For Lad Mags, the Jig Is Up

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If I were running Wal-Mart, there would be strippers in the aisles and strippers at the checkout line. In fact, it would just be a strip joint. But despite the fact that I have neither morals nor taste, I think Wal-Mart was right to pull the lad mags — Maxim, Stuff and FHM — from its shelves last week.

Wal-Mart, which I love not only for the cleanliness, prices and service but also for employing people who would otherwise be knocking on my door with religious literature, sells to a lot of the red states. And red states, as their color portends, get angered really easily. To make its customers happy, Wal-Mart has often done some stupid things, like pulling Midge, a pregnant, married doll; making Nirvana change the song Rape Me to Waif Me; and forcing the Goo Goo Dolls to redesign the cover of A Boy Named Goo because a Wal-Mart executive thought the boy with blackberries smeared on him looked like a child-abuse victim. But like Vin Diesel with his facial expressions, eventually Wal-Mart was going to get one right. Maxim is pornography, and finally someone figured it out. Why now, I'm not sure, but it might have something to do with the fact that one of FHM's May cover lines is SEX RECORDS! ASTONISHING FEATS OF NAKED AMBITION.

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A store defines itself by its merchandise, and Wal-Mart is no more obligated to carry men's magazines than a women's shoe store is to sell beer and doughnuts. I hope by printing that here, I have copyrighted that idea. And while Wal-Mart sells guns, hunting knives, cigarettes, Wiggles DVDs and other things I wouldn't feel comfortable putting on the shelves in my shoe-beer-and-doughnuts store, its job isn't to be morality police. Wal-Mart's business is not to offend its customers, most of whom are, for reasons that may have to do with our nation's obesity, more comfortable with hunting rifles than nudity. Its job is to make families feel comfortable enough to shop and enjoy those 12 hotdogs together. Because that is where the real profit is, people. Trust me, I've tried them.

Wal-Mart isn't expected to sell Playboy or other pornography, and the lad magazines have been getting away with convincing the world they're something different just because they cleverly disguise a few minuscule body parts. After Wal-Mart decided to discontinue selling FHM, a spokesman for the magazine argued that unlike Details, the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED swimsuit issue and many women's fashion magazines, it never publishes frontal nudity. But it has been working nudity loopholes the way our corporate brothers at AOL worked accounting ledgers. National Geographic photos and those imaging scans in the New England Journal of Medicine aren't porn, but whatever that fully clothed runner-up from Joe Millionaire did in those bondage films definitely was. I know this because while I spent a lot of time looking at the Joe Millionaire snippets, I have never opened a National Geographic.

Smut, as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said, "can't be defined, but I know it when it gives me an erection." I don't know if that's exactly the quote, but I can't look it up right now because I'm trying to stay off the Web until I finish this essay. And Maxim is pretty blatant about being smut, with the feline poses, latex outfits and none-too-subtle cover lines, like SEX SCENES: GOOD GIRLS RATE DIRTY MOVIES! Yet men read Maxim on planes, buy it without an accompanying pack of Trident and use their real name on their subscription. The brilliant marketing of the magazine — closing the gap between the MTV-ized sexuality to which we've become inured and soft-core porn — makes men feel this is acceptable behavior. But the objective of Maxim is the same as that of any porn magazine or J. Lo video — to make me dance, where dance is loosely defined as moving the way I feel like moving.

Pretending Maxim was somehow less exploitative than Playboy was dangerous for the culture. If you're going to look at naked women, you should have to deal with all the shame and secrecy and power dynamics that make it so wonderful. If you want to buy a lad magazine, you should have to reach toward the back of the rack in an immigrant-owned deli, where the owner's sacred and repressed culture makes you feel even worse about your purchase. Because a country that tries to fool itself about these issues is a country doomed to create yet more Cinemaxes. And, if nothing else, this whole Wal-Mart controversy should teach us that life is far too short for soft porn.