The dark world of lads' mags

The worst crime of lad culture was it took old-fashioned chauvinism and served it up in the same for

Schadenfreude is never a good look, but sometimes you can't help it - word arrives of someone else's failure and a smile creeps, unbidden, to your face.

So it was at the end of last week, when I read about the problems facing the "lads' mags" sector. ABC circulation figures for the first half of this year painted a bleak picture for those weekly and monthly paeans to beer, birds, cars and football, with a year-on-year sales drop of 25.9 per cent for the market bestseller, FHM, 18.1 per cent for Zoo and 9 per cent for Nuts. But the magazine that recorded the biggest sales plummet, with readers deserting it in droves, was Loaded, which suffered a 35 per cent drop in circulation from the same period last year.

This is particularly significant when you consider the effect Loaded had on magazine culture (and, many would argue, British culture at large) when it launched back in 1994. At that specific moment in history, the male stereotype everyone was talking about was the "new man" - a sensitive, linen-shirted bloke who took pride in his ability to change nappies. The upmarket men's magazines such as Esquire all seemed to have this audience in their sights, peddling articles about fatherhood and feelings. (In tune with those times, on its launch in 1989, the British version of GQ magazine vowed never to feature naked women on its covers.)

Loaded, the magazine "for men who should know better", threw a grenade into all that and created a new and much more popular stereotype. Being a "lad" meant sticking two fingers up to sensitivity. Soon after Loaded launched, James Brown, the magazine's twentysomething creator, was declaring that there was a change in the men's mags sector and that "we're entirely responsible for it . . . Men's magazines were all trying to project a sophisticated image, but it wasn't speaking to the millions of real blokes who love football and want to pull women, but who also like good writing . . . I'm very proud to say we've lowered the tone. We've given all the others a kick up the arse."

There's no doubt that Loaded did have some good writers at first - Nick Hornby, Irvine Welsh - and it wasn't as predictable as it soon became: it initially featured men on its covers, for instance (Gary Oldman was the cover star for the launch issue). But as the lad culture that it drew on and celebrated took hold, and its main rival FHM featured ever more scantily clad women on its covers, Loaded followed suit.

Within months of Loaded's launch, GQ had scrapped its "no naked covers" policy, and within a few years it was featuring a female columnist who recounted her first experience of anal sex - something she had done, she wrote, simply because her editor had told her to.

The worst crime of lad culture as a whole was that it took old-fashioned sexism (chauvinism), served it up in exactly the same format - endless pictures of scantily clad women, for instance, beside captions about how "up for it" they were - and slapped the label "irony" on it. Once it had been established that this culture was ironic, if a woman dared to use the word "sexist" it simply proved that she had no sense of humour, that she was out of touch.

Any young woman who felt that there might be something a bit offensive about blokes talking loudly about ogling women's "tits", who might have wondered why the men around her - often middle-class men - were acting out some sort of tired cartoon of male dominance, was simply derided as po-faced. Lad culture was, as one journalist put it, a "blokelash", a reaction to the gains of feminism which, although it was based on the idea of having big cojones, didn't even have the balls to be open and honest about what it was doing. This was the old-style sexism dressed up as the new-style irony.

And by using the excuse that this "humour" was "ironic" to shut down all criticism, the path was left open for the creation of magazines such as Nuts and Zoo, weeklies that have taken trends that were revolutionary - sometimes, yes, even funny - when Loaded introduced them, to their most bland and boring extreme. Over the years, the lads' mags sector has inevitably become ever more sexist.

Once you've seen one naked Big Brother star, you've sort of seen them all, so the onus has been placed on making the imagery more explicit, within the bounds possible for a mainstream magazine. A stereotypical cover image now (as featured on the most recent issue of Nuts) is of two "buxom" women pressing their topless torsos together.

Of course, my Schadenfreude is misplaced: there's no reason to smile, because while I might be quite happy to see the decline of the likes of FHM, Nuts, Zoo and Loaded, it would be naive to think that their problems are based on a cultural backtrack.

There can be little doubt that many of their readers are migrating to more troubling forms of media - specifically, internet porn, which can obviously go much, much further than these magazines could ever dare. It's a dark world that Loaded and the lad culture has bequeathed us. Thanks a lot, guys.

Kira Cochrane is women's editor of the Guardian

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Bush: Is the president imploding?