In the line of duty it was necessary to acquire a copy of Playboy last week. This I accomplished at a news emporium where the clerk, after parting me from the not inconsiderable sum of $3.68, asked if I would like a paper bag for my purchase. What a silly question! The magazine I had just bought, after all, was what full-page newspaper advertisements had proclaimed to be "the new Playboy." Surely there was no need to sneak away from the newsstand with my "Collector's Edition" in brown paper wrapping; I had a "revolution" in hand, and I wanted the world to know.
"Thirty-two years ago," the ads had said, "a young actress named Marilyn Monroe waved hello from the front cover of a rough-edged, new magazine to an eager new generation of young men. That first issue of Playboy went on to inspire an editorial and social revolution. And for the past three decades, young American men have accepted Playboy's message and spirit as their own.
"This week, another revolutionary magazine hits the nation's newsstands. Again, its name is 'Playboy,' but it's a magazine for today -- as different in look, feel and spirit as life in the 80s is different from the 50s. Once again, Playboy dares to be different: Perfect-bound. Bolder. Brasher. Wittier. Wiser. Smarter. Sassier. Sexier, yet more tasteful. And as a result, more compelling and contemporary than any other men's magazine. In short, a magazine that another young male generation -- today's -- can truly call its own. Discover the new Playboy for yourself at newsstands now."
It was an invitation no red-blooded boy could resist, even one in his middle forties. "Sexier, yet more tasteful": Isn't that the goal toward which our entire society has been striving for lo these three tumultuous decades? So off to the newsstand I went, to join the revolution. But having been there, and having come back alive, I have this report from the front lines: The "new" Playboy is approximately as radical a departure as the "new" Coke -- it's more of the same, except maybe a little sweeter.
If anything, what is remarkable about the "new" Playboy is not how much it has changed but how little. To be sure, it is now, as its editors inform their breathless readers, perfect-bound, "which means that we are held together neatly with glue and we look more like a book"; this eliminates the staple in the Playmate's bellybutton, the subject of a singularly unfunny little essay by Buck Henry, one of Hugh Hefner's favorite jesters. There is also "a fresh new graphics approach," which means little more than that the magazine looks a bit less cluttered typographically than it used to.
But in every other respect it is clear that Playboy's readers had no more to fear from revolution than did the dowager empress Maria Theresa. In all respects that matter, Playboy just goes hippity-hoppity along the bunny trail as merrily, if sophomorically, as ever. The flawless bodies of flawless young women are as much on display in the October issue as they were in September's, and if any truce has been called in the famous Pubic Wars against Penthouse and Hustler, there is precious little evidence of it. This month's Playmate, a creature called Cynthia Brimhall, shows as much of herself as any boy could possibly want to see, and she speaks the language of Playmate just as did the immortal Janet Pilgrim and hundreds of other lovelies:
"I don't ever go out with men and have casual sex. That's gross. Still, I think sex is one of the best things you can do. It's better than money. I'd much rather have a poor boy who was good in bed than a rich one who just bought me things. In fact, if you gave me a choice between an unlimited supply of money or the best sexual experiences, I'd go for the sex."
If that doesn't get a poor boy's fantasies into fifth gear, what on Earth could? Well, since you asked: Just about everything else in Playboy, which after the tumult of revolution remains just what it has always been, a fantasy magazine beyond which any sci-fi publication pales. From "The World of Playboy" at the beginning to "Playboy on the Scene" at the end, the magazine is devoted to indulging the adolescent, or arrested-adolescent, fantasies of its readers. These take many forms, most involving sex and/or technology, but they all boil down to the dream of being a man of the world: a man who sleeps with wholesome but insatiable women, who drives the sleekest and fastest automobiles, who listens to music (none of it classical, if you please) on state-of-the-art equipment, who holidays in remote, exotic places, and who dresses with just the right balance between formality and comfort.
Thus the "new" Playboy offers, as the old did, features designed to make the reader feel an insider in this dream world and to ease his passage through it. "Playboy After Hours," "Dear Playmate," "The Playboy Advisor," "The Playboy Forum," "Playboy Guide: Fashion" -- on and on they march, doling out the inside skinny on life with Hef and counseling the reader on matters as various, though uniformly momentous, as video recorders, wine, movies, books, and of course oral sex, which is enthusiastically endorsed by the bunny hutch as essential to "the human potential for enjoyment."
Lest you think, though, that all is mere play in the new/old world of Playboy, be advised to the contrary. A house advertisement that asks, "What Sort of Man Reads Playboy?" leaves no question about that. It quotes a racing-car driver named Danny Sullivan: "I started reading it in high school. Sure, I liked the pictorials. Who doesn't? But as I grew with the magazine, I realized how well-written the articles were, and I liked the people who were being interviewed."
Thus it is that nestled between the Playmate and "Girls of the Pac 10" we find Literature. In the "new" Playboy as in the old, Literature is written by the likes of Robert Stone, Bob Greene, Thomas McGuane and Pete Hamill -- regular guys (Greene's piece, in fact, is called "Guys") who know their way around the world and know, as well, how to sling a mean, if occasionally meaningless, sentence. They write Literature about sex and adventure and drugs and life in the fast lane, which is where every Playboy in his fantasies always drives. They make the magazine look comfortably respectable because their names are well known in all the right places; their presence turns Playboy into a skin magazine with class, if that's your definition of class.
This is the eternal truth: Playboy can stage a million revolutions, but a skin magazine it will always be. "Sexier, yet more tasteful" may be the new motto, but it's the sex that sells and any good taste is strictly a bonus. That none of it is immediately evident in the "Collector's Edition" should come as a surprise to no one.