Monday, May 11, 2009
Inside Viva: The Pictorials
I’m pretty sure I saw my first copy of Viva: The International Magazine for Women during the summer of 1976. I was fourteen and hadn’t seen much visual porn (except for a few photos in a women’s liberation pamphlet where the coupling lovers seemed so frozen in place I assumed they were dead). I had been reading sex scenes in books for quite some time before that, but that’s another story (see my discussion of The Godfather).
When my middle sister came home to stay with us for the summer after her last year of college, she put away her extensive collection of Viva’s in the bookshelf of her nightstand in plain view. My parents didn’t seem to care, they probably didn’t know what was in them. Magazines for women were by definition “safe.” And a lot of the magazine was safe enough. There was very high-brow fiction, like an excerpt from Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, and interviews with Warren Beatty and Helen Reddy as well as feminist roundtables and confessions from Vietnam vet’s wives. But there were also pictures. Of naked men.
A comparative viewing (and I have both, so let’s pass them around) reveals that the Viva pictorial is definitely different from those in its brother magazine, Penthouse. Viva always provides one “narrative” series involving a couple and one feature which offers a variety of different naked men, say clothed crotch shots of men involved in different professions or “pin the tail on the male” where you try to match the naked butt with the face. At the time Penthouse, on the other hand, was almost exclusively a look into a lady’s boudoir. Apparently in private most ladies lounge around in various states of nudity and study their pubic hair with great concentration.
But the Viva pictorial provides so much more: props, costumes, atmosphere, even literary and historical references. Is this because the female mind needs more story, more relationship, more stuff to be aroused? Or just that the editors assumed so? At any rate, given that Emerald and I were discussing our love of The Great Gatsby, I was amused to find a pictorial called “A Glimpse of Gatsby,” where a brawny brunette with 1970s style good looks (a sort of Chad Everett look, if you’re old enough to remember "Medical Center") and 1920s clothes lounges around with a Daisy Buchanan blonde.
This intertextual approach does spark my imagination and I got to thinking it might be nice to see a whole series of these peeks into famous lovers' bedrooms. Maybe juxtapose this elegant afternoon tryst with an earthier Tom-Myrtle pictorial set in their New York City hideaway (with a few shots of Nick Carraway listening in)? Then proceed through the great works of literature—Darcy and Elizabeth’s honeymoon; a steamy encounter between Heathcliff and Cathy. Maybe move on to historical figures: JFK with Marilyn, Bogie and Bacall, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. The possibilities for couples in costume (and out of them as well) are endless.
Yet, even as I appreciated the context, I gradually became aware of a growing discomfort, even anxiety as I viewed these pictures today. I finally realized what it was. There are no erections. These naked men are in the presence of beautiful women in lingerie, kissing them, caressing them and still their members hang like limp hoses. Long, thick, limp hoses, but still. As a teenager, I remember noticing, although not fixating on the organs, but now, it’s hard to focus on anything else. All of the pictures cannot be set the afterglow. And yet, junior is not so happy to see the lady. Is it a relationship problem? A case for Viagra?
Of course, the simple explanation is that if Viva portrayed these situations realistically and showed aroused men, it couldn’t have been sold with Playboy and Penthouse at airports and newstands. It would be relegated to sleazy porn shops, and few women would ever see it, much less buy it.
However, the magazine still worked its magic on my adolescent mind. In fact, there is one picture fantasy that lit my fire then and still brings on a glow today. In the next post, I’ll talk about the Viva spread that stayed with me for more than thirty years and was mostly responsible for my e-bay buying spree. Til then, let's check out that great interview with Helen Reddy! (“I Am Woman” was my shower song of choice for more years than I care to admit).