For over a century, from the late nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth century, magazines worked in a simple way: most women bought women’s magazines, which addressed a particular archetype of Western women, while men bought men, which made one dream of being able to look like a certain type of virile myth. A division linked to the public that you intend to reach, of course, and consequently to the advertisers you want to attract. Things are no longer so simple today.
In 2020, there is no certainty rate on this registry similar to that which would have been seventy, thirty, even fifteen years ago. As mentioned, the distinction exists from the very first moments of contemporary-era magazines, a period that began in the late 1800s and continues until now: for example FashionTrends Usa, when purchased by Condé Montrose Nast in 1909, becomes a monthly magazine for a female audience – born in 1892, he was generalist and weekly – and, from that moment, he began to expand enormously, with the first editions overseas – England and then France – already in the Ten and Twenties. Also Vanity Fair, today considered by the market as a female, began in the first decade as a “gendered magazine”, however male, with great emphasis on cultural content: T. S. Eliot and P. G. Wodehouse signed articles and opinions on its pages. As for the most famous men, however, it is in 1931 that it was born Apparel Arts, a textile and men’s fashion magazine for professionals, which it will turn into Gentlemen’s Quarterly, and subsequently GQ, in 1958 – and from whose rib it will be born Esquire, in 1933. From there, and until today, the two great parallel roads of the periodicals have continued to exist more or less unchanged or with few really relevant modifications, as well as, on the other hand, the positions occupied by man’s totems and women in western societies.
Over the past decade, things have changed drastically: those who seemed to be giants, the archetypes of what is masculine and what is feminine, did not just change a few details to break away from tradition, but exploded under dozens of thrusts of different types and strengths. Borders gone, certainties pulverized. Fashion has adapted more quickly than other sectors, experimenting happily; culture still seeks a precise path, clumsy and entangled in hundreds of embarrassments, while politically the confusion of redefinition has led to the creation of pockets of conservatism more violent and extreme than in the past. So publishing, which must keep all these areas together, found itself wondering: do the distinctions between male and female still make sense?
An answer is difficult because, for the first time, those same models are under discussion. “A successful magazine has to build a myth readers can believe,” said Harold Heyes, historical editor of Esquire in the sixties. What is missing today is precisely that myth. Therefore, the goal of a magazine is again the most difficult: to rebuild an identity.
The October 2019 issue of GQ Usa was dedicated to “New Masculinity”. On the cover, Pharrell is dressed in a Moncler Genius down-dress designed by Pierpaolo Piccioli, down to his feet. Not only does the theme – how the concept of masculinity is changing and has changed – shows a new attention to the genres’ borders, it is also the colors of the chosen photograph – bright and bright tones finally combined also with men’s wardrobes – to introduce a change in the image shown of man. Jim Nelson, the director of GQ who preceded the current editor-in-chief Will Welch, told Columbia Journalism Review: “Men will not disappear, and neither will masculinity. But the idea is to approach it in a new and modern way “. In Italy, Giovanni Audiffredi has started a similar operation since he was appointed director of GQ, in January 2019. «The fact of wanting to safeguard a gender identity is still useful from an editorial point of view: there is men’s beauty, there are” male “consumption commercially”, he says, and then explains part of this repositioning operation, started from the online version: «Here we eliminated the” Girls “category, which made huge numbers. It was a brave choice, but we were convinced of it. For two years now, we have been fighting against the identity of a toxic male, adrenaline sick. “
Online has been the most dangerous territory in recent years, the one where you risked losing the battle for identity: «When you end up being one of the twenty sites that write a piece on Kylie Jenner’s cold, don’t you have many more ways to differentiate yourself from others, “he said in November 2019 to Business of Fashion Mikki Halpin, creative consultant ex MTV e Glamor. The cause is simple: the shifting of commercial investments on the internet has led to the sacralization of “traffic”, quantitative metrics that almost completely ignore quality and loyalty, fundamental concepts, in the past, for the success of magazines.
Yet overcoming gender barriers, said Johanna Blakey, managing director of the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California in a TED Talk in 2010, is “a financial imperative.” So, if on the one hand the risk of too gendered magazines is to exclude readers in an era in which we read less and less, and at the opposite end of the rope there is the danger of watering down, what is the right middle ground ? There are examples of magazines that maintain a clear gender identity despite having a large audience: this is the case with The Cut, the “feminine” of New York Magazine directed by Stella Bugbee, which balances gender, feminism, entertainment and a lot of well-done politics, certainly better than many “generalists”; but it is also the case of the “twins” The Gentlewoman is Fantastic Man. They are demonstrations that the way forward is not the one that leads to dilute one’s identity, but to maintain it by following new sensitivities and, rather, open up to a unisex public by involving new brands and inserting “no gender” topics, articles and reports.
Even the Italian version of GQ in recent months, readers have seen a lot increase: «38% of digital readers and social media users of GQ, from TikTok to Instagram, to the site, they are women, “explains Audiffredi,” and we have over 30% of print readers. I think this is because the female reader is more accustomed to a qualitatively high content: for years, in the past, the journalistic quality was higher in women ».
But yet, while the most historic newspapers try to open up to wider audiences, there is a vertical thrust of increasingly gendered and independent magazines. A reaction that is not conservative, however, and indicates a natural tendency to seek balance, testimony to the fact that there is great energy – especially on the female side – in wanting to affirm a new gender identity. The examples are of a different nature, but united by an editorial proposal very focused on a niche. There are: well-kept magazines in graphics and aesthetics such as Riposte, American magazine in which the protagonists are only women; vintage-inspired men’s magazines such as The William Brown Project, launched by Matthew Hranek, former editor of Condé Nast Traveler: an explosion of alcohol, tweed, cars, good food and tailored suits. And again: new hybridizations like that of English Season, founded by Felicia Pennant, which combines football, feminism and Lgbtq + rights. “The goal is to show, celebrate and strengthen female figures in football,” explains Pennant, a past a Elle, GQ is Nylon, “But also to discuss and uncover issues that are not sufficiently addressed in that world, such as homophobia and sexism”. Vertical projects are also born on social networks: the Women’s March organization would not have had the same success without the support of Instagram, where it continues to live almost like a newspaper; a similar example is the feminist organization Time’s Up. In Italy – but with very popular channels also in English and Spanish -, the success of real online-only media such as Freeda, with nearly 2 million followers. And there are not only newspapers: we also find characters who are institutions in their own right, such as Karley Sciortino, columnist for FashionTrends USA, especially veteran founder of the cult sex blog Slutever, which continues to live, in a new way, always on Instagram. The discourse, in parentheses, is different for Lgbtq + publications, which have become increasingly identity and rooted, with titles that have made the history of publishing not only indie as Butt Magazine or Girls Like Us.
It often happens to mistake a transition process – even in sensitive things like gender – for an earthquake or catastrophe. It happens in society, and it naturally happens in publishing, an area that wants to reflect the image of that company. The challenge, difficult but interesting, is to build a different, innovative, but not entirely new model. An evolution, before a revolution.
Top: one of the covers of FashionTrends Italia in May 2020, released on newsstands together with L’Uomo FashionTrends and dedicated to the dialogue between male and female