Where Does Our Culture Go From Here?

“I understood the rules, I knew what I was supposed to do, but I didn’t. I couldn’t. I was compelled to stay, compelled to disobey. And now, here I stand, because of you…”
– The Matrix Reloaded

I got my start in publishing. My student job in college was working on the alumni magazine. My first real job out of college was working in newspapers. After many years of covering school board meetings and police blotters, I started producing something on the side, a personal project. Mensclick.com was a collaboration with a buddy named Tim, a fellow photographer whose day job was building websites. It gave us an excuse to photograph beautiful girls, which both of us were doing for fun. I created most of the copy, he worked on the graphics and both of us contributed photography. It went from a fun diversion to something with legs to it. Still, it was frustrating wanting this to become something more. We nearly gave it up and quit, but we had the good fortune of it being found by a new startup from Northern California with the same idea. We sold the domain to them, basically eliminating ourselves as their potential competition. And I got a job out of it that came with a $20,000 year raise over what I was making at a newspaper in Albertville, Alabama at the time, plus I got to work from home.

glamour photographyLeaving a job in the chain where I’d worked for nearly a decade is the ballsiest move I’ve ever made in my life. I had a little girl and a wife to look after. And there was no guarantee Xposed.com, the website of the guys buying Mensclick.com, would go anywhere. In retrospect, it was a great move, both because Xposed took off (after being rebranded as Savvy.com since Xposed sounded like a porn site, and we couldn’t have that if the business model was advertising). I was also getting out of the newspaper industry just before it imploded from people realizing they could get news for free online.

The Savvy experiment lasted nearly 5 years, eventually falling victim to the primary investor’s heavy reliance on California real estate and the main advertiser finally admitting, “Hey, that million dollars we owe you, you need to write that off because you ain’t getting it from us…” Yes, the “great recession” as its been called was devastating to Savvy, just as it had relocated to posh new offices in Sydney, Australia and announced an audacious campaign to grow using a contest my bosses meant to grab worldwide headlines. Suddenly, we were told to look for other jobs, but I already had one foot out the door after returning from vacation to discover that an editor had been placed above me in the food chain, a female from Australia since they were trying to be perceived as more female-friendly than the male-oriented lifestyle magazine Xposed/Savvy started as.

laddie magazines of the 2000sAh yes, the “laddie magazine” boom of the 2000s. You remember all of those magazines, right? Maxim. Stuff. FHM. They were kings of the publishing hill for several years, very trendy with the sexy pictorials of female celebrities who didn’t quite want to show off their complete nakedness in Playboy but nevertheless had movies and TV shows to promote. But then something happened and those magazines rapidly lost popularity.

Again, I found myself exiting a niche field of publishing right before it barreled toward near extinction. Maxim is still around and has gone through a bit of impressive rebranding this year. Playboy, as you know, went non-nude, then reinserted the naughty bits. I never thought that trying to become Maxim was the best move (you can see nearly naked women on Instagram for free). We’ll see how history treats these publications as we near the year 2020. They’ll always have critics, mainly from the opposite side of the gender aisle.

After Savvy, I made the jump to television, working to promote a new network called MAV TV, as in “Maverick TV”. I wish I had a dime for all the times someone misheard me and thought I worked for “MADtv”, the SNL rival sketch comedy show based on the seminal Mad Magazine. That show ended in 2009. My time at MAV TV ended about the same time. My bosses sold the channel to Lucas Oil, which was already airing a lot of motorsports programming on the channel. My job was given to someone already working for Lucas, and I was unceremoniously given the boot. Lucas came in and rebranded the channel as family-friendly, getting rid of the bawdy man shows like “Bikini All Stars” and “Fitness Beauties”.

male-centric entertainmentAll of which makes me wonder where we, as a shared culture, are going with this. Is male-centric content destined to go the way of the dinosaur? “The Man Show” hasn’t been around to show gratuitous girls on trampolines since 2004 and Jimmey Kimmel is a respectable late-night host emceeing awards shows. “The Man Show” really started going downhill in May 2003 when Jimmy and Adam Corolla got replaced in the season five premier by Joe Rogan and Doug Whatshisname. It went from being a sweet parody of unabashed sexism to something more mean-spirited in the spirit of a Trumpian backlash.

