Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Friday, February 09, 2007

Marilyn's Tragedy and Anna Nicole's Farce, or the Maxim-ization of the Modern Playboy

The Atlantic has an interesting piece on the history of Playboy and its current rivals, the “lad mags” like Maxim and FHM. And I was all set to blog on this when it was reported that Anna Nicole Smith had just died. Her own celebrity was so strange, I couldn’t keep from reading the online obits and reports … and that’s how I noticed that at least three people have compared her to Marilyn Monroe. Apparently, Anna Nicole had always idolized Marilyn Monroe and wound up dying very much like her: at age 39 of a drug overdose. And of course they were both busty blondes. But the trip that has taken us from Marilyn to Anna Nicole is the very same arc that has taken us from Playboy to Maxim, and I thought it would be worth looking into further.

To a certain extent, of course, the comparison is false. You can’t say “Anna Nicole is our modern Marilyn.” She’s not: Anna Nicole was always more of a Mamie Van Doren or a Dagmar; the Elvis impersonator to Marilyn’s actual King. But even with that comparison made, we don’t even make Dagmars anymore, and Anna Nicole Smith’s fame had much rougher contours than anything that was visited upon Marilyn Monroe. And what happened to her is what’s happened to the industry, and to the modern manufacture of 18-to-35-year-old male sexual dreams.

Let’s start by discussing Playboy, which had Marilyn as the centerfold of issue #1. The Atlantic article goes further into detail, but in the short version, Playboy as it was originally conceived was selling a fantasy of urban sophistication: the swinging bachelor with casual sexual access to all the world’s Dagmars. The tools of this conquest were velvety and understated — jazz and martinis and the proper way to place the speakers on the hi-fi: and the magazine itself, in a show of casual sophistication, routinely published truly great fiction and essays. The dream was, of course, absurd, and the Playboy girls were all very much of a type, but it was clear that in the pages of Playboy America found a marriage of sexual libertinism and a certain kind of middle-class upward mobility. And what’s more important, you couldn’t have one without the other. In the fifties, the magazine paid for its sex by offering cultural value; this is how it avoided being considered pure pornography. So in a way, the lifestyle it offered was a natural outgrowth of the fact that cultural cachet was the only legitimate way to usher sex into the public conversation. If Hustler had been around in the ‘50s, it would have been Playboy too, instead of the aggressively debauched second cousin it turned out to be.

Marilyn Monroe, of course, was a sex symbol of the same era—a time that was unusually talkative about sex (compared to the forties and fifties), and yet in a time when access to something as simple as nude pictures was heavily circumscribed and had a high social cost. She came along and essentially personified sex for the next two decades---but it, like Playboy, was a hopelessly glamorized sex: diamonds and champagne and gowns by Orry-Kelly. Even when she was a poor nobody — like Sugar Cane in Some Like It Hot — she was obviously millionaire-bound. And most of her best comic roles — including, let’s not forget, All About Eve — had Marilyn pretending to a sophistication she didn’t possess in order to obtain the glamorous lifestyle that was her due. But because she was a goddess, she had to make it look easy, and the cameras of the time were only too happy to enable this absurd fiction.

Compare these two icons---Playboy and Marilyn---to their opposite numbers on this end of the timeline and at first blush the comparison is wholly depressing. Maxim rarely has an article that’s longer than two pages, and has never published anything that might have actual cultural value. Instead of essays by Normal Mailer, they offer articles on how to shotgun a beer or discuss which race of women makes the best strippers. Maxim is a celebration of shallowness, of booty and boobs and booze and basically living like an id-driven adolescent without a whisper of apology. Its silly disposability is practically the point of the joke. Actual meaning would harsh everyone’s frat-house buzz.

And Anna Nicole! What a cheap knockoff of Marilyn in every way! Blonde as hell, humongous tits, with an Amazonian bluntness to every move she made—the woman couldn’t so much as think without lumbering. Like Marilyn before her and every Playboy playmate in between, Anna Nicole was a mixture of egregiously overripe body and laughably dewy childishness. But where Marilyn was theoretically innocent, appealing to Playboy’s original paternalistic attitude toward women, Anna Nicole was … well, an id-driven adolescent in a frat-house haze. She wasn’t enough of an actress to feign innocence, so she just went straight for shocking ignorance and set up a claim that never went challenged. To marry Marilyn you had to not only be successful, but you needed cultural cachet: be Norman Mailer or Joe DiMaggio or Kennedy. To marry Anna Nicole, you just had to be rich; to score with her, you just needed to be nearby. (On the first episode of her reality show, Anna Nicole moaned that she hadn’t had sex in forever and practically begged her viewers to hop on board.)

