The magazine aimed not only to be titillating masturbatory material, but an insight and somewhat guide into the life of a playboy, guided by no bigger philanderer than Hefner himself. The Playboy empire spawned Playboy Clubs, the Playboy Mansion, two television series (Playboy’s Penthouse and Playboy After Dark) and countless controversies. By the 1990s, the brand had become so popular you could spot twelve year old girls with the bunny logo emblazoned on their t-shirts. He vocally supported the Black Rights Movement at a time when to do so was contentious, hosting bands on his show Playboy’s Penthouse in multi-gendered and multi-racial groups, which was unheard of at the time. He welcomed black comedians into his clubs – although black women are still few and far between to appear in the magazine. He sent a black journalist to interview a neo-nazi, and faced Gloria Steinham on national television to discuss the women’s movement and Playboy’s role within it. Suffice to say, Hugh Hefner was not afraid to be combative.
But most revolutionary of all, of course, were the naked women. His vision was to show that we were “surrounded by beauty” and that women could and should be sexual. The provocative poses of the women looking directly into the camera invited the (male) readers to fantasise liaisons, and supposedly encouraged women to embrace their sexuality. The ‘Playmate of the month’ category was intended to feature women who weren’t models (but still had the appropriate physical attributes to warrant them as sexy) and thus implied that even your next door neighbour could be a secret nympho. Hefner maintains that Playboy was and is a tool for women’s sexual liberation. In the 50s America was a hot-bed of repression and angst, with a massive puritanical following and a constitution that was deeply ingrained with supposedly ‘religious’ ideology. Abortions were illegal, only basic contraception existed and women required a male signature on the paperwork to buy a car. In his own words the 50s was “not ready for nudity”. And so to get Playboy off the ground the nudity had to be supported by worthy content that would appeal to men like Hefner – educated, politically aware and horny. Throughout the years numerous impressive and often previously undiscovered writers appeared within its pages including Ray Bradbury with Fahrenheit 451 and a piece by Charles Beaumont rejected by Esquire as it pondered a world where homosexuality was the norm and heterosexuality was discriminated against. Interviews included Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bob Dylan and Rockwell. This month’s edition features words by Bret Easton Ellis, a piece on the IUD and an interview with the women from Broad City.
However, far from becoming the Gentleman’s handbook to a sophisticated life as a hedonist by the 80s Playboy’s reputation had become pornographic and tacky. Hefner’s personal life became inextricably linked with the image of Playboy, and whether the magazine had contributed to the sexual revolution of the 60s became irrelevant as the nudes became less intriguing and more explicit. It became the pinnacle of the commodification of women’s bodies – air-brushed, photoshopped, waxed, enhanced. And as the magazine sat gathering dust on the top shelves of corner shops, the third and fourth waves of feminism hit and rendered it not just tacky but offensive.
And so with 2016 came a drastic change for Playboy. Although the magazine will still feature cartoons, interviews and opinion pieces, the naked women are gone, replaced by tantalisingly almost nude women in the print magazine, but with nude shots still available if you buy an online subscription. Is it just a clever marketing tool to grab the attention of a readership that dropped from a high of 7,000,000 to a low of only 800,000? Or will tactfully covering up the naughty bits, and bringing Playboy down to the middle shelves alongside GQ and Esquire, erase the rampantly misogynist image Playboy has garnered?
But the magazine is struggling to find it’s place in the modern world. Because a plethora of porn is available on the internet, the audience for nudey mags has shrunk to sentimental men in their late forties. To tackle this, Playboy has to become a magazine worth buying for the content as much as the titillating flirtatious women and rebrand itself as a classy magazine that you wouldn’t feel embarrassed to read on the tube.
And it is certainly trying. Along with the Broad City women the edition features “rising feminist artist” Myla Dalbesio, and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, with several of the pieces written by women. There’s a tiny paragraph in “How To Pick Up Your Bartender” (notice the possessive pronoun) where said bartender herself reminds us that “I owe you nothing. Sorry, but just because you’re buying me a drink and tipping handsomely doesn’t mean you own me.”
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As much as Playboy attempts to court the feminists, it cannot help but undermine it’s efforts. In his piece “Modern Sexuality: A Case Study” Easton Ellis asks: “What was wrong with looking at beautiful women?… What was wrong with the gender based instinct to stare and covet? Why shouldn’t this be made more easily available to horny boys? And what was wrong with the male gaze?” His moronic views on women and sexuality have always been transparent, but his presence within the magazine hints at a history of catering to a readership of entitled men like himself. Clearly, however progressive Playboy is attempting to become, hiring writers from an older generation is not the way to do it. Ellis seems unaware that in the modern day it is widely known that men and women are equally sexual, and that boys are not alone in their desire for sexual gratification. The difference is that boys are brought up to believe they are owed sexual gratification, and girls are encouraged to give it to them, rather than focus on their own desires. Add to this Playboy’s idea of sexy as a complete fantasy that no woman could ever live up to, combined with the fact that all of the women in the new issue are white and thin. Allowing them a voice within it’s pages does not deter from the fact that their most important attribute is their physicality and sexuality.
When these women choose to pose for Playboy or on Instagram it isn’t empowering, but a consequence of a culture that rewards women for catering to the desires of men – and being cool enough to take their clothes off in order to momentarily be invited into the ‘boys club’. The male gaze has always been pivotal in Playboy’s centrefolds. Does a selfie by Sarah McDaniel, an Instagram star of the new generation, on the cover of the newest edition place the power back into her hands? Of course not. In fact, it only succeeds in feeling patronising.
And worst of all? It isn’t very sexy.