in a sort of rugby scrum, with everyone kicking desperately to gain possession of the male reader.

This autumn, despite the worst advertising climate in ages, publishers launched four new general-interest men's magazines: Men's Life, M-Inc., Details and Forbes' FYI.

Within a few weeks, Men's Life, a quirky new publication produced by a former editor at Playboy, had gone belly up. But at least two more magazines--Smart for Men and Rolling Stone's as yet unnamed publication--are champing to join the fray.

It was near the end of the '80s that publishers suddenly seemed to notice something: There are at least a dozen women's service, fashion, and general interest-magazines that sell between 1 million and 8 million copies each month and at least half a dozen others that sell more than 500,000, for a total yearly advertising revenues well over $1 billion. Yet only a handful of comparable men's magazines--Playboy, Penthouse, Esquire, GQ--are nearly as successful.

"Billions of dollars have been made off the feminist and women's movements," said Asa Baber, who has written a column about men for Playboy since 1982. Books, movies, television shows, and magazines have all profited from the culture's focus on women, he said.

But now, Baber believes, the women's movement is fading and "people are looking around for what's next. It's clear to me that for 25 years we've had very unbalanced reporting in the area of sexual politics and gender studies," he says. "Men have gotten either bad press or no press. I think that is about to be rectified . . . . In a marketing sense, a vacuum was created."

Christopher Kimball estimates that he and Peter Kaplan spent "thousands of hours, drinking beer and going over and over and over" the question of man's current place in humanity.

The product of all this pondering, Smart for Men, will hit the newsstands in mid-December, fusing the old Smart magazine with a yet another men's publication that Kimball and Kaplan, a former Esquire editor, had been planning to launch.

Its arrival is geared to correspond with what Kimball calls "the return of the new man."

"In the past 25 years, America has been feminized." Kimball says. "It was a good thing, generally speaking. But men have been on the back burner for a long time."

Smart for Men, he says, will give men what they want.

"Basically, men are adolescent and over-sexed. We always have been and always will be," says Kimball, a tall, thin man wearing spectacles and a bow tie. Moreover, he adds, most of the women he knows are increasingly willing to accept that. "They're sick of the wimpy '80s image."

As a result, the days when women's magazines might feature the question, "Why Can't a Man be More Like a Woman?" may be over, Kimball thinks.

"Men's Life" went so far as to turn those stereotypical headlines around. In a brief humor item, it suggested that if men's magazines were to handle gender-sensitive issues the way so many women's magazines do, they would run stories such as "Raising Consciousness: Why Can't She Raise the Toilet Seat?" or "Hey, How About My G-Spot?"

Or, as the magazine's editor and creator, Barry Golson, a 17-year veteran of Playboy, said in his editorial: "Many of us have this suspicion we're not the jerks some women say we are . . . . Welcome back, guys."

This defensive self-definition ran through the premiere issue of the magazine, which sold 250,000 copies on the newsstands. That the magazine went belly-up on Oct. 26, just six weeks after its official launch, was the result of a lousy advertising climate and the financial woes of owner Rupert Murdoch, rather than a failure to connect with readers, who did indeed identify with the magazine's tone.

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