Desperation is mostly inseparable from masculinity. Men strain for fame, for female attention, for sad, trivial triumphs over one another. We are a people perpetually trying to figure it all out—flexing in the mirror, using lines we've heard before, trying to seem bold and dignified. We're not cowboys or poets. If we are, we wear it as a disguise. Mostly, we are vulnerable and self-conscious and probably masturbating for the third time on a Tuesday afternoon, because we're off and that Lea Thompson scene in All the Right Moves just came on. We are not men, but almost. Note: columns may also contain William Holden hero worship and meditations on cured meats.
I am watching television at four in the morning and a dozen women named things like Danni and Lyndsay and Monica are laughing at my penis. Not laughing in the way they might if my penis had a ventriloquist act or looked like Abe Vigoda, but laughing because it is pathetic and small and, like, sooo not going to work where are my keys I have to go please don’t call me.
I am watching a particularly ruthless infomercial for ExtaMax, a penis-enlargement supplement. According to its website, ExtaMax works by pushing more blood into the penis’s three chambers than the body has deemed necessary to “stretch the tissue,” which sounds sort of like someone trying to visit the moon by strapping a crate of dynamite to a pogo stick.
A blonde girl named Brianna twists her hands and says, “I feel so bad for the guys who don’t have it going on down there because unfortunately they’re going to have to either, like, get on a lot of steroids so their body looks really buff, or work super hard and make a lot of money, to, like, compensate for it.” In the ExtaMax universe, women are yammering holes who can be satiated only by monolithic cocks attached to men in Barbour jackets; the men are desperate mole people whose lone pursuit is to become Barbour men. To attractive women, small dicks are Chernobyl, the Holodomor, a Godsmack song, Mondays, and the Khmer Rouge fucking them simultaneously.
ExtaMax is humiliation porn: viciously misogynistic, unforgiving, and bleak. It preys on the desperate in a way that is so blatantly contrived, but also brutally effective and constructed like every other infomercial: Here we are, alone, in the dark, thinking about what’s wrong with us, listening to a confident woman holding a microphone and telling us unequivocally that we are defective and hopeless. They make statements that are dire and absolute; there are magnified images of the spectacular, craterous pores of a person who is not you but who is maybe sort of you.
There is such a shocking, vivid element of the ridiculous in infomercials because they are serving this to the delusional, to the helpless, to the obese, the naive, the damaged, the heathens, the women with psoriasis, the men with shriveled, runty dicks. Infomercials reduce you to nothing so that you will need their products to survive. We’re here with Jennifer, whose face looks like a pastrami sandwich. Jennifer, would you like to not have a face like a pastrami sandwich? If you have watched television after two in the morning then you have been relentlessly reminded that you are wrong. All of you: your bald head, your posture, your breath, your epidermis. Delirious televangelists thundering like Lenin at the podium, telling you your attitude is wrong, too, but that he will save you. It will only take 26 minutes plus shipping and handling. Infomercials are their own revolution, wise and inspiring only in that their audience needs them to be.
Watching television at four in the morning is to be profoundly, exhilaratingly free and alone, occupying a kind of fourth dimension where you can become everything but don’t have to become anything. Where you can get rid of your acne with six easy payments, where you are a renegade Godbro listening to Big Tymers in your Jeep Grand Cherokee as you peel out of the high school parking lot, but where you are also still sitting there, semilucid, eating waffles with your hands in the flickering glow of three blonde women nodding and applying creams to each other and trying to change their lives. It is a last salvation; you are safe to dream of plastic, homogenized American vanity without the realities of mirrors and fluorescent lights and people who think your thighs look like stegosaurus feet. Those people exist, but they are not here, only you are, triumphant and scared at the same time.
Infomercials want to know if your ass looks like a bunch of dice wrapped in a giant Band-Aid. Is it made of McFlurry and Domino's garlic dipping sauce? Real asses are the kind Cam’ron would film while taking a handheld camera around a Rite Aid in Dayton, Ohio. The Brazil Butt Lift workout insists you do not need a real ass. You need a synthetic, impossible ass.
Only then will you be loved and confident and conquer all who doubt you. It fetishizes curves and thickness so it can covertly demand less of its workout. Its name and curriculum implies, “You only have to work out hard enough to look like a brown person.” But we want this. We are a nation of frauds and cheats, impostors and illusionists, sucking in our stomachs and puffing out our chests, begging you to notice us, to clap and stare and watch as we pirouette and stand next to our old jeans. I am a new person. I am a superhero. We are sitters and enablers. The InstaSlim functions like some kind of pachyderm harness that instantly turns piles of fat into something resembling cleavage.
Infomercials are complete fabrications. Every single element. Audience members looking at each other with cocked heads and ridiculous blouses; hosts with their arms held apart as a woman walks out REBORN because “how good does she look folks, amirite?” It is all a lie. Infomercials are presented as a sort of explicitly superficial fairy tale. The exchange is not money for a transformation but money for further indulging this fantasy. People are chanting your name; they are looking at each other in disbelief. You are rich and skinny and tan and cooking chicken in only 15 minutes.
Previously by John Saward:
John Saward likes O.V. Wright and eating guacamole with no pants on. He lives in Connecticut. Follow him on Twitter @RBUAS.