A cultural paradox stripped bare – SMH – 27 Feb.06

OPINION It seems magazine nudity is more acceptable than the cover-up of the hijab,writes Gwyn Topham

Your teenage sons can pick from two new publications today. In one, a history of John Howard’s 10 years in office, the Prime Minister expresses concern about attitudes to women among Muslim Australians. In the other, they can see “real girls” strip and – in the news section – try to “shag Paris Hilton”. Is Howard really worrying about the right set of attitudes?

The second publication is Zoo magazine, a new semi-pornographic weekly, already a bestseller in Britain and now launched here. The formula is simple: a lads’ mag sweating with the kind of not-quite-there porn that keeps it on the bottom shelf. It’s an ideal starter kit for teenage misogynists. Before its launch, newsagents were giving away promotional copies – a bit like popping into the chemist and getting a free trial pack of low-tar cigarettes with your prescription.

As the editor, Paul Merrill, says: “We’ll be creating a new marketplace; what we do will define the market.” With a $14 million investment, including television and billboard ads, the publisher, EMAP, is confident it can emulate the British success. Launched in early 2004 at the same time as Nuts, the two very similar titles sell more than half a million copies a week. Only Zoo’s sister title, the monthly FHM, sells more, continuing the relentless mainstreaming of pornography.

In its inexorable rise, Zoo has run promotions such as offering readers the chance to win cosmetic surgery for their girlfriends. Or, as the magazine put it: “Win your lady a brand new set of expertly crafted tits.”

Merrill says the Australian magazine is broader and – for now – less graphic. Although, in case readers are distracted by the sport and jokes, his introduction quickly gets to the point: paying for sex. “Skip this boring bit and check out Michelle from Bowral on page 68. It’s gotta be worth $1.95 for her alone.”

As Zoo’s agony aunts advise an ostensible reader, “Luke from Perth”, a “massive fan of porn” who wants his disgusted girlfriend to be “enthusiastic about it” – “You need to start off on something light. Then you can get more hardcore.” It starts here.

Howard and others find it easy to identify the “problematic” attitudes and societal pressures within Muslim communities that may affect women’s choice of whether to cover their heads; less so to acknowledge the gradual pornification of the West, the “raunch culture” documented by writers such as Ariel Levy, that ends up with professional women such as Terresa Lee, 21, deciding it is a good career move to strip for a magazine that weans teenage boys on to porn.

Last week, Howard said he found women wearing veils “confronting”. Meanwhile, Zoo has as a regular feature the Real Girls Strip Search, in which “we hit the street and convince young ladies to get their kit off”. It seems it’s now more acceptable for Australian women to appear naked in a magazine than wear the hijab in public.

While Howard agonises over Muslim attitudes towards women, his well-balanced constituents are pushing magazines for young men in which the only possible female role is semi-naked and gagging for it.

Guardian journalist Gwyn Topham is at present working for the Herald.

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