Even a mindful magazine can't break the man code
What is a man? You can get some tricky questions thrown at you in the classroom, but on the face of it this looked like one of the simpler ones.
But then it didn't take long for me to discover that the question was about more than basic physiology. It was put by a student in her early twenties who'd set herself the challenging task of defining the male of the species from the magazines he reads.
"As far as I can see from this lot," she said, indicating half a dozen or so publications spread on the table, "you can sum up men in two words: football and sex. In that order."
Just hang on, I wanted to say. Lots of lecturers are men, but in their case it's actually more complex than that. For them, you need football, sex and Bloom's taxonomy. In that order.
But then that wasn't exactly what I did say to her. "That's interesting," were the words I finally came up with, followed by: "But don't you think you should be digging a little deeper?"
I took a closer look at her magazines. They covered a range of readerships, from men who just wanted to look at the pictures through to those ready for a more challenging read. "It seems to me," I said, "that men is too broad a category. You've got to take a whole range of factors into account, such as culture, class, colour, age and occupation."
"Hmm," she said, not a little sceptically. But she jotted down some notes before gathering up her raw materials ready for departure. "Here," she said, "why don't you take this one and see what you can fathom about men from reading it."
The magazine she handed to me was called Shortlist. I had never heard of it, but that was not surprising. Upmarket or downmarket, publications whose target audience is men have rarely been my reading of choice.
But maybe this one would be an exception. At first glance, it looked promising enough. There was a big picture of every male lecturer's alter ego - George Clooney - on the front cover. And it claimed to be "for men with more than one thing on their minds". I have always been told - by women - that asking him to think about more than one thing at a time makes for a confused man. But I could see where they were coming from.
"Our readers," I read in the information for advertisers section, "are a discerning group." Good, I thought. "By definition, they are urban professionals." Even better. I live in London. And although my salary might look like small change to a doctor or lawyer, my job still attracts the tag of "professional".
But oh dear! As soon as I looked inside, I realised that very few of Shortlist's definitions of "male" were going to apply to me. The tone was what you might call aspirational. Put another way, the magazine was all about money - that and the conspicuous commodities that having large amounts of it can buy you.
I couldn't help but notice, for instance, that there were several adverts for expensive wristwatches. To me they simply looked flashy. But to their manufacturers, they were state-of-the-art little masterpieces that make a statement about you. One called Pulsar promised gold plating, carved mineral crystal and a "big calendar movement" - a phrase I'd associate more with those packets of breakfast cereals that claim to keep you regular.
I dipped into a section entitled Style and Grooming, and found an article inviting readers to "butch your feet up in this season's big leather boot collection". Noting that the first boots featured cost Pounds 480 a pair, I decided my feet would have to stay unbutched.
I couldn't get enthusiastic about the "choose the best men's moisturiser" feature either. Sadly, moisturising has never been part of my daily routine, which is probably why when I look in the mirror these days, the face peering back looks a bit like a cross between a buffalo's backside and Keith Richards on the morning after the night before.
There was a short article on "body creator abdomen toning gel" by Shiseido Men. This was apparently written in English, but not in English as I knew it. Still, I was pleased to see that "this invigorating treatment gel utilises the fat-burning abilities of caffeine and the nerve-activating fragrance SLM to reduce the depth of fat, bringing the muscle layer closer to the surface." So now you know.
Then I found a piece about high rollers in casinos, none of whom seemed to have day jobs in colleges of further education. Another feature provided lavish and loving details of "the world's greatest business hotels", with colour photographs and even more colourful price tags. "These are where your boss should be sending you," the blurb told me. I duly made a note to pass this on to my principal.
By now I was starting to wonder just what sort of a man I was. Once I might have been prepared to take up Shortlist's challenge to "train for a triathlon", but sadly I've found that the knee is a joint that can only take so much wear. I couldn't really identify with the magazine readers' apparent fascination with guns either. While there weren't any articles on them, there were 31 images of guns, big and small, featured either in adverts or on the editorial pages.
So what could I conclude about the Shortlist male? That he's a curious concoction of old man and new, a sort of schizophrenic media man for our times. He likes to be a bit of a playboy, jetting off to the most prestigious destinations with a pistol in his belt and a classic Cadillac at the kerbside. But he also likes nothing better than an evening in with his toiletries.
Oh, and then there's the cooking. This was situated towards the back of the mag. It wasn't actually called cooking, but then nothing in Shortlist is called what it really is. Instead, I found myself looking at the Instant Gourmet section. This described itself - in words guaranteed to leave a nasty aftertaste - as "filling your waiting mouth with gastronomic excellence".
I fed these conclusions to my student next time I saw her. "Oh yeah," she said, handing me her assignment, impressively word-processed and running to at least 2,000 words. "I'm sorry, but it still looks like sex and football to me."