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Men and the Oprah Who Loves Them

O magazine tells us about their favorite men. Which in turn tells us a lot about how women's magazines view the male species.

12:52 AM, May 30, 2003 • By DAVID SKINNER
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THE LATEST ISSUE of O magazine is a sort of feminine response to male fantasy staples like Esquire's "Women We Love" issue. Part romantic advisory, part tribute to the male sex, the issue is complete with obligatory spreads of celebrity guys who are likable but either just a bit edgy (George Clooney, Chris Rock) or profoundly inoffensive (Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen) or exceedingly respectable (Quincy Jones, Sidney Poitier, Paul Newman). Under their photos, the gooey adjectives grow upon each other like moss, indistinguishable and moist: "tender," "charming" (twice), "savage" (twice), "poetic," "a little bit bad," "contemplative." Except when the Big O herself gushes skyward with affection--although not spontaneously. The editors must keep a file of old O-quotes just for such occasions. Like the one used as a caption for Quincy Jones, which I've seen before: "Because he oozes love--he was the first person I loved unconditionally." Maybe the staff couldn't get their boss on the phone for a fresh comment on her oh-so-beloved buddy. Anyway, the sentiment strikes me (not for the first time) as a deeply weird thing to say about someone who isn't family.

The rest of the men's features are boilerplate Oprah: preachy, condescending, loaded down with cliches, weirdly degrading to the male sex--and yet a superior version of the advice coming from women's magazines in general. Instead of "Nine Ways to Meet the Man of Your Dreams," O has Martha Beck telling single women to know thyself: "Next time you find yourself feeling fretfully single, try exploring your own nature. Write down your favorite foods or colors or songs or books or sports. Visit a therapist. Embark on a voyage of discovery for its own sake." Cut the article out for one of my single female friends I will not. But it's far less creepy than, say, "The Rules," and a few IQ points above what you'll find in most women's magazines (for comparison, I am relying here on the library in my downstairs bathroom.)

An interview with Jay Carter, author of "Nasty Women," actually contains some sane advice that strikes me as generally true. To caricature his narrative of a failing marriage, it starts with the woman marrying a man for his "potential," instead of who he really is. The marriage goes badly. The couple seeks counseling; the husband says: "No matter what I do, I can never please this woman." The husband leaves his wife for a woman who seems to appreciate him for who he really is, but what the new woman is thinking is, "Wow, what potential."

Contributor Dr. Phil is his usual treasure chest of bluntness, although the writing here contains few of the hokey one-liners that are the trademark of his rhetoric. Like Carter, he emphasizes the idea of a language or "currency" of love that men use, which they claim is different from the one women use. Men's hearts are expressed indirectly, via the people and things that are most dear to them--their car or their children or their hopes and dreams. If he lets you drive his Camaro, he really likes you. Women express love via feelings, the sharing of which, according to both gurus, represents the deepest of personal commitments. Meanwhile, my ears fill with the white noise of so much verbiage that appears to come down to this: Be nice, be patient, try to imagine what your husband/boyfriend/etc. is thinking when you are telling him to go to hell. Not that this shouldn't fill up magazines and be sent out to the women of America, but it leaves me strangely unprovoked.

Dr. Phil, Jay Carter, and other contributors to this issue, including Roland Warren of the national Fatherhood Initiative, operate off of what might very well be a perfectly legitimate stereotype of men as hiders of their true feelings--inarticulate, and generally thick of skull. Basically, they'll mow the lawn and pay the bills with the right treatment and maybe even take their ladies out for a candlelit dinner now and then if you game the incentive correctly. And this, truth be told, is an improvement on the appetitious, vain, badly-behaving alternative packaged and sold rather successfully by dozens of different magazines and television shows. But is this all there is? You're either a fat, sweaty construction worker who whistles when a babe passes by or you're a fat, sweaty construction worker who refrains from whistling.

Not very inspiring. Notice the absence of a gentlemanly code, one to which it wouldn't be so easy for women's magazines and adolescent comedies to condescend to. The antidote to Maxim, for example, is O magazine. The lads' and ladies' magazines are like thesis and antithesis. But where is the resulting synthesis? One yearns for a contemporary literature and niche in pop culture that would imagine and propagate a male ideal capable of bending an ear to the heartfelt concerns of women while sublimating, except on rare occasions, the fleshy preoccupations of "The Man Show."