The Unisexual Revolution

by Matt Taibbi

"For me, the most thrilling day of the academic year was when the Bookmobile rolled into the parking lot and opened for business. Not because I was a big reader…and not because I had lunch money to burn. What excited me about the Bookmobile was the twisted notion that a store might actually seek out its shoppers."

—Ariel Foxman, Editor, Cargo magazine

SEVERAL YEARS ago, some reporters in southern Russia uncovered some old NKVD documents. They were lists of people that had been initialed and annotated by Stalin. Next to each name there would be a little entry in pen. There were about four possibilities: "Shoot," "Shoot immediately," "Shoot, of course," and, very occasionally, "Leave among the living."

The punchline to this joke ought to be that Stalin wouldn't have blinked before putting the willowy editor of the new men's shopping magazine Cargo "against the wall," as they used to say with gusto in the Motherland. But the joke on all of us is that Stalin would have left Ariel Foxman alive. He knew a good communist when he saw one.

People get so hung up on specifics. In this country, the idea of communism is limited entirely to about six or seven narrow concepts and cliches: confiscation of private property, elimination of free enterprise, messy mass executions, berets, goatees, bad teeth, shitty four-cylinder steel cars that get stuck in mud, clever espionage campaigns, parades. In America, if it's not dressed like Che Guevara and holding up a crucifix to a Big Mac, it's not a communist.

This is a mistake. There was a lot more to communism, and both Leninism and Stalinism in particular, than market-averse movie villains in Ladas. We ought to be aware of this, because that other side of the Red Scare is all over today's America. And most people can't see it, because most Americans never bothered to learn enough about Marxism-Leninism to recognize its most disgusting and stupid features. This has to be why this whole metrosexuality thing is gaining such acceptance without anyone bothering to point out that the craze would have given Lenin a Cialis-quality hard-on.

Two of the key but little-noted features of Leninism were its sexual morbidity and emphasis on the elimination of gender difference. While there was certainly an ideological component to these, borne of Marxian ideas about equality and the division of labor, their more important roots are probably in the extreme wallflower-nerdliness of the people who created Russian communism. Anyone who reads Lenin's favorite book, Nikolai Cherneshevsky's utopian novel What Is To Be Done?, can see immediately that this is the work of a person who had almost certainly never been laid in his life.

At the time the book came out, critics blasted Cherneshevsky for having his female characters behave like men and his men behave like women, but these criticisms were off the mark. Characters of both sexes in the book actually belonged to a third, as yet undefined gender: the communist. They were humorless, relentlessly serious, prone to long ideological speeches and ruthlessly dismissive of romance and eroticism—total bores whose vision of heaven was a well-kempt, low-cost apartment where the furniture magically gave birth to the children, and the "husband" and "wife" occupants took turns changing the diapers.

Lenin, who throughout his life wore this sexual morbidity like a badge of honor, brought these values to his new state, where these ideas proved to have some practical value. Beyond the smashing of traditional economic relationships, the early communists saw immediately the value in remaking the traditional gender roles. It was pitched as the liberation of women, but really it was about destroying the very concepts of gender and eroticism, and creating that new, third sex: the communist. In the posters from that period ("Down With Kitchen Slavery!), all the women were built like Serena Williams and dressed in the same coveralls and porkpie hats as the men. Later, dystopian writers like Orwell and Zamyatin would anticipate the later communist idea of eliminating fashion differences altogether. (In Mao's China, we actually got the pajama-and-bicycle idea of the one-sex nation.)

The people in these societies were not distracted from their ideological responsibilities. It's hard to take your collective farming committee obligations seriously when you're thinking about Irina Vasilyevna's legs. So you cover those legs up and put them behind the wheel of a tractor. End of story.

Which brings us back to the metrosexual. Despite what magazines like Cargo might have you believe, he is not thinking about Irina Vasilyevna's legs either. Nor is he having closet fantasies about little Pasha. He is thinking about his own legs. Writer Mark Simpson, who coined the term "metrosexual," put it best: "He might be officially gay, straight or bisexual, but this is utterly immaterial because he has clearly taken himself as his own love object and pleasure as his sexual preference."

This is the key concept, because the casual reader of a metrosexual bible like Cargo might mistakenly conclude that this is a magazine for men who want to act like women. People who think this have already bought the idea that what makes a woman feminine is her frantic devotion to the clothes and beauty-care products that Madison Avenue spends billions of dollars a year terrorizing her into buying.

That said, the confusion when it comes to the male readers of magazines like Cargo is understandable. The mag contains articles like "Totally Ripped," about men who wax their pubic hair, that include amazing lines like the following: "It's agonizingly painful and traditional for women, but that hasn't stopped a new generation of guys from going where few have gone before: to a salon for a Brazilian bikini wax." There are also photo spreads like the one entitled, "Have you ever dipped into a woman's beauty product?" which include a testimonial from an aging gray-haired "sales representative" named Brian V., who says, apparently without embarrassment: "I borrowed my mother's Lancome eye cream. It keeps you from getting wrinkles under your eyes."

The traditional middle-school insult that would be directed at Brian V. is, "Fag!" But this is wrong. Gay men have a natural erotic orientation. The Cargo reader does not. Just as the characters in What Is To Be Done? belonged to a new gender called communist, the Cargo reader, the metrosexual, has his own new gender: consumer. Cherneshevsky's characters were cardboard cutouts, stripped of genitalia, whose purpose was to be mannequins for ideological ornaments. Their accessories were ideas. In America, we have the same kinds of characters, only their accessories are plasma tvs and beauty creams. If it weren't so evil, it would be brilliant.

All revolutionary movements seek to create not only new economic relationships and new social structures, but new kinds of people. We are in a consumerist revolution, and our party leaders are people like Ariel Foxman, who tell us what to buy and how best to conform. Being a woman is about buying a face cream. Being a man is about buying a face cream. Being a human being is about buying a face cream. And we are all united in this brave new world, with nothing to lose but our wrinkles.

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© 2004 The Beast