The Anatomy of a Victorian Lad’s Mag
It’s all gone tits up. Nuts, the beleaguered lads’ mag, has finally cracked under the twin pressures of outrage (from those who didn’t read it) and indifference (from those who once did). As a Guardian-reading feminist I should probably be quite glad to see it go, but the historian in me feels a pang of sadness. I work on the history of popular newspapers and magazines, so whenever a long-running publication closes its doors I feel compelled to mourn its passing. Even when the odious News of the World went to joing the great newsagent in the sky I couldn’t bring myself to celebrate the death of a 160 year old publication, no matter how toxic it had become. Nuts doesn’t have anything like this kind of history, but its death still feels like the end of an era. Front magazine closed its doors in February, the company behind Penthouse filed for bankruptcy last Autumn, and the circulation figures of most other men’s magazines are in freefall. Now that one of the genre’s flagship publications has sunk, titles like Zoo, FHM and Loaded seem sure to follow. For better or worse, the lad’s mag is on its last legs.
I was seventeen when Nuts was launched, which theoretically put me squarely in its target demographic. I remember glancing furtively at its lurid cover and wondering what might be inside, but I was far too awkward and self-conscious back then to buy a copy. You won’t be surprised to discover that I was never very good at being a ‘lad’. I was never at ease with the confident, swaggering, masculinity that these magazines celebrated. Instead, I spent my teenage years reading Edge and PC Gamer - reassuringly nerdy magazines that I could buy in the newsagents without feeling embarrassed. However, when I heard the news that Nuts was about to close down I decided that it was finally time for me to do my duty as a historian and take a good look at it.
I was shocked by what I discovered. Not by the topless photos, laddish banter, and crude jokes – I was expecting that all of that stuff. Instead, I was surprised by how familiar it all felt. If you’ve been following me on Twitter then you’ll already know that I’ve recently become obsessed with the Illustrated Police News. First published in 1864, this low-brow Victorian newspaper made its name by offering sensational, illustrated accounts of the week’s biggest crime stories. Gruesome murders, romantic suicides, tragic accidents, and rampaging animals were its bread and butter for the best part of 30 years. However, in the mid 1890s the paper came under new ownership and began to morph into something rather different. Crime stories continued to appear, but were increasingly displaced by sports coverage and sex. Boxing news, racy music hall songs, scandalous divorces, adverts for pornography, and sketches of half-naked female celebrities soon became the staple features of the paper. In other words, it started to look a lot like a typical issue of Nuts!
In this two-part blog series I’ll be dissecting some of their shared features. Next time I’ll take a look at the IPN’s sports coverage, its racy advertisements, its bawdy sense of humour, and the dramatic tonal shifts it made between sex and violence. But we start, inevitably, with the girls.
The defining feature of the lad’s mag is, of course, the scantily-clad cover girl. Indeed, if you’ve never read a copy of Nuts and just judged the magazine by its cover then you’d be forgiven for thinking that it contained nothing but softcore pornography. There’s certainly a lot of this stuff. I browsed through a year’s worth of the magazine when researching this blog post (behold the tortuous work of an academic historian!) and soon picked up the general pattern. Most issues contain three or four photoshoots, usually featuring a mixture of glamour models, Z-list celebrities, and aspiring amateurs. By modern standards, the images aren’t too explicit; they’re closer to the Sun‘s Page 3 than the full-frontal nudity of Playboy or Penthouse. Still, it’s hard to imagine this kind of openly sexual content appearing in a Victorian newspaper.
And yet, during 1898 and 1899, the back cover of the Illustrated Police News was regularly devoted to risque, full-page portraits of half-naked music hall girls. I’ve collected these into a Pinterest gallery, but here are a few highlights:
It’s not hard to figure out what Rose Harvey’s “great personal attractions” were. The IPN coyly praised her “beautiful countenance” and “golden hair”, but the artist seems to have been much more enamoured with her ample cleavage and shapely limbs. Indeed, had she born a century later then Miss Harvey would surely have been invited to appear in one of Nuts’ regular Big Boob Specials. Almost all of the paper’s pin-up girls were depicted with similarly exaggerated features: corset-busting cleavage; impossibly tiny waists; shapely thighs clad in figure-hugging tights; and the daintiest of feet. As one of my students pointed out, with feet that small and chests that big it’s a miracle that any of them could stand up.
Of course, these images bear only a tenuous relation to reality. Photographs of Marie Lloyd, for example, reveal that her hourglass figure was nowhere near as pronounced as the paper’s idealised portrait suggests. The modern media is often criticised for promoting an unattainable ideal of the female body, but the case of the IPN reminds us that this process isn’t new. Indeed, it can also be seen in Victorian women’s magazines, where adverts for corsets and the latest Parisian fashions featured similarly unrealistic depictions of the female body. I’ve currently got a few 3rd year students exploring these issues – they’re doing great research, and I hope I’ll be able to persuade them to share their findings with you in a couple of months.
