Thursday 05 September 2002

The problem of men’s magazines

Dorothea included an anecdote in her answer to my emailed question about the sickening grunch:

The GM’s girlfriend (while I’m reminiscing) once had to call the GM and the “fuckable” chap to task pretty sharply for passing a porn mag back and forth during the game. She was right; they were wrong. Even had the mag not been a porn mag, had the situation been free of all gender issues, RPG etiquette says it’s just rude not to pay attention to the game, especially if you’re GM. Even though she was right, and the “fuckable” chap put the mag away, the confrontation still felt uncomfortable. I didn’t have her courage; I would have let it go, and I am ashamed to say that I didn’t even back her up.

Only an insensitive boor would fail to understand that the GM and Mr Fuckable were doubly at fault: for not paying attention to the game and for looking at a porn magazine in mixed company.

I’m anticipating that some—not necessarily Dorothea, though I can’t be sure—would say that porn magazines are unacceptable in any company. That’s the nominal subject of this post.

[I’ll note in passing that I saw nothing accidental in the GM’s involvement in the “fuckable” conversation, his insistence that Dorothea’s game character be “comely,” and his interest in the porn mag at the expense of his responsibilities in supervising the game. In each case his behavior was clearly a form of masked aggression towards someone who profoundly threatened him.]

Anyway, Dorothea’s anecdote reminded me of an event at the barber shop, so on my way home tonight I dropped in for a haircut and asked Nick, the barber, if I could borrow “the letter.”

Anonymous letter to barbershop asking for the replacement of "sexist" magazinesFri 2/6/2000
Dear Hairdressers,
A request…
(But first, thank you for your fine service!)
Could you display a selection of reading materials in addition to (or preferably as a replacement to) the current magazines on offer.
These magazines are an offence to those who wish to avoid material which projects women as sex objects.
Alternatives would be greatly appreciated.
A customer

Nick first showed me this letter a couple of years ago. I came into the shop one day to find him putting the finishing touches on a young woman’s haircut. She paid, walked out, and I took her place in the chair. I asked Nick whether many women had their hair cut by a barber rather than a women’s hairdresser. He said it was probably more common in Newtown (a trendy restaurant/shopping district, where he has his shop and I live) than other areas of Sydney. He estimated that on average he did one female haircut a day. Then he put his clippers on the bench, rummaged around in a drawer, and pulled out a folded piece of notepaper.

“Have a look at this,” he said to me, “someone pushed it under the door a few months ago. It was on the floor when I opened up one morning.”

I read the letter and asked him whom he thought had written it.

“One of the female customers,” he replied without hesitation. “Either that or a woman who’s been sitting in the shop waiting for her husband or boyfriend while his hair was being cut. It worried me for a while but I asked a few of my regulars and they all told me the magazines are great.”

The magazines are exactly what you’d expect to find in an Australian barbershop: Inside Sport, FHM, and Ralph.

Three Australian men's magazine covers: Inside Sport, FHM, & Ralph

“What do you think about the magazines,” Nick asked me. It was clear he valued my opinion.

“I think they’re perfectly fine,” I replied.

Far more fascinating, for me, than the letter was Nick’s assumption that a woman had written it. What do you think? I asked the other men in the shop: Tony (the other barber), the customer in Tony’s chair, and the two waiting customers, each of whom was reading a magazine. Everyone agreed that the letter could only have been written by a woman, probably one with a chip on her (feminist) shoulder.

Disbelief followed by derision met my suggestion that, in an area like Newtown—so close to Sydney University—there would be plenty of sensitive new age guys who might object to girly magazines. It was taken as given that looking at pictures of nearly-naked young women while waiting one’s turn at the barber is an inseparable component of the men’s haircutting experience—along with the tang of bay rum and the stroke of the razor on the nape of your neck.

“If she doesn’t like the men’s magazines, she should go to a women’s salon,” Tony said vehemently.

I found it difficult to disagree. If we assume a woman did write the letter (though I’m by no means convinced that this is so), then it seems unreasonable that she would take advantage of the lower cost of a haircut at Nick’s—US$6 compared to US$19+ at a ladies’ salon—and then complain about the reading material, which is provided specifically for the male clientele. Though perhaps my powers of reasoning were warped during my teenage years when the highlight of a monthly haircut was the chance to ogle the “artistic nudes” and swimsuit models in Pix, People, and Man magazines.

Cover of DNA, a gay magazineBut let’s return to the letter, whose author objects to the magazines because they “project women as sex objects.” And, although he or she expresses a desire that the girly mags be augmented by non-sexist magazines (“in addition to” and “alternatives”), surely the real project is to have the magazines replaced entirely—the implication being that the world would be a better place and relations between men and women greatly improved if men were given no opportunity to objectify women on the basis of their sexual appearance.

Although if our imaginary female letter writer was to have her hair cut at a women’s salon, she’d find no shortage of women’s magazines that “project women as sex objects.” And I guess I’m curious about her opinion of gay magazines that project men as sex objects. Should these be eliminated too?

Dorothea wrote:

Me, I want physical attractiveness completely off the table, and have all along.

