so I read in the paper that the National Geographic, that stolid, anachronistic remnant from our imperialist past, is about to go commercial in a big way. Oh, sure, the magazine has already made a few baby steps into the new media world -- it does, after all, have its own Web site. But with the magazine slipping from the hands of its founding family at last, eager upstarts at the society want to stride even more boldly into the next century -- launching cable ventures and feature films and even more elaborate CD-ROMs, making deals with Columbia Tristar and Rupert Murdoch, selling stuffed animals and T-shirts in Disney-style stores. And the magazine itself is scheduled to get snappier as well, with shorter articles and less emphasis on ivory tower arcana. The company's new president, Reg Murphy, tells the New York Times he's "the least scholarly person you know."
It's certainly true that the magazine could use a bit of a face lift. But the new guard at the National Geographic Society, transfixed by new ideas and new technologies, doesn't seem to recognize that its greatest hope for revitalizing the magazine -- whose circulation has slipped nearly 2 million from its high of 10.9 million in 1989 -- lies not in abandoning but in embracing its past, in resurrecting one of the magazine's most fondly remembered features.
I'm talking, of course, about the naked ladies.
For generations of young men venturing, like Thor Heyerdahl in his Kon Tiki, into the stormy seas of adolescence, the National Geographic was a source of great knowledge and wisdom. For 12-year-old boys of my generation it was -- unless we had ready access to the Playboy collections of our friends' divorced fathers -- the only place in the world we could regularly glimpse real naked ladies.
You won't find many of them in the Geographic today. It's all "geo" and no "graphic." But in its heyday, they were everywhere. The National Geographic photographers found them slaughtering cattle in Bangladesh, eating bugs in the jungles of Mindanao, jumping for joy in Java. I nearly jumped for joy myself when I discovered, one sordid summer afternoon in the mid-'70s, that the enterprising photographers had even found a few semi-naked ladies in Spain, sunning themselves at a topless beach. (Alas, they were facing away from the camera.)
Getting these shots, I knew, was not easy. Potential (and actual) naked ladies did not always make themselves readily available to the photographers' hungry lenses. But the National Geographic photographers were legendary for their patience -- some jungle photographers, the Times noted, would boast that they'd waited up to three weeks for a certain gorilla to take a bath. How long did it take for ordinary savages to become naked savages? Only the photographers know for sure. But they were willing to wait as long as it took. Nowadays, the only photographers with that kind of patience work for the Sun and the Star -- and all they've gotten from it have been a few blurry shots of topless royals.
The Geographic photographers fared somewhat better. On one early-'70s excursion into the "green heart of Brazil," the local jungle folk approached the outsiders with extreme wariness, and it was many days until any women showed themselves at all. But they were, photographic evidence suggests, worth the wait. Accompanied by a large group of men, three young women (wearing "necklaces of dyed nutshells and almost nothing else") finally approached the camp of the intruders. "Impressed by their poise," a photo caption explains, "the author named them the 'Three Graces.'" The camp cook was not so quite so impressed. "Though demure, the ['Three Graces'] were unabashed and headed directly for our kitchen," our intrepid guide informs us. "The cook was delighted and showed them around. But his smile faded when the ladies departed with all the pots and pans they could carry."
Ah, but who can say no to a naked lady?
The current editors of the National Geographic, apparently. Looking through the magazine today, you'd think the world had run out of topless savages. I can't believe that's the case. And even if it is true, can't the photographers improvise a little? They did in the old days. Indeed, a recent investigation of the real "stone age cavemen of Mindanao" (profiled in the magazine in 1972) suggests that the topless cuties I took such an interest in back then were in reality partial to T-shirts and many other accouterments of clothed societies throughout the world.
But the National Geographic photographers -- like all great naked-lady photographers -- didn't let the cold facts get in the way of their art. We wanted topless savages; they gave us topless savages. Is that so wrong? I mean, does anyone really believe that Jenny McCarthy really relaxes at home with a cigar, wearing nothing but white gloves and a choker? Or that Pamela Anderson Lee spends her afternoons idly strumming at a guitar, oblivious to the fact that one of her artificially enhanced boobs is swinging free from her too-loose dress? Of course not. But that didn't stop Hef from running pictures of both of these improbabilities in the latest Playboy.
When it comes to naked ladies, in other words, we're willing to suspend a lot of disbelief.
Sure, the Geographic will take some heat from cultural anthropologists and feminists. But the loss of those 617 readers will be made up for by the addition of 600,000 or so adolescent boys to the subscription lists.
And think of the promotional possibilities:
Geo Graphic -- we give you the shirt off their backs!.
Geo Graphic -- where only the rain forests are virgins!.
Geo Graphic -- because Great Pyramids aren't found only in Egypt!.
Reg, can we talk?