Many women find ‘lad mags’ demeaning but their sentiments are often poo-pooed; that is, until the release of shocking new research from the United Kingdom. Vivian Warby finds out if the report resonates locally.
Most men who read ‘lad mags’, a term used in the UK for men’s magazines such as FHM, see them as harmless, ironic and generally good, clean fun. But new research has found that these publications could be legitimising hostile sexist attitudes.
While South African men’s magazines are not nearly as risqué at their foreign counterparts, gender activist and executive director of Tswaranang Legal Advocacy Centre, Lisa Vetten, believes the lad mag market, the South African media and advertising world, in general, could go a long way in creating more progressive images of women, and male and female relationships.
The UK study, by psychologists from Middlesex University and the University of Surrey, found that most people who took part in the study could not differentiate between descriptions of women taken from lad mags and comments about women made by convicted rapists.
The research (due to be published in the British Journal of Psychology) also revealed that most men who took part in the study identified more with the language expressed by the convicted rapists than with quotes from lad mags.
The researchers also asked a separate group of women and men, aged between 19 and 30, to rank the quotes on how derogatory they were, and to try identify the source of the quotes. Men and women rated the quotes from lad mags as somewhat more derogatory, and could categorise the quotes by source little better than chance.
Dr Miranda Horvath and Dr Peter Hegarty – who did the research – argue that the findings are consistent with the possibility that lad mags normalise hostile sexism, by making it seem more acceptable when its source is a popular magazine.
“As the term ‘lad mags’ is used, it would include FHM but not Playboy. Playboy is pornographic and includes full female nudity – lad mags don’t. It’s important to understand that lad mags are ‘mainstream’ to understand the research. Porn and lad mags have traditionally had different status,” says Hegarty.
Hegarty, of the University of Surrey’s Psychology Department, adds: “There is a fundamental concern that the content of such magazines normalises the treatment of women as sexual objects.
Photo: Dr Peter Hegarty
“We are not killjoys or prudes who think that there should be no sexual information and media for young people. But are teenage boys and young men best prepared for fulfilling love and sex when they normalise views about women that are disturbingly close to those mirrored in the language of sexual offenders?”
He adds that young men should be given credible sex education and not have to rely on lad mags as a source of information as they grow up.
Counselling psychologist in Bryanston, Johannesburg, Brian Blem, who specialises in working with men as well as couple counselling, says it is important to question whether South African magazines are promoting a positive and respectful attitude to women or reinforcing women as sex objects. “This is primarily a concern as young men look to magazines for information and magazines may be reinforcing a stereotype that is not healthy,” he says.
Blem says that South Africa, because of its background, is fairly conservative. “The prevalence of different religions in communities sets a sort of standard, and stands as a barrier to a more permissive and liberal outlook. But we can’t overlook the fact that we are more open to the world and being bombarded by television, magazines and the internet.
“We need to negotiate this responsibility as individuals but the media also has a very big role to play here. Young men are quite open to being influenced by the media. The media has to look at itself and be held accountable for the imagery and the messages they are putting out there,” he says.
Vetten says that when she has spoken to media houses in South Africa in the past, they often say that they are reflecting what their readers want. But she challenges them to acknowledge that not only do they reflect what readers want but they also shape what readers want.
“They have a role to play in promoting something more progressive. We’re not saying don’t be provocative or edgy; what we’re saying is try and be original and give us something progressive away from the old stereotypes of male and female.”
Vetten agrees with Blem that South Africa is more conservative than overseas, but worries that some images and language that make it into the mainstream press will be seen as acceptable to the younger generation.
“When there is a porn magazine, people get to jump up and down about it, but when it is mainstream, it somehow becomes more acceptable.”
She says that when words and images that continue to promote hostile attitudes to women make it into mainstream media, the argument from the creators is usually about creativity, freedom of speech and refusal to be politically correct.
“What we are asking is that there is a sincere attempt to listen to all sides of the argument. There is a place for provocative, but please just don’t reinforce attitudes that breed a new generation of sexist behaviour.”
FHM South Africa editor (at the time of going to print), Hagen Engler, says that since he does not know the methodology under which the study was conducted, he can’t comment on it per se, but said that FHM condemns any form of sexism, hostile or not.
He added that the term ‘lad mag’ was part of British culture, not South African. “We prefer ‘men’s lifestyle magazine’.” FHM South Africa is a title licensed from FHM International, but around 90% of content is sourced and generated locally.
“We feature sexy model content, but in our eyes it is a celebration of women. We offer a men’s perspective, sure. So we might not understand women, but we put our gorgeous female models on a pedestal and celebrate their beauty. The accompanying copy will also celebrate the projects the person is involved with whether that is in movies, music or TV. Besides that, the copy is largely interviews with the models to showcase them and their personality to our readers in the women’s own words.
“Sex advice is provided by female sex columnist Coralie Robinson. We encourage respect for women at all times. We carry CSI ads designed and carried for free, for People Opposing Women Abuse that read ‘Women are Amazing. Admire them. Respect them’. We also make regular donations to Powa.”
And he concludes: “Respect is integral to the functioning of society. Encouraging disrespectful attitudes is to be condemned.”