Fast Forward to Today

So… here we stand in 2017. We’re told that it’s still a man’s world. The ascension of pussy-grabbing misogynist Donald Trump to the White House over progressive feminist Hillary Clinton would certainly suggest that is still the case. I’m not here to argue for men’s rights or some other red pill bullshit. Perhaps just wondering if the Marlboro Man is hopelessly doomed. Watching the show “Mad Men” and listening to Trump during the election certainly changed my perspective on how men view and treat women. When I was a fresh young lad out of college, we didn’t even realize that female coworkers maybe don’t want to be touched, like EVER. That shit obviously doesn’t fly anymore.

aging sex symbolAs a personal aside, here I stand, older and wiser, trying to reconcile my place in the culture. I regularly spend time with women, sometimes half my age, helping them to look trendy, hip, cool, and alluring. The desire to be admired has not gone away with each incoming generation. I see these women in their 20s twerking and flaunting their bodies, just being young and silly and having fun. If I looked like Zack Efron and young enough to still have a pass to be silly, I’d be doing the same. I used to reference Brad Pitt as my go-to celebrity reference for hot young stud, but now he’s like me: An old broken fart just hoping to remain relevant. No offense, Brad. I know how ya feel. You’re still WAY better looking than me, sir.

My point is, the efforts of young models to look appealing to the opposite sex are not taken as an open invitation to violate her personal space. I overhear the derogatory way young women talk about men over 40, and I’m truly not offended. The only thing I personally have to offer such creatures is behind my lens, not between my legs. If I were overly concerned about what anyone thinks of me, I’d crawl in a hole and wait to die. I know that I am probably approaching an age where I’m supposed to exclusively photograph trees instead of 20-year-olds if I want to be respected. But I continue to do it for the same reasons that I shot for Mensclick all those years ago: It’s fun. And there’s certainly a demand for the images (although, as my earlier points suggest, that is decreasingly the case).

I want to be able to explore a full range of photographic subjects, certainly not excluding portraits of young men and women when they are most alluring. There’s a reason we beam with pride and envy when we look at college kids. So full of life and energy and potential. For the rest of our lives, we wish we could look and feel that good again. The young have it easy. Hit a certain age and BAM! Not so easy to hold it all together with the metabolism gone.

In a way, glamour photography is all about fantasy. The women portrayed love the idea of being found desirable, regardless of their age. And the men viewing, especially those of us over 30, enjoy the idea of still being found desirable enough to attract the attention of stunning women who, in reality, would more than likely find us revolting in real life unless they have so-called “daddy issues” or want to exploit us for mercenary purposes.

Seeking a Roadmap to Popular Culture

All of this to say, I’m not sure what is a socially acceptable way for men to enjoy experiencing looking at women anymore, young or old. At what point will it be safe for the glamour marketplace to come up for air and find that things are less hostile?

I get it. From a woman’s perspective, objectifying a girl in a skimpy swimsuit is hostile toward womankind or implies that their gender is incapable of being more than just visually stunning playthings for men to enjoy. I understand and appreciate that point of view. That’s certainly a valid view if you’ve ever watched online videos and seen the way females are often degraded. I worry about a generation of young men learning about sex and how to treat women from what they see portrayed on Pornhub.com.

I don’t know the answer. Am I just another dinosaur that needs to see the asteroid coming and accept a world where all fun is extinguished? Can we really refer to glamour content as “male-oriented” or “sexist” when so many women can admit that they enjoy looking at other women? Certainly, more people are feeling comfortable coming out of the closet, and I bet lesbians don’t mind having a peek.

I’m once again feeling the itch to start a publication. This time, using my experience to correct some of the things that we did wrong with Mensclick, Xposed and Savvy. But I don’t have all of the answers, which is frustrating.

I want to create something that celebrates women as more than two-dimensional props, not degrades them. I want to counter that image of objectification that guys get from those X-rated videos where women are brutalized and treated as subhuman.

I also want to glorify women who are in their 30s and 40s. It’s sad to hear women in their forties talk about themselves as if they are unworthy of being celebrated and admired. From my perspective, they are the ones who look most alluring. They are much more than their bodies. They are complex and wonderful. Their so-called “flaws” make them interesting in many cases. Society is telling them it is time for them to cover up; I say society needs to shut up.

I am looking for discussions on this topic. I genuinely want to hear what women and men alike think about where we are as a culture and what they want to see in their entertainment. Because that’s ultimately why I do this stuff: It’s entertaining for me and presumably for those of you who enjoy consuming my content.

Give me a holler. I could use your two cents.

Text by Steven Stiefel – All of Steven Stiefel’s content is made available to you for free, with no subscription fees or paywalls. If you’re a regular reader, feel free to contribute: