Men’s magazines could serve as a corrective to such nonsense. When Fielden’s Esquire did adopt a moral tone, however, it often wound up reinforcing the new progressive orthodoxy. An article by Dwight Garner on the art of apologizing avers that “women are trying hard . . . to learn to apologize less often. They’ve overdone it their whole lives, and it’s time to ease off.” Men, on the other hand—especially “men of the honky persuasion”—could stand to apologize a lot more and a lot better. Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and a whole rogues’ gallery of sexual miscreants are trotted out and reindicted, as much for their insincere or tone-deaf apologies as for their alleged offenses. Who is the model for the “right way to apologize in public”? According to Garner: disgraced former U.S. senator Al Franken.
In this light, it’s telling that former GQ editor-in-chief Jim Nelson, when asked by the Columbia Journalism Review what he now regrets publishing in his 15 years atop the masthead, could name only the sexy photos of women he once felt compelled to put on the cover. Among the highlights for him? A March 2018 cover featuring waifish actor Timothée Chalamet, “because, to me, he is a complete reflection of a changing view of masculinity, sexuality, openness.”
How much of the recent decline of men’s titles is due to readers tiring of their preachiness, rather than to larger trends disrupting print media, is unclear. But circulation has plummeted, with newsstand sales—a crucial measure of a magazine’s “wantedness”—particularly hard-hit. In 2005, five men’s magazines—Esquire, Details, GQ, Maxim, and Men’s Health—had combined newsstand sales of 1.4 million. Ten years later, those same publications were selling only 540,000 newsstand copies between them; Condé Nast shuttered Details at the end of 2015. And the bleeding continues. In 2015, Esquire sold an average of 76,531 newsstand copies per issue, but only 22,425 per issue in the first half of 2018—a mere 3 percent of total circulation. One recent Esquire contributor told me that he never actually read the magazine. GQ has experienced a similar slide.
Playboy has fallen furthest. From 5.6 million monthly copies at its peak in 1975, the magazine now sells fewer than 500,000 copies per issue—not even two-thirds of Esquire’s total circulation and about half of GQ’s. Stunts such as a brief moratorium on nude photos and the naming of a transgender model as Playmate in late 2017 earned Playboy free publicity but did little to woo readers. The magazine cut its annual publishing schedule in 2018 from ten issues to six. It became a quarterly in 2019.
To be clear, this decline is nothing to celebrate. Without mass-market men’s magazines to serve as “the common denominator of masculine interests,” in Gingrich’s words, their would-be readers will seek other, sometimes darker, outlets. From “pickup artist” communities to discussion boards for “incels”—men who are involuntarily celibate—one doesn’t have to look hard online before stumbling across volcanic geysers of male rage and self-loathing.
Rather than taking seriously and studying the wellsprings of men’s pain, however, the media tend to focus on the grief it causes women. In May, Harper’s Bazaar accused men of “emotional gold digging”—of an overreliance on female companionship, in the absence of male friends, that is “exhausting an entire generation of women.” The article depicts a world “where men cast their wives and girlfriends to play best friend, lover, career advisor, stylist, social secretary, emotional cheerleader, mom—to him, their future kids, or both—and eventually, on-call therapist minus the $200/hour fee.” (Note the economic injustice.) So, then, having forcibly desegregated formerly male-only spaces, feminists now blame men for being friendless and emotionally stunted, “unable to forge intimate relationships with other men,” and for making women shoulder the burden of their emotional lives. Women, in other words, are the true victims of men’s crippling loneliness.
Though egregious, the article was hardly the first of its kind. School dropout rates among young men have served as fodder for pieces lamenting the limited dating prospects—or, really, assortative-mating prospects—of educated single women. (As of 2016, 7.1 percent of male youths had dropped out of high school, compared with only 5.1 percent of female youths, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Similarly, 63 percent of women pursuing a bachelor’s degree manage to graduate within six years, while only 57 percent of men do.) The urtext for this sort of thing is a speech that then–first lady Hillary Clinton gave, in 1998, at a conference on domestic violence in El Salvador, when she managed to say with a straight face that women, not men, “have always been the primary victims of war.” After all, she reasoned, “Women lose their husbands, their fathers, their sons in combat.”
Just so, the ramifying epidemics of loneliness, addiction, academic failure, joblessness, and suicide afflicting American men are seen chiefly as crises for American women, who must put up with these losers.
When the culture changes,” Esquire contributing editor Wesley Yang wrote earlier this year, “each of us must either seek an accommodation or choose a hill to die on.” He was reviewing Bret Easton Ellis’s White, a collection of jeremiads, many aimed, like poison darts, at millennials, the cohort Ellis has dubbed “Generation Wuss.” The voice of an earlier generation, Ellis, who is gay, finds himself shocked by—and contemptuous of—the weak-mindedness and quickness to take offense typical of some millennials. He is clearly in the hill-to-die-on camp—though in today’s fractured media environment, one can live on the hill indefinitely. Ellis has produced a nonconformist podcast on film, television, music, and other aspects of pop culture since 2013. Nearly 3,700 subscribers pay between $2 and $10 per episode, with higher-paying supporters receiving early access and exclusive content.