I want to be ugly and not have it matter.

That’s what I want. Permission to be plain, even in my own eyes.

I take it from these unambiguous statements that Dorothea wants her relationships with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances—in real life or online—to take place free of any reference to her physical attractiveness, with the parallel desire that we all be more thoughtful, considerate, and aware in our public expression of potentially problematic gender issues. I could be mistaken and, if I am, I can trust Dorothea to set me straight. But nowhere in Dorothea’s posts do I find any attempt to impose what she wants for herself upon other women.

Still, here’s another question. Would it have been acceptable for the GM and Mr Fuckable to pass the porn magazine back and forth if it had been just the two of them, in one or the other’s living room, with no-one else around?

To be fair to our letter writer, his or her objection might only be to the magazines being in a public place (“an offence to those who wish to avoid…”). Perhaps the private consumption of girly magazines is acceptable.

I think it is. I fail to see any contradiction between supporting by my actions every woman’s right to social, political, and economic equality and sitting in a barber shop every few weeks looking at photographs of naked or nearly-naked young women in a magazine.

I accept that other people—men or women—may have ethical, religious, or ideological problems with such photographs and I respect their objections. The simple answer is, though, that they are not obliged to enter the barber shop, pick up the magazines, and read them. If the mere sight of a scantily-clad young woman on a magazine cover causes profound discomfort, I’d point to the multiplicity of more serious injustices that warrant their immediate attention.

On the other hand, I would be offended if I saw Inside Sport, FHM, or Ralph in amongst the magazines in the doctor’s or dentist’s waiting room. Or in the magazine rack at the local library. Or in the pile of newspapers and magazines in the pickup area at the local pizza shop.

I’m guess I’m saying that it all boils down to context. What might be acceptable in the barber shop isn’t necessarily tolerable elsewhere. Which is why I find myself agreeing with feminist protests about highly sexualized public advertising. But that can be the subject of another post.

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"Would it have been acceptable for the GM and Mr Fuckable to pass the porn magazine back and forth if it had been just the two of them, in one or the other's living room, with no-one else around?"

As far as I'm concerned, yes. Nunuvmybizness.

Posted by Dorothea Salo on 5 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Have you had a look at the covers of Cleo, Cosmopolitan and Seventeen recently?

They were the only mags available in my small town hairdressers before I moved back to the big city and started patronising Baldie's Clip Joint again.

Posted by Allan Moult on 6 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

At my female hairdressers, she was asked to supply some more male-orientated magazines for her male customers, which she did. Why not have a couple of both and let go of the whole 'I am male watch me thump my chest and read whatever I damn well like where I want and when I want' crap and just cater for everyone, homosexuals, males, females, and lets not forget the kids, parents in tow, who might enter the barbers for a cheap haircut (heaven forbid).

Posted by fiona on 6 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This raises fundamental questions about the nature of blogging. Not only do I feel my entries greatly misrepresented by the misperceptions of vociferous others, I find myself wondering whether, if the blogs form a public space, we should be discussing anything apart from that which is found on every generic, boring bloody blog from here to Kingdom Come.

The thing is, I believe I cannot go around dictating how others should perceive me - it is arrogance in the extreme. If I don't express myself appropriately, I'll soon find that out. But if I'm to be censured for the way I express myself, why the hell do it? We're getting to selective moralities here and, to me, it sucks.

To the mens' magazines. They've never interested me to the point where I'd buy one but I might pick up one in a barbershop - where I'd expect to find a predominantly male cleintele. I'd take Tony's view on the magazine issue and carry on clipping. When one person's so-called rights start impinging on those of several, something's skew.

As far as the lads at the game are concerned, yes, I agree, they can do whatever they want to do at home but I'm not sure I'd want to mix with them socially if an indulgence of porn was their 'thing'.

Posted by Mike Golby on 6 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Mike, as the epitome of the "vociferous others" to which you refer, I am sorry if you feel that I have been trying to govern your output. I haven't. You're entitled to feel targeted right now, and I'm sorry for my part in that; if I'd known you were distressed about it, I'd have modified my post yesterday accordingly.

However. Words have impact. I think I'm within bounds to try to express the impact they have on me. What you do about that is up to you, always has been. You are free to ignore me and everybody else. It's your blog.

As for "selective moralities" -- whatever. Don't we all select moralities? You don't think it's incumbent upon the blogsphere to select only the moralities that fit your writing, do you? I rather think you don't.

Posted by Dorothea Salo on 6 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I have been actually searching endless websites trying to find the magazine for women that is the equivalent of "maxim" for men, or "Stuff" for men. Why does everyone assume that women don't enjoy looking at beautiful men just as they do beautiful women? It sickens me that all womens' magazines revolve around hair, makeup, and weight. Is it that I feel comfortable with myself? If anyone knows where I can find the magazine I'm looking for, please let me know.

Posted by Jessica Walsh on 12 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Jessica, there was an Australian magazine for women called Playgirl, which is no longer available, but there is an American Playgirl:

Is that the kind of magazine you were after?

Posted by Jonathon on 12 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

[Spam removed]

Posted by wade on 1 July 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour