28 January 2009

Essay: The Foundations of the Male Consumer

Image courtesy of Flickr.

“Much of what the modern world deems appropriate sex roles is embedded in a nutshell dichotomy – men produce and women shop” – Kenon Breazeale

“The proper study of mankind is man…but the proper study of markets is woman” – Advertisement in Printer’s Ink (1929)

Our contemporary era is one of mass consumerism and ostensibly concurrent obsolescence. The very moment the latest consumer good is made available for general sale, people seem to look towards the next upgraded version. One is taught from a young age that only the latest piece of marketed gadgetry, clothing or hyped item will gain one the validation of one’s friends or peers. As a result, the world of advertising and the angling for that widest range of consumers looks, even by the unknowing observer, as a ruthless industry.

It is a curious truth that the advertising myth of the early twentieth century still seems to exist in the mind of many today - that of men producing and women consuming. Indeed this dichotomous relationship between the sexes has long been the target of feminist scholars, trying to break down and understand from whence this notion came into being. However a somewhat more modern and complex issue is that of the creation of the male consumer audience and creation of the modern masculine identity.

From its inception in 1933, Esquire magazine, sought to create a new arena for the privileged male in the form of consumerist consumption. However during a time when the magazine industry was saturated with literature aimed at the middle class housewife, Esquire was first charged with actually having to carve a masculine niche in the market.

Traditional historical analysis tends to hold that the modern masculine socio-sexual identity came as a result of magazines such as Playboy, which proposed desire instead of responsibility as the main characteristic of the bourgeois male. It is said to lie in the fifties revolt by American men against work and the matriarchal authority, as definers for their identity. Historians argue that, prompted by the post war boom in industry and economy, the timing was ideal for the forming of the male consumer market. However one view is that it was actually the Depression that allowed for the ideological work that redefined and reshaped attitudes concerning masculinity, desire and consumption. The modern commercial culture actually had its foundations in the 1930s.

Indeed the fact that the landscape of advertising and consumerism was formed in the wake of the Depression makes this essay all the more relevant in the current economical climate. A basic understanding of the recession we are in is most probably in order at this point to put into context the advertising shift of the 1930s. Simply put, the global market can be broken down into two main forces, that of supply and demand. The recession as we are in today was not, oddly enough, created by a lack of supply. Rather it is the lack of demand that has wreaked economic havoc. Without factoring in interest rates, typical wages and other outside influences, there has basically been a holding back of spending despite high supply. One can apply this simple analogy to the Wall Street Crash, where a vast number of shares were quickly put up for sale, with no buyers to keep the rates up. As such one notes that many high street retailers and even the world governments are slowly trying to tease the consumer back into the stores.

This was indeed the case in the thirties, where feeling the need to revive demand in the market, governments decided to try and shift attention from the production of goods to the consumer. They believed they had to encourage the marketing industry to develop new theories and strategies in order to efficiently target the public. As such the leading economists and industry men actually collaborated with the advertising industry to create a pseudoscience known as “consumption engineering”. This collaboration helped to create a logic, still in place today, that the best profit lies in constantly organising taste in new ways.

In order to revive corporate America, the new consumer basis had to be manipulated. Esquire is actually one of the earliest and clearest examples of this new marketing conscious. The magazine was inevitably inspired in its inception by the impact of the Depression on the traditional bourgeois sex roles. When the twenties habits of consumption during the Boom were rudely crashed into the Bust, the early thirties were faced with massive unemployment. This condition led to a number of middle classed married women being brought into the workforce. Social commentators were quick to point out the result of this change in the workforce led to the diminished male self-esteem. There was quite the dislocation of masculine self-respect in the general bourgeois conscious due to the change to antiquated sex roles. And it was this “loss” of sorts that Esquire decided to manipulate in order to form the new marketable male identity.