Hunger for authenticity, among young males especially, also fuels the vastly more popular Joe Rogan Experience, hosted by the eponymous stand-up comedian and mixed-martial-arts commentator. For an audience in the tens of millions, Rogan serves up rambling interviews, amounting to intellectual jam sessions, with athletes, actors, scientists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and fellow comics. He has been called “the Walter Cronkite of our era,” for the faith his audience puts in him, and “the Oprah for men,” for his ability to pull high-profile guests such as rock climber Alex Honnold (of Free Solo fame), billionaire Elon Musk, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
But the no-holds-barred discussions that Rogan conducts have more in common with the original ethos of the Esquire man, for whom nothing was off-limits. (“Try as we may,” the magazine once wrote, “we have yet to find a subject that he considers sacred.”) Rogan and his guests regularly tackle subjects now deemed beyond the pale by progressives, including male–female sex differences and the roots of political correctness. Episodes often run to three hours or longer. One frequent guest is clinical psychologist and bestselling author Jordan Peterson, who has won legions of fans, many of them young men, in part for his positive vision of what masculinity can be. The rare public intellectual who can sell out concert halls, Peterson—who has been tarred as a member of the alt-right and maligned in the press, including by British GQ—has appeared on Rogan’s podcast no fewer than six times. Playboy was once famed for publishing such lengthy, uncensored interviews. Hayes would have made Peterson an Esquire contributor. Rogan makes an estimated $25 million to $50 million a year by going where men’s magazines now fear to tread.
What do we lose when the unifying force in media for men is not a literate magazine but the weed-smoking comic who used to host Fear Factor? An obvious loss is the writing, which, at its best—the nonfiction of Gay Talese and John Jeremiah Sullivan comes to mind—was some of the best magazine writing ever. From artful prose to unscripted palaver is a decline, however edifying the palaver might be.
Connoisseur publications have taken up some of the slack. Wm Brown, a new men’s quarterly spearheaded by Matt Hranek, a photographer and editor at Condé Nast Traveler, comes wreathed in the cigar smoke missing from Esquire. The magazine’s Spring 2019 issue, its second, includes an article on humidors that delves unapologetically into the finer points of cigar temperature and humidification technology. While it can’t hope to be “all things to all men,” as Gingrich’s Esquire did, Wm Brown is at least advancing a singular vision. But it will never have the mass-market budget that could pay for top-flight journalism.
Even mass-market budgets aren’t what they used to be. Playboy has been losing $7 million annually in recent years, according to the Wall Street Journal, and Rizvi Traverse, the private-equity firm that owns Playboy Enterprises, has considered axing the magazine altogether. Rather than dump more money into print media or TV, the company is focused on inking licensing deals on everything from wallets and fragrances to casinos and nightclubs, especially in Asia, where the magazine doesn’t exist but the name Playboy connotes a certain élan.
GQ is likewise doubling down on consumerism. In 2017, the magazine launched a product-recommendation newsletter and the following year opened an e-commerce shop to drive affiliate revenue. Visitors to the site can browse and buy a variety of menswear items, ranging from a $168 J. Crew blazer to a $4,840 ISAIA suit. “They come to us because they want to figure out what shirt or what suit they should buy, what pair of shoes,” GQ digital director Jon Wilde said in a 2018 interview. Further leveraging its tastemaking authority, GQ now sells a subscription box of consumer products, delivered to one’s door every three months for about $200 a year. The Winter 2019 box contained a farraginous assortment of goods, including a notebook, a chain necklace, face masks and charcoal face scrub, a coupon for a smartphone case, and beef jerky. The future may be female (or genderless), but the ideal reader remains as acquisitive as ever.
In June, Hearst promoted Esquire.com editor Michael Sebastian to replace Fielden as editor-in-chief. As with Pels at Cosmopolitan, the idea is to bring a digital sensibility to the print product—while making digital the top priority. Esquire, a source told WWD, will be getting “a full Cosmo.” I take this to mean that the trends identified in this essay will only accelerate, and that the commitment to social-justice ideology will only harden; that Esquire will soon descend into the sucking morass of what Yang aptly calls “woke clickbait.” No doubt the magazine will struggle on for a time, like a punctured blimp leaking helium, deflating while still aloft, but if it grows in prominence—if the metrics that men like Troy Young care about improve for a time—it will be only as a wounded airship, once high up in the atmosphere, grows larger in the eye as it sinks slowly groundward.
Just as one can’t reinflate a leaky blimp, there is little reason to believe that Esquire’s editorial quality will improve under Sebastian, however much he juices web traffic. The great men’s magazines may eke out a lucrative afterlife hawking clothes and branding nightclubs in India; but as magazines, they are dying or dead—and the dead do not improve.
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