Designing Magazines

Designing for the Sexes

A new glossy provides hope for understanding between the sexes.

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Magazines for the most part come with genders. While there has always been reading options for the neutered among us—National Geographic, The New Yorker and Ferret World come to mind—most magazines are targeted exclusively at the fairer or the coarser sex.

The reasons for this at first seem obvious—Cosmo and Maxim present an unbreachable divide: pink and purple v. navy and gray, makeup ’n’ fashion v. sports and cars, relationships and self-improvement v. beer ’n’ babes. But, such observations represent only the most superficial aspects of what defines gender-targeted literature these days. Men’s and Women’s magazines are in the most important ways, identical. At last, a publisher has noticed; and is trying to hit up on both sexes with a single title. His & Hers magazine, which debuted recently, is the first gender magazine aimed at both men and women. Of course, success is far from inevitable in publishing, but if the magazine succeeds we can expect a raft of copycat magazine’s all aimed at helping us just get along.

The roots of His and Hers, as well as the modern men’s magazine begin with Helen Gurley Brown’s Cosmopolitan. When Brown shifted the focus of her magazine from the kitchen to the bedroom in the 1970s, she was not only creating a magazine devoted to the female version (ala Sex in the City) of Lockeroom talk, she was also establishing the new softer standards for soft-core. Titillation so mild, and annealed with so many mundane interests mixed in, that it could be left out on the coffee table. She discovered the point at which public and private can comfortably coexist and in so doing succeeded where Hugh Hefner failed. No matter how many big-name authors he um, “richly rewarded” to appear between its pages, no one honestly ever saw Playboy as anything other than smut.

His&Hers Feature

The public/private comfort level is about the same for both sexes. Not only Have Marie Claire, Glamour and many others all followed Cosmo’s lead, but so have Maxim, FHM (For Him Magazine), Stuff, and, 7 years after the beginning of the “laddy mag” phenomenon, what continues to be an ever-increasing array of new men’s magazines.

The gender mags—male or female—have about the same mix of celebrity gossip and tips for living, require the same ninth grade reading level, and have about the same level of naughty.

An example: growing up in the 70s, I still remember a time my mother’s two favorite magazines (Family Circle and Good Housekeeping—her current favorites are Jane’s Defense Weekly and The Economist—go figure) ran virtually identical December covers– pictures of candy-crusted ginger-bread houses. Embarrassing but hardly surprising, both magazines were covering the same small area of domestic interest. In March of 2001, Vouge and FHM did the same thing–both featured a woman in shorts hugging her shirtless chest. In truth, FHM‘s model was wearing a frillier bottom, and had more of a “come hither” look than Vouge‘s, but, bottom line, both women were hot. Neither image would have looked out of place on the other magazine’s cover. Male or Female, nearly all of these magazines feature an image of a half-dressed babe, and at a distance of twenty paces they cannot be distinguished from one another.

But choice of cover image is not the only similarity. These magazines use similar colors (bright), identical typefaces (Big, beefy and san serif) and most significantly, identical coverlines (and corresponding articles) to pull in readers. From the evidence of these lines it can confidently be conclude that:

  • Both men and women want desperately to meet the opposite sex, so much so that they are willing to try hoaky lines. “The Cosmo Way to Meet a Man: 30 Genius Opening Lines” (Cosmopolitan) “Sex with Strangers: Pickup secrets that work every time” (Stuff for Men)
  • Both men and women fear they are inadequate. “Stud or Dud? Your sex skills analyzed” (FHM) “Your looks your body: what do men think?” (Marie Claire)
  • Once in a relationship, both women and men are more concerned with their partners than themselves. “Be His Best Ever in Bed Try These: What Men Won’t Ask For Out Loud But Secretly Wish For” (Glamour) “Pretzel Sex! 300 women share their favorite positions!” (Maxim)
  • Both men and women believe the mildly famous are majorly interesting. “Survivor’s Colleen Haskell takes on Hollywood” (Mademoiselle) “Survivor’s Amber Casts away her clothes!” (Stuff)
  • Both men and women are interested in fashion. “We Tried On (and On and On…) 612 Pairs of Jeans” (Glamour) “14 Pages of Fashion” (Razor)

In short, the same magic words would sell a glossy to both Billy-Jean King and Bobby Riggs, to George W. and Tipper Gore, or to Jane Fonda and Charleston Heston.

The seeds of His and Hers were sewn in 2002 when Cosmo and Maxim jointly published an article which declared the war between the sexes to be over—if the laddys and the ladies could share text and pictures, why not move in together?

In truth, the debut of His & Hers is a bit like a first, awkward teenage relationship. This initial attempt at editorial coupledom has all the earmarks–awkward, goofy, and a bit of an embarrassment. The sexual tension is visible on the cover–a sweet, but restrained kiss, and subdued colors–except for the type which is acid pink and purple. Inside, there are features on his and hers cooking, gift guides, “couplescope,” a q&a on dealing with relationship problems, a quiz, a couples fashion spreads, including one devoted to undies (which starts with an after-work strip tease), a piece on the joys of watching porno together, and couples makeovers. In short, all the usual components are there, except now you can share.

The biggest stumbling block for cooperative gender magazines is advertising. While the contents is substantially the same in men’s and women’s publications, ads are quite different. Is it realistic to expect that men won’t be embarrassed by tampon advertisements? or women will not become enraged by ads for DVD players that make incomprehensible yet pompous claims about sound quality? Does cheap booze mix with high fashion? Can Victoria share her secret with Captain Morgan? Here His and Hers soothes a lot of fears. The advertising seems to bounce gracefully from Nirvia to Nirvia for Men, from small expensive watches for women to large expensive watches for men. pricey gowns on one page, pricey suits on the next.

Of course, the danger as CosManpolitan is launched and FHM Magazine is replaced by FH&HM, is that we will lose the comfort of a soothing gender-affirming literary oasis. How can we complain that “they just don’t get it” when it’s so clear that they do?