August 1999
s m u g
back issues
by Joshua Allen


We all want to be oppressed. Being oppressed is great because you can both blame your problems on somebody else and rocket through your day full of self-righteous indignation which, you must admit, is the best possible feeling to have.

But what about the oppressors? We want to feel self-righteous, too. The heterosexual white males of America like to feel, if only for a moment, like we have our own culture and belief system and, best of all, like we are rising up and breaking the bonds that society have placed upon us. The fact that these bonds were manufactured by us in the first place and that our culture and belief system are based upon the hollowest of vacuums is really beside the point.

Maxim understands this on an almost primordial level, stimulating that ancient part of the mind that has yet to be encumbered by wit or critical thinking. It aims to be the bible of the heterosexual American white male id, but a bible reduced down to maybe a top-ten list or something. Something quick, scannable, and almost completely shrouded in brightly colored pictures. A maxim, see, is "a concise formulation of a fundamental principle," and Maxim is a concise formulation of an already pretty concise fundamental principle which goes something like: "Life would be perfect if I could suck Miller Genuine Draft out of the fake tits of a supermodel."

You will note the complete lack of surprise on my face when I say that Maxim is a big hit, coming out of nowhere and selling like hotcakes. The time has come for such a publication, one that flaunts its political incorrectness and makes pre-millennial America safe for frat boys once again. The People are crying out for it. Also unsurprising is that other men's magazines are scrambling to follow suit, desperate to get their share of that potent demographic known as the least common denominator. Poor, grasping Details — what happened to you? You used to be dignified and prestigious, only showing deep, deep cleavage on your covers, and now you're peddling nipples and pubic clefts just like everyone else? For shame! What hath Maxim wrought?

To fully understand this phenomenon, this remarkable cheapening of an industry that we all thought had already reached total bankruptcy, we must look closely at Maxim. This is somewhat akin to looking closely at a Mandelbrot set, however — no matter how deeply you dig, it keeps showing you the same thing.

Here's what you get: Maxim is made up of The Ten Things That Interest Men (TTTTIM or 4TIM), presented in a variety of permutations. In fact, one reads Maxim not to learn anything new, but to see in what order 4TIM will appear.

4TIM, if you don't know, is as follows (I've presented them in alphabetical order instead of the more typical and male-friendly order-of-importance to circumvent the inevitable arguments):

  1. Beer
  2. Bloodshed
  3. Bodily functions
  4. Breasts
  5. Gadgets
  6. Penises
  7. Sex (yes, "sex," "penises," and "breasts" are all separate items)
  8. Sports
  9. TV
  10. Vehicles

I'm not saying all men like all of these items, or that this is an exhaustive list, but when you talk about Men and when you talk about Speaking and Marketing to Men, then this list is what you're talking about. This is a compilation of subjects that consistently rings true and has stood the test of time.

So Maxim, month after month, makes sure every single sentence in their magazine is closely tied to at least three of these items, although 7-8 is really the sweet-spot they're shooting for. It's a handy editorial filter that has yet to let them down. Let's take a brief look at how the current issue chooses to address 4TIM:

  1. "A successful chug starts with a straight path from mouth to stomach."

  2. "Dragging Helen from the car, he propped her against a tree, put the gun to her head, and pulled the trigger."

  3. "Best bodily function that's not an orgasm: Taking a piss."

  4. "The beach abuts a nuclear power plant whose rotund reactors are the most perfect giant breasts you'll ever see."

  5. "Made in Russia, this petite 17-inch impaler can blast almost all the way through the yellow pages."

  6. "This pint-size Corsican megalomaniac, who reportedly had a one-inch penis, remembered France."

  7. "If you put in a little effort at this point, you can make sure she'll want to go down on you the next time."

  8. "I can't remember if it took me one game or 10 more games. But I hit him right across the neck, as hard as I could. I was going to cut his head off."

  9. "At the Star Cars museum in Gatlinburg, you can see famous cars like KITT and ... drum roll, please ... the General Lee!"

  10. "This ultralight, 998 cc, in-line four-cylinder monster will leave guys on most pricier bikes eating ditch."

[As you can see, there is already a great deal of overlap even in these examples.]

It's such a straightforward formula, so why aren't the Maxim wannabe's achieving the same kind of success? It's due to one subtle thread that the writers and editors have carefully woven into their vibrant tapestry, a thread that isn't easily detectable through all the bombast and thus missed by the copycats. I am of course talking about self-loathing.

The writing in Maxim, which consists almost entirely of pithy blurbs under photographs swiped from other sources, isn't quite what you'd expect. It's not brainless Budweiserspeak, necessarily, but National Lampoon-esque puns laced with backhanded attacks. There's the usual ironic, detached attitude that's pretty much a requirement of magazine writing these days, sort of a way of defusing the too-forced exhortations of machismo. "Oh, we're just joking, we don't really mean all this shit." But there's a bitterness there, too, which is one part "I can't believe I'm writing this" and one part "I can't believe you're reading this" (a combo with which I am intimately familiar). Together, this creates a comfortable, sadomasochistic, amniotic sac that does the following:

  1. Allows you to convince yourself that you're just reading this tripe as a joke.

  2. Confirms a fact that you long suspected was true, namely that you're a stinking pig just like everyone else.

  3. Simultaneously confirms the dubious fact that any time you are kept from fully exploring or enjoying 4TIM, you are being hideously oppressed.

This one-two-three punch is the key to Maxim's success, and unless Details and Esquire and GQ and all the rest start following suit, we're going to be living in a one-men's-magazine town. And friends, that's just not a town I want to live in.



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