The Roosevelt buzzword of the moment was that of “leisure”. The concept of leisure had been formed in the 1920s and the market realised that by commodifying this free time could lead to consumer spending. Indeed when alerting advertising agencies as to the first issue, the promotional booklet for Esquire was careful to use this keyword:

“Men have had leisure thrust upon them. Now they’ve got it, they must spend it somehow…What more opportune occasion for the appearance of a new magazine – a new kind of magazine – one that will answer the question of What to do? What to eat, what to drink, what to wear, how to play, what to read – in short a magazine dedicated to the improvement of the new leisure”

Esquire definitively sought to become the first ever editorial magazine to appeal to the male consumer. In order to fully appreciate how ground breaking a decision this was, one needs to really understand just how rigidly linked to the female sex consumption had become during the 1920s. The magazines of the age dedicated themselves to the presumption that the socially appropriate role of women was that of the consumer and educated shopper.

Articles and books at the time in the advertising circle often spoke of women as the crucial market force and the power of their buying force. Advertisers and writers sought to link the ideal of femininity and consumption as an example of the progressive modern lifestyle. As such one is able to understand how prevalent the mythology of the female consumer was in the publishing industry. Indeed the majority of magazines at the time were comfortable in printing articles that talked of educated shopping as a responsible sign of femininity. This strong promotion of the female consumer obviously had quite the affect on advertising, yet also as we shall see, opened the average housewife to rather brutal satire.

In retrospect, it is most likely easy for one see the niche of advertising to men, given the enormous profits of marketing to the women of the time. Curiously enough, both of Esquire’s founders, David Smart and William Weintraub actually came from backgrounds of advertising menswear as opposed to journalism or publishing. During the 1930s, the average menswear consumer base was seen one of the most reliable and highly profitable markets, and as such the duo actually sought to launch a magazine solely as a vehicle for menswear advertisements.

When looking back at Esquire’s beginnings, it is odd to see that the editorial content was actually of little importance to the founders, rather something of an afterthought. It was the young copywriter who would later become the editor until the 1940s, Arnold Gingrich, who actually came up with the core concept. Gingrich was quick to rally the magazine behind what he saw as the "neglected" male, writing in 1933:

“It is our belief, in offering Esquire to the American male, that we are only getting around at last to a job that should have been done a long time ago – that of giving the masculine reader a break. The general magazines, in the mad scramble to increase the woman readership that seems to be so highly prized by national advertisers, have bent over backwards in catering to the special interests and tastes of the feminine audience. This has reached the point where the male reader is made to feel like an intruder on gynaecic [sic.] mysteries”

This excerpt in itself covers the crucial dynamic of the emerging magazine, a simultaneous exploitation and denial of women.

Rather oddly, Esquire actually appropriated the women’s magazine formula of the 1920s by creating a “lifestyle” magazine, which served as a vehicle for advertisers to convert the reader into a consumer. The writing sought to form what the new embodiment of the masculine upper middle class identity was. Unfortunately the problem the writers faced, was that many of the topics the magazine would contain: cooking, interior décor, fashion and so on, were firmly associated with the middle class housewife.

sought to detach itself from femininity in every article, and by doing so allowing that very same female consumer arena to open up to its male readers. The formula of the articles in those first few years was clear and concise - the idiotic woman who was in control of the house and home finances was undermining masculine American standards. Every article under Gingrich from 1933 to 1946, whether it were on food, drink, décor or etiquette sought to nullify what they saw as the female dominance, and at the same time create the illusion that women were wrong in all aspects of life.

Women had to be denigrated and put into their rightful place under the watchful eye of the educated middle class man. Esquire’s writers sought to promote the pre-existing misogynistic cultural arguments through the vein of a gendered idea of what good and bad taste were. The supporters of modernism since the late 19th century linked the clean, functional and machine based aesthetic and design with masculinity. This ideal was dichotomously opposed by the ornamented and overly decorated feminine tastes. These opposed ideals in aesthetic actually drew upon a historical bias from the eighteenth century, relating female tastes with the corrupt excesses of the ancien regime and as a result, of dangerous political power. Yet contradicting this very idea, women’s attitudes to food and drink were seen as positively Spartan.

promoted the idea that women were opposed to sensuality and the delights of the flesh, and as a result were highly suspicious of all indulgence. They linked this to the desire of all women to apply pressure and control to areas of harmless pleasure and masculine delights. The writers sought to reinforce this mythology, and by fusing the notions of temperance and cold social beliefs with the women’s rights movement, Esquire helped to promote the historical stereotype of the man hating, prudish and extreme moralist female.

