Who's Afraid of Virginia Slims?

A new magazine brings the Marlboro Man a hefty dose of retro glory  and none of that icky girl stuff.

Published December 5, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

It's as big as a horse, and not much smarter, swollen with he-man stories, preposterously sporty photo spreads and endless ads for booze, booze, Trojans, and booze. "It" is the premiere issue of Unlimited magazine, brought to us by none other than that cowboy-hatted icon of masculinity, Marlboro. It was all I could do to keep from sucking on pens and blowing air-rings in my neighborhood smoke-free cafe as the sweaty scent of male bonding wafted up from its glossy pages.

Unlimited is the demon spawn of Marlboro and Hachette Filipachi Magazines --the publisher of such virile rags as Car and Driver and Road & Track. Subtitled "Action, Adventure, Good Times," the mag is designed to be "a sort of handbook for regular guys." You know, those "regular" cliff climbing dudes who grace the mag's "Let's Rock" cover story -- the ones who can skeddadle up 10,000 feet of Yosemite granite formations while puffing on a fag, clearly undaunted by the Surgeon General's Warning about complications caused by smoking during pregnancy. But not just any regular guy can read this magazine: you've got to sign a pledge certifying your status as a smoker to qualify for an Unlimited subscription.

A complimentary issue arrived unsolicited at my doorstep nonetheless, carelessly misdirected to a reformed smoker -- and a chick to boot. I wondered if I could kick my clean lung habit just long enough for a good read. I wasn't hopeful. I'd heard too many tobacco lies already this year, and here was Philip Morris trying to convince me that these buff boys I saw kayaking and windsurfing in sporty feature stories were just waiting to get out of the wet and take a drag on a cancer stick.

Unlimited makes no boners about its limited interests: guys, guys' sports, guys' gear, guy bonding, and, well, chicks -- as in "How to Take Your Girlfriend Camping," a disparaging guide to help guys in guiding their make-up-addicted babes in the woods. The rest of the articles are similarly illuminating--consider "Major Stud," (no, no, it's about poker) and "Hog Wild," a paean to Harley envy.

Has the PC anti-smoker movement made smoking so retro that only "regular guys" who live in a '50s time warp will pick up a pack? Or has a lifetime of corporate tobacco fibbery simply twisted the collective Marlboro mind? What have they been smoking, anyway?

I hate to tell them, but We've Come a Long Way, Baby. I seem to know a lot of chicks who chomp on cigars too. (Now if that's not biting off the apotheosis of masculinity I don't know what is.) So why doesn't Marlboro want the girlie business? Our cash ain't hard enough?

Actually, I'm not even sure how Marlboro's babe-bashing, faux fitness zine is supposed to addict a new generation of men to the old cowboy vices. There's not a cigarette to be found anywhere in the mag, except in the mouth of the quintessential Marlboro man on the back cover. And while I'm sure there's some subtle between-the-lines persuasion going on here, what could it be? "Get physical with the boys, trash your woman and have a fag?" I guess someone finally told the M-man that kissing up to a smoker is like licking an ashtray. You've got to get dirty to get what you want.

Clearly, Marlboro realized that real men don't wear Stetsons, and that an image update was overdue. But couldn't the company have gone for cachet with the cafe society instead of the frat pack? After all, the literary world was built on an eternity of romantics drawing on stogies while burning the poetry out of their souls. Now the tortured black-clad artists among us -- unable to contend with their cool image being desecrated by yuppie poster boys on snowboards-- may simply go up in smoke. If Marlboro has its way, an all-male jock club will be hacking its way up Half Dome, littering Tuolumne Meadows with dead butts, while the rest of us sit grumbling in smokeless cafes.

I guess it's a guy thing. Even after my big-daddy Unlimited hormone injection, I guess I'm just not manly enough to get the equation of studliness and cigs, or to see why women are a threat to the nicotine bond. But as far as I'm concerned, if the dudes that dig the editorial line that Marlboro is pushing want to queue up now for the cancer ward, I'm not going to stop 'em.

By Kaitlin Quistgaard

Kaitlin Quistgaard, Salon's former technology editor, writes frequently about the arts and South America, where she once lived.

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