Why I turned down Hustler
THE PHONE RINGS. Larry Flynt’s Hustler magazine wants me for a Q&A (not T&A) about all things propaganda. The editor is familiar with my books, knows me as a critic of the Bush propaganda machine.
I’ve been a propaganda scholar since before it was cool (pre-9/11), trudging along in the academic trenches after a stint with the now-defunct U.S. Information Agency during the Clinton years. Hustler wants me to deconstruct political and corporate images in lay terms, somewhere between People and the Nation. I jump at any chance to explain to Americans how to view advertising and public relations of all stripes with a critical eye. But in Hustler?
The porn mag pitches its appeal with a purr. Previously it had published interviews with Jesse Jackson, Christopher Hitchens, Noam Chomsky, Greg Palast and, most recently, David Horowitz. Readership is in the millions, its staffers claim, including lots of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. How could I turn down an opportunity to explain how propaganda is the primer paint for nations going to war? I phone Mom.
Mom lives in a retirement community in the Bible Belt. She asks me to send my books for its library to prove to the other octogenarians that her daughter is a published author. Using my light-and-airy upturned-mouth voice, I say, “Hey Mom, Hustler wants to interview me about my propaganda work. Isn’t that great?” I force her into a psychological corner as only daughters know how to do.
“That’s good,” she said, obligatorily supportive. I promise to send her a reprint, sans porn.
I ask Hustler for a sample of the interview format. I get the money shot.
Copies of the January and February issues show up in my Orange County mailbox. January’s issue offers pics of post-op designer vaginas, presented like the porn version of a spread from Martha Stewart Living. All the Hustler standards are there: Famous Flesh, Barely Legal highlights, A------ of the Month and a lot of cartoons and jokes focused on bodily emissions. I suddenly feel like I need to take a shower. Alone.
Like a political candidate, I conduct internal tracking polls. Onboard are the public affairs people at my university, my department chair and my book publisher. There’s no clear gender split.
On a plane, I meet a Naval Reservist heading to Iraq who agreed that it was a great opportunity. “Now you can tell your soldier buddies you know a woman who’s appeared in Hustler,” I quip. The informal polling is running 60/40 in favor of doing it. But I am beginning to waver. I was a girl who sang “I Am Woman” into a hairbrush-microphone. Helen Reddy has been my patron saint ever since.
Mom withdraws her support after I describe the sample issues of Hustler. But I don’t mention my slipping confidence to anyone at Hustler. I agree to meet with two editors at a restaurant near Larry Flynt Publications headquarters in Beverly Hills, and I’m told to find a quiet booth, as if we were having a tryst or I was passing on state secrets.
It’s only afterward that I send them the e-mail, subject line: My Own True Confession. The whole situation was more than I bargained for, I admitted. I offered a compromise. I’d do all the research, even ghostwrite the article.
My Hustler contact sent me the shortest e-mail I’ve ever received.
Subject line: NEVER MIND. Body: See above.
Ouch. The party was over. Hustler was mad at me. Just yesterday Flynt Publications was treating for dim sum. My own fantasy — a swinging book release party at some Playboy Mansion-type setting — was down the tubes.
And all those serious Hustler subscribers — the ones who get it for the articles — would never learn all I had to share about corporate and government propaganda. Oh, the calamity of it all.
Was I wrong to back out? I remain conflicted. I believe in taking scholarship out of the ivory tower, in being vocal about dissent, in questioning the status quo. Hustler and other pornographic magazines — like them or not — do a lot of those things too. The worst propaganda is about repression and state control of the unconventional.
Ultimately, it was my own scholarship that swayed my decision. Call it the propaganda expert’s conundrum. Although I know that I have nothing in common with those women who get designer vaginas, my proximity would have suggested otherwise. It implies endorsement.
In Hustler, overexposure enhances your reputation. In my profession, the wrong exposure kills it.
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