By using these negative feminine models the magazine was able to discuss the arguments of the time regarding the economy. It regarded an improving of the economy as related to tolerant, sophisticated masculinity in all aspects. As such Esquire’s complete reworking of gender, taste and consumption helped to redefine the entire periodical market. By using the women’s magazine formula, whilst simultaneously attacking so called feminine ideals, Esquire helped to create the belief that women had no legitimate role to play, in essentially what was to become the “men’s world”.

Attacking what Esquire believed to be a world of hyper domestic femininity, the writers wanted to recreate the masculine domestic scenario and essentially demote women. Writing monthly they sought to convey the notion that matriarchal dominance in the home was a problem in need of solving, and subtly suggesting that they would educate the reader on how to best do so. It was no doubt this sense of reaffirmation and creation of the dominant masculine profile that helped the magazine to early success.

In order to reform the socio-sexual relationship with women, the magazine had to represent them somehow within their pages. By doing so, they would open up a legitimate space for the consuming male. This was mainly done through the use of their pictorial content, where the male was given power and control through the use of the sexual gaze, done to the standards of the modern bourgeois tastes.

The text of the magazine sought to displace the idea of the consuming housewife, in order to open the arena for the consuming male. However if they were to do so, there was a danger that this new consuming male may simply be seen as a househusband, so to speak. As such the pictorial content sought to deny all associations with femininity and fully negate any homosexual notions. Indeed Esquire’s founders were terrified at its inception that their attention to clothing, food and décor may appear to be targeted at the homosexual male. It therefore needed to be absolutely clear that women were the natural interest of its readership, and use the images to reaffirm the heterosexuality of the newly emerging male consumers.

The magazine was no doubt one of modern culture’s most influential and hardest efforts to use the objectified female as a signifier of clear heterosexuality. Esquire believed they had to feature erotically coded images of women and had to present them in such a way that the readers felt reassured in consuming them.

Previous to the thirties, the pictorial content of magazines and periodicals performed an exclusively illustrational function. The technology was such, that images were often small and solely for representing the most important parts of the link. However prompted by an improvement in printing techniques, images during the thirties could for the first time be consumed on their own. This therefore allowed for a distance between the text and visual content, which Esquire was to prove quite apt in doing.

There was however something of a dilemma for Esquire, how could one balance the line between a respectable and artistic magazine, as opposed to a salacious piece of private reading? In order to allow sexually charged images to both appear in the magazine, yet in a sense be rendered invisible, so to speak, the editors carefully crafted a new line based on a set of essential oppositions. There was to be the opposing forces of text and visuals, and that of the male subject and the female object, which were used in a formulaic manner for each issue.

were clever in their use of the magazine cover in order to prepare its readership for the overall tone of the magazine and to set up its basic socio-sexual standing. Seasonally themed covers featured puppet figures, led by Esquire’s trademark character, Esky. Esky was most recognisable from his huge protruding eyes, which gawked in every cover, at the breasts of his surrounding female companions. This cover design was to underpin Esquire’s stance that the accepted social understanding between the sexes, was of that between the male consciousness and female anatomy.

Esquire were specific in their use of cartoons to promote their idea of social normalcy. They promoted their version of the Freudian concept of “scopophilia”, quite literally the joy of looking, predominantly applied to the masculine voyeuristic gaze. The magazine would run roughly five cartoons per issue, in which were contained various scenarios where men could possibly encounter naked women. They were all hierarchical in their scenario, the male being the dominant consuming figure, and the female, the unsuspecting nude object. One of Esquire’s favourite scenarios was the lustful look of the artist on his nude model, thereby almost mocking their own features covering fine art.

