This post is a report on a group discussion that I facilated for my then feminist group in 2007. Although the source material comes from a group effort, I’ve decided I have the right to re-post it here since I did the work of putting it together and trying to make sense of it all!
Last week the group finally got around to discussing the “lads’ mags” phenomenon and this post is really a summary of our discussion. We don’t claim to be a representative group. The women at this meeting were all white and almost entirely middle-class, so this is written with an awareness that our perspective is going to be limited.
For any international readers who don’t know, the publications popularly referred to in the UK as “lads’ mags” are glossy magazines aimed at heterosexual men. In addition to the usual male interest articles, they contain a lot of soft core pornographic imagery, which draws the line at full frontal nudity or pictures of people actually having sex. By using the term “pornographic” here, I mean sexually explicit material designed to create arousal.
We looked at 2 copies of Nuts, a cheap magazine which seems largely aimed at young working-class men, 1 copy of Loaded which appears somewhere in between classes and has the most aggressive narrative, and 1 FHM which is definitely aimed at middle-class men with disposable cash to throw around.
We decided to focus on the narrative contained with these magazines:
What are they actually saying and doing?
What are the main problems they present for feminism?
What could be done to counter their messages?
Masculinity & Class
It’s interesting to consider what these magazines tell us about the construction of heterosexual masculinity in terms of class and economics and, in fact, we came to the conclusion that these publications are very much about class. They are “classed” in terms of price. Nuts, for example, can be bought for £1.40 (often cheaper on offer), while FHM goes for £3.60. Nuts and Zoo construct, or reiterate, a stereotyped working-class masculinity which is interested in little more than sex, violence, war, beer and sport. Most of the images are of scantily clad and naked young women, but these are interspersed with fetishization of war and violence, and images of gruesome injuries. The one mother at the meeting said that this narrative of violence bothered her more than the sexism in terms of her young son seeing the material. Of course these publications are not created by working-class men, but by middle-class elite university graduates, so in sense it’s a kind of middle-class construction of working-class masculinity. The FHM, by comparison, had a lot more serious articles in between pictures of breasts.RaceWe were very struck by the fact that almost all the women represented in these magazines are white. One black woman had a spread in FHM, which was less explicit than the white women’s spreads in the same magazine. Why are almost all the women white? At the cheaper end of the market, Nutsis dependent on women sending in images of themselves for free publication, so perhaps it’s mainly white women sending their images, in which case is this really a white women’s issue? But in the UK it’s certainly the case that desirability = whiteness (check out any issue of the Boots free beauty magazine for evidence on this score). While this equation may play a role, we also wondered if the lads’ mags are valorizing not only whiteness, but also certain national identities. But we don’t know if men of colour read these things in large numbers, or if they’re primarily consumed by white men. So there’s definitely a lot going on in terms of class and race before you even get to the sexism.Gender & Sexuality
We agreed that these magazines are all about fantasy and the fantasies promoted and endorsed as mainstream and acceptable tell us a lot about where we’re at in terms of attitudes to women in British society. In the case of Nuts and Loaded, the fantasy reiterates a vision of perpetual willing female availability to men. The women are represented as non-threatening, largely unambitious (unless it’s an ambition which involves pleasing men, ie. becoming a glamour model) and aspiring to the same narrow feminine ideal. They are generally implied to be “gagging for it” and eternally delighted to strip off for male pleasure. The poses are repetitive, drawn from harder core pornography, but largely dumbed down to breasts, bums and girl on girl stuff. All the women are represented as having basically the same personality, even down to a limited range of facial expressions: “They’re all the same woman!” cried someone about halfway through the meeting. As sexual fantasy goes, it’s narrow, unimaginative and dull. We soon found ourselves bored by the endless smiling and pouting women with their breasts. “But who are these women?” someone said in frustration. Obviously these women are complex individuals in real life, but in the fantasy world of happy, sexually available, young white women, the lads mags seem to present a general flight from “reality” and the actuality of women and female sexuality on all sorts of levels.
The construction of female reality is interesting because Nuts, Zoo and Loaded repeatedly claim to be offering images of “real girls” as a marketing ploy — that is women who aren’t professional models or celebrities. I guess presenting some women as “real” creates a fantasy of attainability for male readers, but it’s interesting to think about what this narrative is doing. All women are real. A glamour model is as real as a woman taking a digital picture of herself in her bedroom and a lot of the women sending in their images seem to be aspiring glamour models anyway. The few who are picked out for a centerfold in the magazine then have their digitally enhanced images lauded as “real.” Women putting themselves up for male judgement and approval is an important part of the narrative: they are asked to send in their pictures from which the “best” will be selected for rewards (more pictures in the magazine and a possible career break).
We agreed that the prevalence of girl on girl imagery is really about defusing the threat of lesbianism. When you take a couple of heterosexual women and get them to dally in a little performance of lesbianism while inviting men to join in, lesbian sexuality is represented as unreal and therefore not a threat to men; it’s nothing, it’s just a performance.
Ok, so while there’s plenty to get angry about in terms of the narrative, there’s nothing new to see here. It’s old and very conservative. In fact it was the conservatism of the narrative that struck us most strongly. The women may not be wearing many clothes and may be represented as sexually active, but what we really seem to have is the old narrative that says:
Women should please men;
Women are sexually available to men;
Sexy women should really be white women;
Women have certain roles; men have certain roles;
Women are not at all complex or scary;
Of course it’s framed with a rhetoric of female empowerment, but that’s not really new either. Women have long been told that pleasing men is good for them too, from middle-class women in the 1950s told that being a good housewife was the best thing for them, to the young women being told it’s empowering to get up on a bed in a nightclub and do “sex moves” for the Nuts photographer. I’m sure a lot of the women who send in their pictures do experience a sense of empowerment and they may reap certain rewards if chosen, but as ever, we need to look at the way in which female empowerment is being constructed, for what reasons, and for whose ultimate benefit. Where the lads’ mags phenomenon has been most devious is perhaps in the appropriation of women’s liberation rhetoric to present a conservative and old fashioned narrative about sexuality and gender as a sort of feminism.
It’s easy to discuss the problems; it’s not so easy to come up with feasible solutions. Here we entered the most fraught part of the meeting as the group divided into those who thought some kind of regulation and censorship was in order and those who were against censorship and thought other kinds of resistance should be explored. This division was also between people who see the magazines as largely symptomatic of a misogynistic society, in which case it’s the deeper issue of misogyny that needs to be prioritized, and those who see them as causing immediate problems, in which case something should be done about them now. As you can imagine, this resulted in a bit of a circular going nowhere kind of argument.
We did agree that engaging in moralistic arguments is to be avoided at all costs. It’s very easy to slip into “think of the children” rhetoric, but we felt this to be a bad move for various reasons. On a simple level, we’re not objecting to nudity or the representation of sexuality in itself, we’re objecting to the specifically sexist and objectifying narrative constructed in the this media and, as such, this is a political argument.
Some people thought the best form of resistance would be the perpetuation of alternative narratives and images because the problem is that the lads’ mags are currently dictating without any serious alternatives being offered anywhere. Perhaps the crux of the problem is the failure of feminism (a failure that has occurred for all sorts of reasons) to offer the mainstream any widely available alternative images and narratives. I’m hoping we might come up with some ideas for resistance at the next meeting when everyone’s had a chance to think it over.