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In the World of Lads’ Mags March 25, 2007

Posted by Winter in activism, feminist theory, media.
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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.

Race

We 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, Nuts is 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 get to the sexism.

Gender & Sexuality



Lots of tea required for this one.

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.

Loaded takes it up a notch with the inclusion of a 3D breast extravaganza. Strangely the packet included two pars of 3D specs. Hmmm.

Resistance?

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.

People laugh when I arrive with my trusty role of flip chart paper, but they don’t laugh for long.

If you were at the meeting and I’ve left anything out, please put it in the comments.

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Comments»

1. Eythora - March 26, 2007

fantastic points seemed to have come up in this meeting, I wish I had been there. I definitely agree with the point that feminism has failed to come up with a mainstream alternative. And then the question is what to do next…

I really think the points about whiteness of these magazines is spot on, I definitely hadn’t thought of that.

Well done for this blog, really well written.

2. Winter - March 27, 2007

Thanks eythora.

We felt that the magazines are about maintaining a certain status quo (whether real or imagined) on several levels.

So I think alternatives are a good start, but it’s not enough because alternatives just get marginalised. Something actually does need to be done against them, that’s not censorship

A good point. Yes, alternatives do already exist, but they’re kept well out of the mainstream. I think this requires some thinking outside the box — there has to be a way to counter it which doesn’t just come down to censorship.

3. Cruella - March 28, 2007

Hello girls!

As you may know I’ve been pushing the anti lad-mag agenda for some time now.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/4491298.stm
http://cruellablog.blogspot.com/2005/10/whats-wrong-with-lad-mags.html
http://cruellablog.blogspot.com/search/label/lad%20mags

On the issue of should we censor/should we allow free speech – I find this amazing that we’re still asking this question. We already do censor and we always have. We censor c*nt shots, porn involving those who appear to be under 16, violent porn and even swear words…

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6501439.stm

We also censor homophobia

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/music/3297623.stm

The question is not and never has been “should we bring in censorship?”, the question is “what is the appropriate level of censorship on this issue?”

There do seem to be those (in the US even more than the UK) who believe that once we censor anything we are effectively launching ourselves onto a slippery slope towards big brother style monitoring of every conversation we have. This is simply not the case. In fact those who demand loud enough are very successful at getting things censored.

I think banning child pornography and homophobia make a lot of sense (I’m a bit less fussed about swearing). Keeping these misogynist mags away from young eyes is a “no-brainer” for me. The only issue is how to get our voices heard.

4. Alexis Tančibok - March 28, 2007

Wow, what a fantastic post!

The observation about only white women has an interesting parallel in gay mags of a similar ilk – only white guys – or the “token” man of colour.

It also made me think of the disturbing experiment in the 60’s I think it was in the US where black children were offered the choice of a black doll or a white doll – the overwhelming majority chose the white one, because it was “prettier”. I wonder – do the black and asian lads here in the UK reading these mags come to the experience thinking the white girls are prettier, or is this a form of media inculturation?

There was a documentary – I think it was on channel Four – here in the UK not long ago that interviewed “lads” who were filming themselves having sex with young women with their mobile phones and passing the clips on to friends, and posting it on the net. What if any, link might there be to this behaviour and what they are seeing in lads mags advertised as appropriate (i.e. girls sending in their own photos, the stories etc.)?

Do these mags have adverts for escorts and other related services? If so – I bet many of the young women involved are somehow trafficked from E. and S.E. Europe, and are not English.

It would seem to me – and again I’m thinking off the cuff here – that this is linked not only with the way in which these lads view women – as subjugated for their pleasure – but also in connection with the fantasy element – leads to them purchasing (or nowadays viewing freely on the net) more explicit porn.

Now we are into questions of human rights, and suffering in relation to young women and girls in places like Poland, Russia, Thailand, etc. (I’ve blogged on this in a slightly different context at: http://gracecatholic.blogspot.com/2007/03/porn-suffering.html)

Perhaps – a resistence campaign is best designed around the idea that this particular media is intimately linked with the suffering of others,and human rights abuses?

5. Sue - March 31, 2007

I just discovered this blog and I congratulate you. I’ll be continuing to read it. I’m in Boston in the States, a writer / blogger nearly 60. I write about the involvement of older people in alternative sexualities – and about other elements of culture. As a long-time leftie, I love seeing people identifying as socialists – cool!. Thanks for what you’re doing,
Sue

6. AradhanaD - April 1, 2007

To be honest, I find women’s glossies much more offensive in the misogyny stakes: they impose their language and narratives on us much more than lads’ mags do.

That’s quite inaccurate if you take into consideration the lived lives of heterosexual women. I.e. the fact that the majority of heterosexual women from an early age cohabit with other males (whether that is in the family/friendships/other relationships). So because of this the narratives of lads mags are kind of ‘inescapable’. you are assuming here that women don’t interact with men who read this mags. you are also assuming that women aren’t shown these mags too. It also discounts the idea that women too may be looking at this mags regardless of their relation to men.

I don’t know about you – but I think there is a hell of a lot going on in your country (england?) that already has anti-porn activists engaging in those issues, and it seems to me – that you may have a lot more in common with them than you think. These criticisms of lad mags are not entirely ‘new’, though I genuinely appreciate that you have given the issue here a more ‘complicated’ analysis.

7. AradhanaD - April 1, 2007

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.

when adbusters made a new ‘sneaker’ to offer an ‘alternative’ to Nike’s – do you remember what the criticisms of it were? Offering ‘new alternatives’ without changing the bottomline narratives entirely especially in a capitalist system – is like putting a pretty bow on old packaging.