It’s tempting to bemoan this general debasement (“where are the nudes of yesteryear?”), but there are some good points to it as well—which is fortunate, because the debasement was inevitable anyway, what with the Internet and all. And the Internet really is the driver here. In the same way that it has tended to democratize consumerism and public opinion, it has also made our desires more accessible. Want to see Sarah Michelle Gellar naked? Someone with Photoshop can mail you a free theoretical likeness, no matter what clauses her contract contains. So while it’s tempting to suggest that American men have gone from dreaming of becoming James Bond to dreaming of being irresponsibly self-indulgent, I’m not sure it’s that big a switch: even the James Bond pose back in the day was just the shortest, tested-and-approved distance to the nearest pussy. If the fifties had had the Internet, the Playboy ideal never would have come up in the first place. Who would bother to learn about wine, as a tool to meet women, when there’s instant gratification one Google away? For all Maxim’s vulgarity, it has the virtue of being honest about its stance.

The modern run-through of the story is drenched in irony: If Playboy took itself seriously — boy, did it ever! Even its winks were slow — Maxim is a josh from start to finish. Playboy tried to be important; the most a Maxim article could ever be is nifty. Similarly, while Marilyn was nurtured, and destroyed, by Hollywood’s official dream factory, Anna Nicole was nurtured, and destroyed, by E!: the only network in Hollywood more shallow than Hollywood.

Which leads me to the strangest thing, to my mind, about all of this: if Maxim is king these days — and in men’s magazines it certainly, sadly is — and if coarseness is the new lingua franca, and porn itself is computertistically commonplace, why is Maxim such a cock tease? As the language has gone downhill over time, from J.F. Powers to “How To Score A Fuck Buddy,” the pictures have also gotten less sleazy, even as actual access to nudity has skyrocketed. The most popular sex-driven magazines in America are also the ones with no actual nipples in them. The reason for this is obvious, on one hand: they want to sell magazines! So they have to be Wal*Mart-friendly. But as a result, they’ve also restricted their own visual vocabulary, and it’s turned into a trap: for all its posture of honesty and ironic awareness of reality, the women on Maxim’s covers are every bit as disposable and forgettable as every Playboy bunny after Marilyn ever was. Hell---you can’t even tell Maxim from FHM from Stuff unless you stare through the bong smoke and read the goddamn title. So the lad mags have thrown out the language, which was the real art to the enterprise, and have wound up as visually hackneyed as their granddaddy.

I’m not exactly complaining. There are still some real improvements. The Maxim woman is smarter than the Playboy bunny, more aggressive, more successful on her own merits, and more likely to actually pose in jeans instead of just talking about the fact that they exist somewhere off the set. But both sets of models still have a similar cartoonishness,— and precisely because the lad mags are hip and ironic and don’t even commit to themselves, the lie is easier to spot. But while there’s probably a long-term advantage to making everyone’s desires available at a lower production cost, you also wind up drowning in cheap dreams. As far as accessible images of sexy women goes, we guys have gained all the benefits of democracy. But in the process we have lost religion.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Bre said...

Monroe was sexy like silk sheets and soft lighting... Anna Nicole was far too posed and plastic. It's actually pretty sad that the only thing they can come up with to say about her is that she was a sex symbol..

2/10/2007 8:51 PM  
Blogger JennyG said...

I don't know if I count as a Maxim girl, since there was no photography - nude, wet, or otherwise - but I was interviewed by and written up in Maxim several years ago. It concerned my research on gender differences in math attitudes and performance. I think the idea of the "article" was that if a guy could make a woman feel that her mathematical inadequacy was culturally determined, rather than a personal defect, she'd be grateful enough to give him a blowjob.

2/11/2007 4:09 PM  

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