Writing in her book The Female Nude, Lynda Nead states that in Western culture, the nude image can be distinguished between two models: the fine arts versus pornography. The idea of the male gaze was crucial to how Esquire would build its basis for such imagery, and in actuality it embraced both sides of the fence. The arts were presented in almost every issue through artist profiles. These ranged from the likes of Salvador Dali and the Surrealists, to the wonderfully colourful Fauves. By doing so, Esquire was able to justify the inclusion of the artistic nude. This was sharply contrasted by the inclusion of a solely sexual female representation, most importantly, that of the pin-up.

The legacy of the pin-up in Esquire magazine, started under the reins of artist George Petty. His airbrush drawings were inherently fetishized in their portrayal of women, and their importance in the magazine was to ever increase. By the 1940s, the illustrations that had been a single page were now centrefold, expecting to be the main draw or even torn out by the reader. These Petty girls, as they were known, tended to adhere to what is now quite a stereotypical formula: blonde with a large bosom, small waist and long legs, essentially the archetype of Caucasian erotic appeal.

Thus one can see that Esquire actually presented within their magazine two ways of seeing, that of aesthetic contemplation and that of consuming erotic desire. However what Esquire had to do was to make the sexually provocative images a part of a sophisticated consumption and form of acceptable masculine recreation.

’s monthly female pictorial content was specifically designed to map their educative boundaries concerning art, sex, humour and life. Women were presented in such a way as to tutor the reader as to the appropriate position to assume when looking at women. In order to make even the erotic more acceptable and high brow, so to speak, Esquire’s illustrators were keen to use a variety of styles and aesthetics that were recognizable as current leading art styles when portraying sexually coded women. By representing women in an assumed artistic fashion, it helped to transform the gazing reader from voyeur into connoisseur. In order to make sure that this was how Esquire was interpreted, the writers made sure to throw in frequent pieces on censorship and nudity in art.

One of the most iconic and telling pictorial spreads of early Esquire ran for eight issues in the 1940s entitled “Types of American Beauty”. Esquire’s choice of female presentation in this spread was to set to tone for many future issues and even the Playboy spreads of the fifties. The spread was based on the notion of women being stripped down into “types”, indeed a staple for magazine illustration to this very day. The premise was to represent each woman as a stereotype, allowing the male reader to judge and learn her character and personality solely via her appearance.

The authoritative text within the pages of Esquire, which sought to displace the feminine, was complimented in a way by the erotically charged illustrative content. It sought to portray the idea that men did not need the power to dominate women politically; rather they could use the control of fetishized pleasure over women, which was tutored to them by Esquire.

Although historians are content to credit Playboy with first organising the exploitation of the consuming masculine desire, it is easy to understand how this can actually be seen as something of a legacy from Esquire. In its very essence, Playboy employed the Gingrich formula rather than create anything new. They packaged lifestyle articles alongside erotically charged feminine visuals, in order to reaffirm the sexuality of the audience and simultaneously open them up to fulfilling the role of the consumer. Esquire’s legacy was of quite literally having pioneered the fabrication of the male consumer through the subjugation of women both through text and pictorial content. Indeed, it is not hard for one to draw parallels between Esquire’s pioneering formula and the design of men’s magazines today.

Selective bibliography

Berger J., Ways Of Seeing (London: Penguin, 1972)

Bowlby R., Just Looking (New York, 1985)

Breazeale K., ‘In Spite of Women: “Esquire” Magazine and the Construction of the Male Consumer’ in Vol. 20, No. 1 of Signs (Autumn 1994)

Ehrenreich B., The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment (London, 1984)

Friedan B., The Feminine Mystique (London: Penguin, 1992)

Nead L., The Female Nude: Art, Obscenity and Sexuality (London, 1992)

Rutherford J.W., Selling Mrs. Consumer (University of Georgia Press, 2003)

Stuart E., Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of Consumer Culture (New York, 1976)

Would anyone wishing to use part of this essay please email me first.

Currently playing: Go On Girl - Neyo / Cosy In The Rocket - Psapp



  1. great essay.. intriguing look into the world of the male geared magazine.

