Details, the U.S. men's fashion and culture magazine, displayed a curious self-loathing this month. Its split-personality issues are typical of a media segment that still thinks itself basically ridiculous.
The article, which is in fact quite amusing, is called 63 Signs You May Be A Pretentious Tool. The explanatory subheading in itself summarizes the terrible contortions modern men's magazines must go through in order to satisfy their conflicting requirements both to seriously evaluate the aesthetic and to be masculine: "Having taste doesn't mean you aren't an a-hole. In fact, the more meticulously you curate your life, the more of a thoroughly modern douche bag you become." The following 63 attributes are a compendium of exactly the kind of thing Details magazine has been exhorting you to pay attention to for the last 27 years: You have your ties taken in; you host brunch; you think about the lighting at restaurants; you have sage growing on your windowsills; your stapler comes from a design store; you own eye cream and you use it; you "have a guy" at the cheese shop; you have recommended a tailor. … You get the idea. It's not clear whether Details is mocking itself or has merely forgotten the hundreds of pages on eye creams it has published over the decades.
It's instructive, too, to try to analyze exactly what is meant by "pretentious tool" in this context. There are a couple of different things being mocked here, and they are not necessarily related. The first unsaid thing is the effeminate. Obviously if "you have a facialist, and you see her more than your parents" (No. 20), then you're funny because you're a - well, we don't mock gays in Details because we know that an awful lot of gay guys read us, in fact we started to be known mostly as a gay magazine in the 1990s, but that's the joke, isn't it? The fact that there is a photo accompanying the story of an obviously gay guy in a jokey outfit underlines the fear.
But is a gay man, in men's magazine terms, necessarily a tool? Not at all: The latter is, in the conventions of the medium, usually an overly confident guy, a guy who is too full of himself, a flashy egomaniac with too much cologne and gel, a guy who unbuttons his shirts too low and wears huge Chanel sunglasses. The tool of the stereotype is actually not sensitive enough: He's too straight. Compare the photos of guys on the groundbreaking website hotchickswithdouchebags.com , and you'll see that stereotype confirmed: The 'bag is usually overly muscled and tattooed, and has a shaved head. He's a working-class club guy, not an aesthete. Compare Details's own use of the term on Page 116 of the same issue, where a cokehead hip-hop producer is described as wearing "oversize, oh-my-God-what-a-douche-bag-aviators."
And as for curating your environment, the other articles in Details this month include Cool, Low-Maintenance Indoor Plants ("How do you choose the right plant species for your space?"), The Germiest Places In Your Life, and what to drink with fish and chips ("Because the dish is typically made with delicate fish, I'd pair it with a wheat beer, like Ayinger's crisp Brau-Weisse…").
Details has to tread a very fine line, as do all the men's magazines from Playboy to Maxim, between embarrassingly effeminate and embarrassingly macho. Or rather, the lines between three quadrants: gay, jerk and sensitive-cultured-just-outdoorsy-enough-self-effacing-guy's-guy. The third quadrant is what we're all throwing darts at. (And bear in mind I'm in this business myself, as a co-creator of an online men's magazine with a similar mandate.) It's amazing how blurry that target is. What Details is admitting here is the ridiculousness of the pursuit. Worrying about manliness is in itself unmanly.
Shopping, of course, is unmanly too, which is an even more fundamental problem for publications whose income derives entirely from advertising. The push to make men more sensitive to the aesthetics of their environment is not just a social/sexual movement, it's a capitalist one. Guys just don't buy enough crap. There's no point in advertising it to them if they're not going to buy it. So trying to crack open guys' interest in buying crap is the great quest of the marketing industry right now: It's the great undiscovered new world of consumer potential. Guys are half the population and they have more than half the money. If someone manages to tap that vein, it will be like striking oil in Texas.
This is why I am asked a couple of times a year to participate in some panel or focus group on "How to market crap to guys" (although it's not usually phrased like that) and I find I have very little of value to contribute to the discussion. My only advice is not to try. (Unless you're selling booze, entertainment, cars or electronics: Even the other big-ticket items we may pay for - the refrigerator, the vacation - we may not have actually chosen.) As long as the very magazines trying to sell us stuff make us feel guilty for taking an interest in it, little is going to change.