Let’s Infiltrate Popular Men’s and Women’s Magazines with Rhetoric

My class project regarding Mary Augusta Jordan, a late 19th/early 20th century female rhetorician, and her rhetorical textbook that she published under the guise of a conduct book in 1904, has made me think about conduct books in a new way.  That is, I think that the conduct book genre is still alive today, but, perhaps, in a different form – popular men’s and women’s magazines. I’m not talking about magazines aimed at specific interests or hobbies – Wired or Food & Wine magazine – rather, the popular men’s and women’s magazines of the likes of FHM, Esquire, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, etc. It seems that these modern magazines perform the same role as many conduct books as, like the 19th century conduct books, they focus on delivery, dress, and prescriptions (or rules). And yes, they are also a bit mind numbing.

As I look at these popular magazines, I’ve found that the majority include at least one article that has a “how to,” which includes very prescriptive advice on dress or even explains what to say in certain situations, primarily in regards as to what to say to get a date or advance in one’s career. For example, in FHM, a popular men’s magazine (feminists, you may shudder at the mention of FHM) there is an entire article dedicated to haircuts – “how short is short?” and even includes a “Glossary of terms, so you know what you’re asking for.” This very prescriptive list explains why a man would want each haircut/what it says about the man – not only a throwback to the conduct book genre but also a form of visual rhetoric – exactly what  a haircut, suit, lipstick, etc. says about a person is a popular topic in these magazines. Also, the prescriptive advice in regards to behavior, appearance, and conversation, focuses primarily on delivery and audience analysis – how to say certain things to achieve a certain outcome, how a certain hair cut will be received – which is strikingly similar to the genre of conduct books and utilizes, at least in part, rhetorical devices and ideas in a personal venue.

Unlike the earlier conduct books, which focused on women’s behavior, the modern “conduct book” is for both men and women. As Jane E. Rose explains in her article titled “Conduct Books for Women, 1830-1860,” conduct books were used as way to link women to domesticity and certain spheres in culture (37-39). It’s interesting that it’s now socially acceptable for men to receive such prescriptive advice, and if you don’t believe me, check out Esquire – they have an explanation of “How to Buy a Suit”  with “rules” to help the reader purchase the right suit for him, and specific “rules” and “advice” for how to meet women, which makes it seem much like a 21st century conduct book. Granted, these topics are a bit vapid, but wasn’t the idea that women needed to be instructed on how to engage in conversation with men?  Besides, I think that these magazines may shine some light on the evolution of the conduct book as well as the power that prescribing how one is to behave, dress, and speak can impact the way in which a person views his/her social role, power, and rhetoric.

And, yes, these current popular magazines are reinforcing certain social expectations, including very prescriptive “advice” on how to behave, building on the tradition of the conduct book. Many of the popular men and women’s magazines perpetuate negative stereotypes and can, due to popularity and circulation, create a cultural idea about how men and women should behave, dress, and interact that may not be the most positive. As Judith Butler’s gender performativity theory posits, our gender is created not by biological factors, but by our actions or performances; therefore, these magazines may be creating what it means to be a man or woman in popular American culture (for the good or bad). As a modern form of the conduct book, these magazines may be more influential than I initially thought.

On that note, I’m going to make a real jump. Since these magazines are very popular (and, yes, they may be guilty pleasures or the bane of your existence), maybe we can use them as a venue to continue our intellectual rhetorical pursuits. That is, maybe we can change the popular concept of rhetoric – a dirty word associated with trickery, politics, and backhanded advertising – into something more hospitable. Perhaps, we need to create an online magazine that takes on a similar format to these magazines, analyzes current events, but makes rhetoric more accessible. That is, maybe the way to bring more than just delivery into the minds of many readers is to subvert the new conduct book genre. Anyone want to give it a try?


Works Cited/References

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge Classics. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Esquire.  Hearst men’s network, 2010. Web. 9 Dec. 2010.

FHM: Good News for Men. Bauer Media, 2010 Web. 9 Dec. 2010.

Glamour. Conde Nast Digital, 2010. Web. 9 Dec. 2010.

Rose, Jane E. “Conduct Books for Women.” Nineteenth-Century Women Learn to Write.  Ed. Catherine Hobbs. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1995. Print.


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