  2. You're amazing. This was incredibly thought-provoking an insightful. I was particularly intrigued by the idea of "educated shopping as a responsible sign of femininity." I know this is an essay about male consumption, but this lodged in my brain. I feel like we've swung 'round in the opposite direction now: Women are flighty, impulsive, and not-to-be-trusted with large, important purchasing decisions. Maybe male-centric magazines played a role ... or maybe female purchasing was ALWAYS limited to dish soap, bread, and clothespins: Smaller, home-related items.

    Thanks for this.

  3. are you serious?

  4. i'm gonna need to print this out and sit with it and a cup of coffee over lunch
    but impressed i am at your work ethic


  5. It was nice to read about the history of Esquire. Thanks for the paper. :)

    It's got some great literary names under its belt, too. David Sedaris published a lot of his works there (my personal favorite being "Six to Eight Black Men"), and John Berendt served as an associate editor for a good number of years as well as being an avid contributor. (I'm hopelessly southern in my love for "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.")

  6. We learned a ton about Esquire in my public relations class, so it was nice to see your take on it.
    This was well written, and thought provoking.
    I also think the issue of male consumerism is vastly overlooked, so I feel like I came out of reading this with new insight and knowledge :)
    Thanks, dear.

  7. Hey i love your post!, you have a good eye for fashion.
    Check my blog out, its also a fashion blog, if you like can you please follow? thanks =[

    Much Love,
    -XX SeanGarrette.

  8. you wrote that? that is great, great look at men's world/consumer!! nice post!

  9. Fantastic essay, sometimes I leave your blog thinking, 'wow that boy knows how to write'

    Really great insight to something I've not really given much thought to!

  10. Amazing essay. You are truly gifted at writing:)

  11. wow, I wish I could write that well
    good job ;)

  12. Wow, this was so deep and educational. It kinda makes Esquire sound like the devil to me...

  13. Amazing essay, you definitely know your stuff! You're obviously very talented at writing :D

  14. awesome piece, i need to sit and read it all! x

  15. WOW. You're simply amazing!! :)

  16. really impressive. I loved reading it.

  17. this is unbelievable. i'm in love with your blog even more now.

    Just like women, men had to fight for "equality," so to say. our's might be less major then the females, but if past men didn't break the boundery.. i'd be lost without fashion, and magazines.

  18. I'm looking forward to printing and reading this with my coffee on the way to work tomorrow am. =]

    and thank you!

  19. The more I read your blog the more I like it!

    And i love these pin up pics by the way, simply beautiful.


  20. this is fantastic- a real credit to you! did you do this just for leisure?

    i loved the bit about 'men producing and women consuming' which i suppose is a bit stereotypical. although i dont want it to become a 'mans world', fashion IS becoming more open towards the male market.

    i thoroughly enjoyed reading this, again, you should be so pleased with yourself! i'm all inspired...


  21. Ok I'm at work so I can't sit down and engrose myself in your essay, as much as I want to. but I love the inclusion of the pin up pics, old school! xx

  22. wow. amazing essay...and you have a great voice. people seem to be so focused on male and women shopping habits and consumer trends that they tend to forget one very important demographic - the tweens and teens. honestly, they are a force to be reckoned with.

  23. I didn't know this about Esquire! Your writing is even more polished and lovely than ever, DK!

    Love those pinup drawings, too...

    Have a fab weekend, darling!


  24. This is the longest post i've ever read on any blog and i think u did an amazing job u shld write for magazines pal...for real this is some gq , Details kinda piece :o)

  25. Hun, I didn't comment earlier because I had to read this more than once (remember I'm not an English spoken).
    Also as a social scientist I had to think about what you've writen.
    This is a great essay, focusing some points and being provokative (?) and insightful.
    Great study indeed, congratulations, darling.

    Have a nice weekend


  26. Ahh, I read it all! Much earned kudos for your dissertation on Esquire. I had no idea about the legacy and influence. I forget how driving the male consumer can be on the market today, so it's really interesting to know where some of the roots came from.

    peace&love, nicole.

  27. Thanks for this amazingly well researched essay. I learned a lot and am going to look up some of the books in your bibliography.

  28. A nice topic for reading... thanks for sharing the information with us it’s really appreciable...
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