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COLUMN

Wal-Mart and Lad Mags

Philip Burrowes

Maxim is not pornography. FHM is not obscenity. Stuff is, well, Maxim, so the first sentence applies. So why has Wal-Mart pulled the three from its racks? They were judged, while not illegally “mature,” too hot for Wal-Martsketeers to handle. Is this a setback for free speech, a return to America's Puritanical roots, the harbinger of mainstream neo-conservatism? Come on, people, we're talking about Stuff, not the Communist Manifesto.

Judging the books by their covers, one can see why they draw criticism. Each of the three so-called lad mags depicts eroticized women on its covers in a blatant and successful attempt to attract the heterosexual male pocket (as in money, perverts). You can't have little Sammy seeing scantily-clad women when he goes to buy his copy of Zillions, can you?

Before we degenerate into the bickering that plagued the Victoria's Secret debates of a couple years back, let's agree that this argument is pretty weak. For one, Wal-Mart[.com] doesn't even carry Zillions. Secondly, Wal-Mart carries lots of magazines whose cover models are mostly undressed. Dennis Publishing, purveyors of Stuff and Maxim, have such a magazine in Shape, a magazine oriented around getting fit. Now one can argue that it's a potentially dangerous definition of “fit,” or that in the end women have to look good for men, but that's an issue of content. Anyway, if you want to eliminate every magazine that reinforces gender roles, you're probably going to have to eliminate half of the publications out there, from A[llure] to Y[M]. Which, sure, if that’s your thing then go for it, but that definitely won't go over with Wal-Mart.

How did protesters manage to convince the chain that the lad mags were especially objectionable, then? Could it be that they blatantly appeal to men? FHM is an acronym of For Him Magazine, Stuff's full title is Stuff for Men and Maxim, well, who knows where they came up with that gem of a title. This distinction falls apart because of the pre-existence of other magazines for men, even if we avoid a radical stance like branding most of these magazines as patriarchal tools. GQ may be significantly less sophomoric than its distant, more decadent descendants, but it's still a Gentlemen's Quarterly. Bringing up something like crossover appeal won't distinguish the pack, because there are indeed lasses that read lad mags without overwhelming irony. Maybe you could say that it's some combination of salacious covers and masculine overtones that makes a lad's mag worse than a gentleman's one, but what happens when GQ puts a woman on its cover? Should one issue be taken down?

You can't blame the title, and you can't blame the pictures, so how about flipping through and looking at the words? Unlike Playboy, lad mags can't exactly fall back on the artistic integrity of its articles to defend its implicit misogyny. Rather, they revel in it; those cover “girls” have a lot more objectification awaiting them between the covers. At that point, it almost doesn't matter what they're actually saying in the interview. When there's a half-naked projection of yourself straddling your words, you're just not going to be taken very seriously.

Or will you? Is all this chauvinism actually a trick to disarm the male masses? As much as these magazines present themselves as overblown frat rags, in a way it’s a perverse form of gyno-worship. Don't let the macho posturing fool you either; the Maxim/Stuff Editor-In-Chief is -- get ready for it -- a woman! (FHM is far more phallus-friendly, but it's British and they're all stodgy anyway.) Could there be some subversive attempt in shifting the discourse? Was Maxim Hair Color just the first step in a plan for world emasculation?

No, don't be ridiculous. Those articles are all filler and they're not especially damaging. Why? It's not really new. For example, Monica Bellucci appears in both the latest Maxim and FHM, of course pimping The Matrix: Reloaded. Combine that with the Matrix/Heineken commercial where (look out, ad spoilers!) the Trinity knockoff kicks the guy that sexually harasses her, and silently serves beer to the ones that don't. United, the media send a message that you should respect women, because in the end they will serve your desires and, oh, by-the-by, see The Matrix. Similarly, Tyra Banks is on the cover of Stuff to promote the upcoming UPN series America's Next Top Model, which while seeming to be novel concept is really just another reality show-cum-beauty pageant. Do you really avoid these messages just because they're not in a Wal-Mart?

The truth is, there's nothing about these three magazines which makes them any worse than general society. At least they're honest about their turpitude, unlike their former neighbors on the racks. Wal-Mart simply gave in to an effective protest campaign. Poor little Sammy will have to turn elsewhere for his soft-core porn. You know, like MTV.