Revolt Into Style
Why did the Times drop dissidents into knickers?

Until Playboy came along, The New York Times Sunday Magazine's brassiere and underwear ads were the chief source of pornography in the U.S. There are now a lot of titillating picture mags, but the Times holds its own in the underwear department.

See also...
... by Andrei Codrescu
... in the Scope section
... from November 16, 1999

Models who look like they've been molested and have just tumbled out of bed still stare in full suggestive glossiness from its pages. But alongside these standbys, a worrisome trend has also been developing. The subjects of serious news stories -- people with something else going for them besides their underwear -- are being photographed in the ugliest possible poses. In a recent magazine, there are interviews with the intellectual revolutionaries of Eastern Europe ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Looking at their photographs, one wonders what degenerate mental institution they've escaped from.

Here is Adam Michnik, a hero of the Polish intellectual resistance, caught in a merciless close-up that accentuates all the ravages of his middle age, with a cheesy car salesman smirk plastered on his face. Here is Jerzy Urban, one of the architects of Poland's transition to democracy, hidden behind a cloud of cigar smoke, with one eye shut, looking like a gangster about to order a hit. The Hungarian dissident and parliamentarian Laszlo Rajk looks as if he's sitting on a toilet. The angle of the camera makes it look as if Rajk is about to bust out of his too-tight suit in a haste to relieve himself. The chief editor of one of Hungary's widest circulation newspapers, Ilona Kiss, a woman in her fifties, is posed with her arms crossed behind her head in a position that makes her look like an old hooker by the side of a freeway. Two other editors of the paper, Balint Nagy and Gyorgy Petri, look like hayseeds who've just taken a spitbath in an ashtray.

On and on the photos go, turning the intellectual elite of Eastern Europe into a collection of gargoyles. And then one turns the page and there, in sublime light, in the best possible poses, are beefcake men selling clothes; a handsome older couple holding hands on the beach to sell Mount Sinai Hospital's incomparable services; a laughing mother and daughter in the surf, brought to you by the medicine Enbrel, whatever that is; a naked Estée Lauder model staring sulkily over her shoulder; two blond, blue-eyed gay men urging Swiss Air on the readers, and so on.

What is one to make of this? That the life of the mind, and an engaged life, are to be derided and laughed at? That empty-headed pretty models are infinitely more valuable? Probably. The ironic thing, of course, is that the warty gargoyles being interviewed on the state of Eastern Europe are the people who fought to bring about capitalism to their countries. In other words, they fought for the rights of advertisers to fill everything with the empty-headed bodies of their mascots.

At the same time, they eliminated themselves and what they stood for from the brave new world of consumer imagery. No one knows this better than the Sunday Times, which will let you have the intellectuals' words but not their best images. Pornography is still the chief product.

Andrei Codrescu was born in Transylvania and lives in New Orleans. His latest books are Messi@h, a novel (Simon and Schuster) and Ay, Cuba!: A Socio-Erotic Journey (St. Martin's Press).

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