cover of Men's Health magazine with Vin Diesel

Men’s Health Magazine Analysis

Introduction to the Magazine

First published in 1986, “Men’s Health” is an incredibly successful magazine which covers fitness, nutrition, and men’s well-being. Hearst describe the brand as a “lifestyle manual for modern men” and the institution claims to be able to reach 1.1 million consumers around the world. That is a lot of men who, according to the publishers, are “smart, active and emotionally intelligent” and are looking to “succeed in every area of their lives”.

cover of men's health magazine
“Men’s Health” 2017

This guide focuses on the Jan/Feb 2017 edition, analysing the representation of masculinity and how those images signify important cultural meanings. We will also look at how the magazine targets their primary audience and meets the codes and conventions of print media.

Vin Diesel and Representation

There is no doubt Vin Diesel is the dominant signifier who pierces the viewer’s attention. The non-verbal codes follow the conventions of a magazine cover: the actor stands square to the camera and stares directly at the audience. Posing like a bodybuilder trying to emphasise his triceps, forearms and broad shoulders, Vin Diesel’s body language is full of confidence. His oiled muscles help create a stage tan look and, like judges at a competition, we are being positioned to admire his masculinity.

Although the lowkey lighting reinforces this sense of performance, the interplay of light and shadows encodes a more introspective message. The use contrast is also obvious in the simple dress codes – black jeans and a light-grey t-shirt. His facial expressions are typical of the deep and brooding roles he has played on the big screen. Importantly, these signifiers combine to suggest the actor has both the brains and brawn to succeed.

The Representation of Masculinity

In “Feminist Perspectives on the Media”, Liesbet van Zoonen noted how feminist discourse often conceptualised gender as a “dichotomous category” In other words, masculinity and femininity were binary opposites. These meanings were seen as “historically stable and universal”.

According to the dominant ideology, femininity was represented as “emotional and inclined to nurture”, whereas masculinity was “political and rational”. Women were depicted as passive and domestic, but men were active, adventurous and determined to conquer their world. Obviously, the advertisement for Score’s liquid hair cream is a good example of this narrative.

Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.

John Berger

Building on Laura Mulvey’s concept of the male gaze, Liesbet van Zoonen argued there were plenty of women who watched male protagonists on the silver screen and enjoyed “not only their narrative characters but their physical appearance as well”. She joked how “the sight of hysterical girls throwing their underwear” at male rock stars “has become a normal measure of success”. This, of course, is the female gaze.

In this way, both men and women can be represented as “spectacle”. However, in “Spectatorship and the Gaze” (1994), van Zoonen noted how the camera framed men in terms of movement, focusing on their “tautened muscles, physical activity or the suggestion of labour”. Ien Ang (1983) suggested “sports photography” was the “prevailing patriarchal limits for visualising the male body”. Vin Diesel is an action hero, so it is fine for the audience to appreciate his body.

Unlike women who were portrayed as effortlessly beautiful, magazine stories would also refer to the hard work and effort men needed to keep fit. This aspect is certainly true with Vin Diesel and his “blueprint to wage war on flab”. Again, the lexical codes reassert traditional masculine values.

Notice how the cover uses his full name: Vin Diesel. Women were often denied their full identity because the magazine only mentioned their first or second name on the front.

Finally, consider the Vin Diesel’s direct address. Commenting on Richard Dyer’s (1982) analysis of male pin-ups, van Zoonen summarised “by his direct and unfriendly return of the look, the male pin-up denies he is the one being looked at”. The actor is refusing to be objectified and remains in control of the narrative.

In conclusion, the representation of Vin Diesel validates the dominant ideology that masculinity is active and muscular. However, the actor was keen to break away from the stereotype of the action hero and present a more complex version of masculinity. In an interview quoted by the New York Times, he said:

I could care less about being an action actor like Stallone or Schwarzenegger… I see myself as a humble, goofy yet likable romanticist living in a gorilla’s body

Vin Diesel

Van Zoonen believed these gender roles and representations were “socially constructed”. This echoes Judith Butler’s concept of performativity. The feminist argued “genders can neither be true nor false, neither real nor apparent”. Vin Diesel was following an ideology that said men should be adventurous and active, but he wanted to show a less aggressive version of masculinity. Hollywood cinema has moved away from the indestructible action heroes of the 1980s to characters who offer a broader definition of masculinity.

The Audience

Vin Diesel is an icon of the Hollywood action blockbuster with leading roles in the Fast & Furious and the Chronicles of Riddick franchises. Celebrity culture encourages the audience to identify with our heroes, so publishers like to put someone famous on the cover because we are more likely to purchase the magazine. “Men’s Health” is offering the reader the exciting opportunity to learn more about Vin Diesel’s health routine and lifestyle. In terms of uses and gratifications, this is surveillance.

We are also motivated to buy the product because it can help shape our own personal identity. David Gauntlett called this process our constructed identity, Albert Bandura argued we learned behaviours through symbolic modelling, and we can label Vin Diesel as an opinion leader. No matter which theory you want to use to describe our relationship with the celebrity, the audience is positioned to admire the actor’s masculinity because he represents an ideal lifestyle of glamour, physical health, talent, and success.

Publishers know celebrity endorsement is an effective line of appeal to the audience, but they need to research the interests and beliefs of their target audience to make sure they invest in the right person. If you look at “Men’s Health” Media Kit, their average reader is male with a media age of 44.7 and an income of over $92,000. There are plenty of companies which offer data on celebrities and all sorts of brands. The following information is taken from YouGov surveys on Vin Diesel:

Source: YouGov

Vin Diesel has solid popularity ratings among the primary target audience of “Men’s Health” magazine. As for psychographics, they know their readers want to be “stronger, faster, and better”. Vin Diesel certainly matches this profile.

