Huge eyes angling to transfix passersby, a woman beckons from the newsstand, her pretty face pretty large, overwhelming the March cover of Maxim magazine. Connoisseurs of celebrity cheesecake will recognize the model as Candice Swanepoel, but the extreme intimacy of the close-up and of the pose—the woman fairly feral, snarling a life-size lip, nibbling a nimble fingertip, leveling a gem-hard gaze—has been successfully engineered to provoke general curiosity. The cover line says, “COME CLOSER,” which reads first as an impossibility, given that, again, Swanepoel is right up in your mug. Then the cover line nudges the mind toward the rudiments of a bawdy joke—a double entendre that, in concert with the title, may inspire a nasty flashback to the mid-’90s, and the dawn of the era of the lad mag.
In 1995 the English publishing mogul Felix Dennis founded Maxim, a central text of lad culture. What was the lad? He was a bloke soaked in lager at a football match. He was, academics suggest, a reaction against the feminism—and the flannel-soft masculine sensitivities—ascendant in the popular culture of the time. He was a bro before the bro knew his name. He liked a bird with a set of big bristols. He was an Oasis record in human form, and his taste in glossy monthlies ran to Stuff and Loaded and FHM and most of all Maxim. A U.S. edition launched in 1997, pushing a mix of celebrity idolatry, sports coverage, consumer electronics, and B-list D-cup cleavage to the tune of a circulation of 2.5 million.
Dennis sold his U.S. magazines in 2007. Which was shrewd timing. The financial collapse didn’t much help a publishing industry already rocked by the Internet—and its ripples must have had at least a small bit of influence on standards of masculinity so that the luster of laddish values dimmed. Maxim endured a bad slump, and last year the new ownership decided that its vision of machismo needed to be refreshed. The March Maxim marks the official debut of new boss Kate Lanphear, whose inaugural editor’s letter describes the challenge of renovating the magazine’s raison d’etre “for an era when glossy pages are increasingly being upstaged by smartphones, and silicone-filled pinups have ceded the limelight to a more authentic, self-possessed—if no less gorgeous—generation of women.”
Oh, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. The grown man at the newsstand hasn’t yet scanned the editor’s letter because he hasn’t picked up the magazine because he is not necessarily eager to be seen reading the thing because, remember, this is a magazine that once accompanied an NFL season preview with photographs of cheerleaders on trampolines (“Clap Your Hands and Say Whoa”). A man of a certain age and a certain sensibility—OK, OK, I mean me—would consider the revamp of Maxim to be a smashing success if the magazine merely stopped short of inspiring embarrassment for all involved. I’m pleased to report that it’s much more un-bad than that—a brightly exploitative response to the current moment in American masculinity.
“COME CLOSER,” says the cover, further promising that on Page 98, we will “meet the most desirable woman in the world.” Here is Swanepoel, photographed by Gilles Bensimon as she variously cavorts on a beach and caresses a mango. The gist of the photo spread is cute; these are soft beauty shots, not bold flashes of brazen glamour or sex. The pictorial is dignified, justified, accompanied by a page of text topped with the byline of the founding editor of the feminist Hairpin, Edith Zimmerman, one of many new Maxim writers whose names will be familiar to readers who do not move their lips when they read. The new Maxim includes a think piece on butts by Maureen O’Connor (a regular contributor to New York magazine’s lady blog, the Cut), a Jenny Eliscu profile of the punk band Fat White Family, a Rick Bragg tone poem about Haitian rum, and an existential-sentimental Andre Dubus III mini-memoir on the theme of the issue (“Raw”). Perhaps most notably, it also features a book excerpt in which Neil Strauss atones for having degenerated from a talented music writer into the author of a best-selling pickup manual. The turn of events Strauss describes—coming to realize that his conquests were the misdeeds of a sleaze and taking action to improve himself—seems to mirror the magazine’s own rehabilitation.
Where the new Maxim’s attitude toward sex is agreeably contemporary in its non-grossness, its approach to violence is classic, a call back to the vibes of 1950s adventure magazines and the themes of ancient Greek hexameter. Here, spearfishing is hailed as “one of the most honest and physically demanding forms of hunting” as if spiritual “authenticity” were a measure of the sport’s extremity; here, the word savage gets play in both a story about elite Marines in Vietnam and an as-told-to-by Mike Tyson piece praising the ruthlessness of boxers from the former Soviet Union; here, a gear page declares that “only the strong (and slightly psychotic)” are fit to handle a long-range crossbow in a tone implying that psychosis might be an interesting character trait.
This vicarious viciousness is, I guess, a reasonable way of directing hormonal energy. Of which the Maxim reader has plenty. When the magazine was in its prime, it had pretty much the youngest reader of any major publication not named YM. Today, you can calculate the age and collective identity of the Maxim audience by weighing its relationship with automobiles, and fantasies about them, against those of the other men’s glossies. Shall we compare? The current Esquire, with Will Smith on the cover, alongside a tease for a Carrot Top profile that will keep Harold Hayes spinning in his grave all month, has a sturdy service package on the new “golden age” of trucks (“really, even car guys are driving them”). The current GQ, with Kobe Bryant on the cover and an excellent rendering of MRA creepiness in the feature well, is almost not kidding when it sticks the headline “Bring on the Midlife Crisis” above a piece on a new Mercedes coupe. The current Men’s Journal goes ahead and puts that Mercedes on the cover, and it puts both technical and sociological savvy into a review of a Chevy Colorado. The current Details, with Ansel Elgort on the cover and a serene refusal to get hung up on its sexual orientation, has a Lexus ad and a Cadillac ad and an editorial preview of the 2016 Acura NSX. And Maxim? Well, there’s a blurb about “the 100-MPH radio-controlled car” and an ad in which someone seems to be driving a Toyota Corolla to a Holi festival.
The March 2015 cover of Maxim is in dialogue—directly, even if unintentionally—with the March 1965 cover of Esquire, a George Lois number where Virna Lisi pretended to drag a safety razor across the shaving cream slathering her face. The vintage cover promoted a piece about the rise of feminism and “the masculinization of the American woman,” and half a century later, the chicks have come home to roost, one would like to joke, if such a pun is still permissible, which probably it isn’t, because the whole point here is times have changed. (In 1965, Lisi starred opposite Jack Lemmon in How to Murder Your Wife, and no one batted an eye at the title.) We are witnessing, if not precisely the feminization of the American men’s magazine, then certainly the feminist redecoration of a few outdated rooms in its headquarters. Maxim’s hiring of Lanphear is of a piece with GQ’s bringing on Jezebel alumna Lindy West as a culture writer and with Playboy.com’s posting a pro-woman flowchart headlined “Should You Catcall Her?” A woman’s touch clearly suits the postmodern man cave.
The only truly embarrassing aspect of this otherwise respectable Maxim is the back-page crossword puzzle. Titled “Let’s Make Her-Story!” the puzzle proves insultingly clumsy in its attempt to “test your knowledge of prominent ladies and female-friendly concepts.” 1 Across—Playboy Bunny turned legendary feminist; 29 Across—Had a certain mystique; 34 Down—Widely considered the “sluttiest” Golden Girl. Lanphear’s thinking here riddles me, but I understand the big picture. The editor’s letter suggests that beauty is “also in the eye of the beheld” and insists that Candice Swanepoel, minimally made-up and fully self-possessed, “is a perfect choice to kick off a whole new chapter for Maxim.” The new Maxim manboy isn’t just supposed to ogle his fantasy woman. He’s supposed to make eye contact. That’s one small step for lads.