Here’s a ‘counter-argument’ to ‘repackaging’. http://www.harpercollins.ca/rs/excerpt.asp

When you say the above its with the assumption that women’s sexuality is outside the devaluation of ‘women’s labour’ in general. As though these things are somehow removed from other co-existing dominant ideas about women’s lives (gender relations, labour power, family, marriage, etc…). That sounds to me like there’s a lot of narratives to be changed – not just an ‘issue-specific’ narrative like sexuality. Because sexuality and especially ‘gendered’ sexuality do not operate outside of those other dominant discourses.

http://vids.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual&videoid=1358126465

Listen very closely to the feminist pornographers talking… It’s not about ‘women’ as a group, it’s about women as individuals. That’s the prescription offered as an alternative – and why does this alternative so much resemble mainstream porn? Obviously, this is one example – I’m sure there are other representations – but I don’t see anyone countering any of it.

8. Winter - April 1, 2007

Hi aradhanad

I don’t know about you – but I think there is a hell of a lot going on in your country (england?) that already has anti-porn activists engaging in those issues, and it seems to me – that you may have a lot more in common with them than you think. These criticisms of lad mags are not entirely ‘new’, though I genuinely appreciate that you have given the issue here a more ‘complicated’ analysis.

We’re honestly not claiming our analysis of lads’ mags is anything “new,” although I suppose we hope we developed on some of the existing criticisms a bit. All we wanted to do is post the results of our group discussion and it’s intended as a contribution to the discourse rather than a brand new intervention. Perhaps some people will find our thoughts useful; if so, we’ve achieved something. And we’re not saying we have nothing in common with other groups working on pornography (we have contacts with some of them), but if you get a group of feminists together to discuss any issue there’s going to be disagreement and different perspectives which we tried to acknowledge. We did agree that lads’ mags are a problem; where we really differed is in offering real feasible solutions to that problem.

That sounds to me like there’s a lot of narratives to be changed – not just an ‘issue-specific’ narrative like sexuality. Because sexuality and especially ‘gendered’ sexuality do not operate outside of those other dominant discourses

Yeah, I’m sure we’d agree with that and that’s really what we were saying when we said it was part of an old fashioned conservative narrative about women. It’s all about maintaining the status quo, but is presented as transgressive. We started the discussion from the basically radical feminist argument that the problem is structural and went from there.

But I realise I should have clarified that we were not talking about offering alternative pornographic narratives at all, although I can see how it could have been read that way! We were actually talking about the larger narratives about women which the mags reiterate. When we said “alternative narratives” we meant it in a much wider sense, for there are very few alternative narratives about women available in the mainstream at all and almost no alternative images of women outside this kind of model of femininity and sexuality.

9. Winter - April 1, 2007

The observation about only white women has an interesting parallel in gay mags of a similar ilk – only white guys – or the “token” man of colour.

Yeah, looking at how they take part in white supremacy provides another reading lens I think.

I wonder – do the black and asian lads here in the UK reading these mags come to the experience thinking the white girls are prettier, or is this a form of media inculturation?

We wondered about that too. Really we need a major survey looking into the readership, but I bet there would be a lot of resistance to that!

Perhaps – a resistence campaign is best designed around the idea that this particular media is intimately linked with the suffering of others,and human rights abuses?

Yes they do contain a lot of adverts for escorts and so forth. It would have to be a carefully constructed campaign based on real hard evidence, I think, because the lads’ mags have done a damn fine job of presenting themselves as “harmless fun” in a just keep saying it until it’s true kind of way. The public would need some convincing to see them as linked to human rights abuses, which is not to say that would be impossible.

10. Winter - April 1, 2007

Sorry, I should have said “Hi Alex” before launching in there!

11. Alexis Tančibok - April 6, 2007

Hi Winter,

I’m going to plop the thought you had here for the sake of convenience:

“Yes they do contain a lot of adverts for escorts and so forth. It would have to be a carefully constructed campaign based on real hard evidence, I think, because the lads’ mags have done a damn fine job of presenting themselves as “harmless fun” in a just keep saying it until it’s true kind of way. The public would need some convincing to see them as linked to human rights abuses, which is not to say that would be impossible.”

Hmmm. . . . two things jump at me here . . . you’ve pointed out something I had not considered and that is the idea that the lads mags have presented themselves as harmless fun – . . .when i sit & think about it, I realise that this is so true! They have, I think about the TV ad last year for . . . Nuts I think it was? With the “girlfriend” having to mow the grass and other “male” things whilst boyo lounged on the sofa reading the lads mag eating bon bons or whatever it was. . .

You also mentioned that the public would need convincing – “hard evidence” I’m not sure that that is the case actually – I think there is a degree of racism involved.

Most of these “escort” services are “staffed” by foreign women. We know this – there have been repeated reports in the news, and one need only walk through the red-light district in Soho to “SEE” it for yourself. Let’s not also forget the fact that the “lads” have a fun weekend out in the brothels of Praha, and other E. European countries where the flights, the beer, and the “rates” are cheap.

No, there’s PLENTY of evidence – hard facts, statistics etc. the trick is to present the issue so that it “links” what these guys are participating in with something close to their own consciousness – their sister, their mother, their nan or aunt even. People (emphasis here on “people”) who they would be sickened, or horrified to think would be used in the manner that they are themselves using other women.

What is more – I think too, that it is worth by-passing the lads all together and reaching the women in their community.


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