Of course, Nuts’ interest in the female body extends beyond its featured photoshoots. The opening pages of the magazine are optimistically titled ‘Nuts News’, though the only way that Ukraine would make the headlines here is if a girl from Hollyoaks was photographed topless on one of its beaches. This section usually opens with a story about a female celebrity wearing a bikini, and then concludes with a radically different offering called ‘Rude News’, which features photographs of other female celebrities wearing bikinis. The intervening pages usually include news about cars, unusual stories from the internet, pictures of horrific injuries, video game reviews, jokes, and interviews with male actors and comedians – more on these in Part 2, though it’s rather telling that the only people given a non-sexualised voice in the magazine are men.
Interestingly, the editorial priorities of Nuts once again bear a striking resemblance to those of the Illustrated Police News. By the 1890s, the Victorian paper also had a tendency to lead with items that had the greatest potential sex appeal. Take a look at a small sample of it’s cover stories:
There are two types of cover story in evidence here. Firstly, some have been inspired by the kinds of sensational crime news that once formed the core of the paper. A murder, a duel, an attempted suicide, a divorce case, and a comic scene from the police court are all represented here. However, these stories are all presented in peculiarly sexualised contexts. For example, the story about Lottie Collins (bottom left) was inspired by her unsuccessful attempt to cut her own throat with a pen knife. Rather than depict this scene in all of its gory detail (something the paper was never afraid to do) the IPN’s artist sketched her in the middle of one of her famously risqué, high-kicking dances. Similarly, the story about two duelling American ladies emphasised the fact that they reportedly stripped down to their underclothes before doing battle. Even the illustration of a dramatic shooting at a wedding found room for two busty women in provocative poses – one of them the bride, and the other a corpse.
The second type of cover story has an even more tenuous connection with reality. In the absence of a suitably sexy story, the paper appears to have fallen back on saucy scenes imagined by its artist. In this case, we are invited into the dressing room of a provincial theatre as a group of glamorous pantomime actresses are scared by a rat. Next, we glimpse a troupe of scantily-clad ballet girls as they wait in the wings of the Alhambra Theatre. Finally, we accompany the artist as he channels the spirit of the Carry On films and ‘secretly’ spies on some ‘river nymphs’ bathing in the Thames. “What the pretty swimmers will think when they see themselves in our illustration”, mused the paper’s editor, “is better imagined than described.”
Whilst this scene is almost certainly fictional, it highlights the different kinds of voyeurism at work in the paper. The pin-up girls seem to have appeared consensually; they posed for their portraits and occasionally gave brief interviews to the IPN’s reporter, presumably in the knowledge that it would bolster their careers. While they were certainly being objectified, they still had some agency over the whole process. However, the paper’s ‘news’ stories sexualised women without their consent; they were peeped upon through keyholes, spied on in their bedrooms, and even the victims of terrible crimes were captured in poses that emphasised their curves. It’s an important distinction, akin to the difference between the consensual nudity of ‘empowered’, business-savvy glamour models like Katie Price and the unfortunate girls whose photos end up on ‘revenge porn’ websites. For the reader, of course, it’s all too easy to move uncritically between these acts of consensual and non-consensual voyeurism; the latter is tacitly legitimised by its juxtaposition with the former. As you flick through the paper, the bodies of a murder victim and a music hall star invite the same lecherous gaze. In recent years, lad’s mags and online pornography have justifiably been accused of blurring these lines but, once again, we see this process of ‘pornification’ at work in a much earlier period.
If a story promised even the slightest glimpse of a beautiful woman’s ankle then the IPN appears to have considered it front-page news. And if the woman didn’t have a ‘beautiful countenance’ and an hourglass figure? Well, the artist just re-imagined her as somebody who did. Whilst the paper once prized itself on obtaining genuine likenesses of the people involved in its stories, by the late 1890s it often re-used the same stock characters for every situation. For example, three separate stories about extramarital affairs all appear to have featured the same trio: a curvaceous blonde, a shapely brunette, and a man with a moustache caught between them:
This was by no means unusual. The same basic figures appear again and again, like dolls acting out a succession of children’s fantasies. On one page the brunette plays an alluring temptress, and on the next she appears as a crazed cannibal biting a chunk out of a policeman’s knee. The similarities between these images may well reflect the limitations of the artist. Nevertheless, they do present a consistent vision of what the paper considered to be the ‘default’ female body. Unless the story required the illustrator to depict a woman as old, overweight, or unattractive (and they very rarely did), he invariably opted to draw her in the same idealised way. Browsing through these late-Victorian editions of the paper feels a bit like watching a glossy American TV series; everybody is impossibly thin and attractive. When historians have attempted to explain why Victorian women persisted in wearing dangerously tight corsets they have often blamed the period’s fashion magazines. However, it’s possible that the unrealistic expectations fostered by male-oriented papers like the IPN may well have exerted similar pressures.
Crucially, as we’ll see in Part Two, this was not an isolated case. The Illustrated Police News was part of a burgeoning Victorian lad culture that flourished around the music halls, boxing rings, football grounds, and pubs; a fantasy world of saucy barmaids, flirtatious actresses, and young men in search of a good time.
In Part Two we’ll take a look at the Illustrated Police News’ sports coverage, its racy advertisements, its bawdy sense of humour, and the dramatic tonal shifts it made between sex and violence. Stay tuned!