By putting the actor on the cover, the publishers hope the target demographic will be attracted to product, desire to know more about his fitness regime, and then make a purchase. If their research is correct, they will shift millions of copies of the magazines from the shelves. You have to know your audience.

Social and Cultural Context 

We have already established gender identities are fluid, so the dominant representation of masculinity will depend on the social and cultural context. Expectations are always shifting, especially around body image.

“Men’s Health” and other publications, such as GQ magazine, are at the forefront of that change, making it much more acceptable for men to focus on their physical well-being and mental strength. Men no longer have to feel embarrassed about buying grooming products – a problem faced by the advertisers behind Score Hair Cream. Even Vin Diesel wanted to distance himself from some of the all-muscle action heroes of the 1980s.

In his reception theory, Stuart Hall describes how the encoding of messages is influenced by the frameworks of knowledge, the relations of productions and the technical infrastructure available to the producers. If the audience successfully decodes the message, Hall argued, then producers would repeat the discourse. If Vin Diesel helps sell millions of copies of “Men’s Health”, the publishers are likely to encode a similar message in the next edition and his representation of masculinity becomes culturally significant.

Does the media simply reflect the values and ideologies of a society, or does it help construct meaning? The answer is probably a bit of both viewpoints.

Magazine Cover Codes and Conventions

This edition of “Men’s Health” follows lots of the conventions of magazine covers. As expected, the masthead is positioned at the top of the cover, stretching across the page in a large font and a strong blue colour. The dateline, price and barcode are nestled above the letters.

Publishers are aware of the limitations of print media, so they try to make aspects of the cover seem three dimensional by overlaying the model on the masthead. Look at the way Vin Diesel casts a shadow of the capital H of the title and makes him stand out from the page – and to the audience.

Typical of the genre, the colour palette is limited but aesthetically pleasing. Blue for boys?

The featured articles are wrapped around the main image with the lexical codes connoting a bold and aggressive version of masculinity. The coverlines are full of violent language, such as the aggressive verbs “demolish”, “burn”, “slay” and “blast” which all focus on death and destruction. By contrast, the “reboot you xmas liver” coverline appeals to a more laddish representation of masculinity. There are plenty of exclamation marks emphasising the emotional strength of each statement. That sense of excitement and determination is supported by the use of bold weight, capital letters and modern typefaces for the words. Note the use of cargo-style numbers which often signify military power.

Page 17 Analysis

When you reach page 17 of this particular issue of “Men’s Health”, you will find the contents section and the editor’s letter. There is an aesthetically pleasing combination of the masonry layout of the contents, the more formal introduction from the editor and the main image of Vin Diesel staring directly at the audience.

The following comprehension questions can help you engage with this part of the magazine, but you can also download our worksheet for page 17 if it is more convenient.

the editor's letter and contents section
“Men’s Health” Page 17

Editor’s Letter

Written by Toby Wiseman, the editor’s letter consists of his thoughts and feelings, and directs the reader’s attention towards some of the important cover stories.

  1. In terms of the mode of address, how does the writing engage the target audience?
  2. What is the function of the drop capital at the start of the copy?
  3. Why do magazines follow the convention of having columns left-aligned with a ragged-right edge?
  4. What do you notice about the layout of the copy when it reaches Vin Diesel’s arm?
  5. Why have the publishers included a reference to the award from the British Society of Magazine Editors (BSME)?

Editor’s Contents

  1. Explain the purpose of a contents section in a magazine.
  2. Do you think the images provide and effective preview of the articles to the reader? Support your answer by referring to specific examples.
  3. Comment on the mode of address in the snippets used for each article.
  4. Suggest why the design team used a bold font for the page numbers.
  5. Does the grid layout appeal to the audience?

True Grit

The article begins on page 96, but our extract comes from page 101. In the interview, Phillip Howell discusses his incredible physical achievements.

“Men’s Health” Page 101

Questions on the Article

  1. What message is being encoded in the main image. In your answer, you should consider the technical codes, such as framing and lighting, non-verbal codes, and the colour scheme.
  2. Look at the two captions overlaid on the main image. How do they anchor the reader’s interpretation of the image? Make sure you comment on the ideal reader’s values and attitudes.
  3. Evaluate the effectiveness of the running head “True Grit” and headline “The Marathon Man”. How do these lexical codes appeal to the reader?
  4. In terms of typography, how are the questions and answers differentiated?
  5. How does the article reinforce the magazine’s brand values?

Essay Questions

  1. How are values and ideologies constructed by the codes and conventions of magazines?
  2. To what extent does the representation of gender in magazines embody values and ideologies?
  3. Evaluate the usefulness of Stuart Hall’s reception theory in understanding the audience’s use of the Close Study Product “Men’s Health”.
  4. Explore how far representations of masculinity in “Men’s Health” reflects its social and cultural context.
  5. Albert Bandura suggests audiences develop attitudes through modelling by the media. Explore this idea in relation to the Close Study Product “Men’s Health”.
  6. Explore how magazines use genre to attract audiences. You should refer to your Close Study Product to support your answer.

Ien Ang (1983)
Berger, John (1972): “Ways of Seeing”.
Butler, Judith (1990): “Gender Trouble”.
er, Richard (1982): “Don’t Look Now”. Screen, Volume 23, Issue 3-4.
Van Zoonen, Liesbet (1994): “Feminist Media Studies”.
Van Zoonen, Liesbet (1996) “Feminist Perspectives on the Media”. In Mass Media and Society by Curran, J et al.

Further Reading

Thanks for reading!