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Home > Culture and Society

Lad Mags: The Sexual Revolution Has Been Shelved

2 July 2006

This week an MP proposed a bill forcing a shunt of all glossy lad mags to the top shelves, beside their big-breasted porn brethren. Once more the nation rises sluggishly from its torpor and notices there are yards of happily unfeminist airbrushed cleavage at kiddie eye-level in its corner shops, and commences expelling piss and wind in equal measure. It was only in March that new guidelines were introduced, sort of politely suggesting to newsagents that they could, if they were so disposed, maybe move FHM to a higher shelf, but really no bother if you've done your back in. The newsagents equally politely did fuck all. This isn't good enough for Corby MP Claire Curtis-Thomas, who insists that lad mags are a big hairy pustule on the country's babysoft bottom and should be spanked. But not in a nice way. She is of course right, and she is of course wrong.

Curtis-Thomas isn't a stuffy old prude by any stretch - given the chance, she'll explain that she has no issue with Playboy, or indeed with the idea of items designed with the sole purpose of titillation. She just thinks porn's sly, pick-nosing little siblings aren't setting a good example, as they are 'humiliating and degrading' to women and 'put profits before child safety'. OK, so the 'child safety' thing grates, and does nothing to suggest she's not another cynical think-of-the-children wagon- jumper of an MP - although it's true an unwary tot could sustain really nasty paper cuts from a special Zoo fold-out cover. But it's as true today as it's always been that lad mags represent an especially noxious, smug and tacky racket, only just scraping by on a sort of synthesised coating of irony, belittling men and women in about equal measure. They're as useless as peni on dead people. Only that's no reason to introduce kneejerk that's-that-then legislation to make them less popular. Better, surely, to simply bomb newsagents. That'd learn 'em.

The whole shower started with the venerable, relatively urbane James Brown who started Loaded in the 90s. It was almost a joke on the state of ladditude before it had developed - harking back to the old Playboy which you really could read just for the features. Then the genre went the way of all flesh, i.e. towards the dumb. The well-worn line is that porn is more honest, which is about as true as it's going to be - despite the fact that gaspingly perfect femmes rarely picnic on red-checked rugs before falling on each other in superbly posed lipgloss lust, the intention at least is direct. Porn is a loud and clear call to hands. Lad mags are just... weak toss. And they do foster a certain attitude in people that is undesirable, but surely it's better to attempt to deal with that effect than to physically (and only temporarily) remove the cause, causing a shitstorm of fairly justified criticism and suggestions that we're all far too fucked up about sex on the way.

Curtis-Thomas' bill is a typical short-term non-solution to a very subtle and far-reaching issue, and it's gloriously counterproductive. The eternal appeal of forbidden fruit, or forbidden mags you have to bribe your brother to reach up for, should be cum-in-eye self-evident, but apparently it's not. Besides that, this sort of move is only going to bolster the attitudes it's trying so hamfistedly to assuage. It's a gift to all lad mag editors who relish the opportunity to play martyr - hell, don't we all - and all lad mag readers who only need the barest nudge to start carping about bloody feminists being hairy-armpitted all over the place in their Doc Martens and spoiling their good honest British hot-blooded blokey fun. Nice normal feminists look stupid. Male consumers of the media look stupid. Small boys look in their brothers' cupboard to stock up for the hard times to come.

Subtle, complex and far-reaching issues about society, sexuality and the media can't be dealt with by shoving them bodily under the rug (tee hee, 'rug'), or as in this case a foot further up a rack. (Tee hee, 'rack'.) Insert something (no more, please) into the curriculum - throw it in with Personal Studies or Social Carpentry or whatever the fuck terrified quarter-arsed programme there is now covering every daunting aspect of grown-upping. As adulthood rushes towards children like a tsunami of hormones, why not grab a heap of mags, pass them around the classroom, explain about airbrushing techniques and how people enjoy fantasy images, but should be careful not to filter reality through a skewed sieve of wank-fodder. This is perhaps the real issue here, but few can adequately articulate it, let alone come up with any sort of 'solution'.

Of course the lad mags are part of the problem, whatever the problem is. They're intellectual cholesterol. But so is the calorific dreck that follows by way of reaction. That manifests itself in the kind of toe-knotting, knuckle-consuming patronise-athon the BBC website cobbled together, showing the contents of a men's mag written by women. It includes a helpful guide to feminist icons such as Emmeline Pankhurst and oh God, make it stop, it really and truly demeans all of us. Although of course being united in humiliation by the media could be seen as some kind of breakthrough for equality. Although of course, as aforementioned, the lad mags are doing that on their own already. Leave them where they are, Labour woman! They're accidentally doing some minute ironic good!

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