At a moment when pop culture is becoming more sexually explicit and the Internet has made it easier than ever to find images of naked people, posted both with and without their consent, it was big news when the news broke yesterday that Playboy will no longer publish images of completely nude women. It’s possible to parse the magazine’s impending redesign for insights about everything from the economy of publishing to the state of sex in America. But Playboy’s decision offers us another opportunity as well: to assess Playboy’s cultural impact without the distraction of a centerfold.
While Playboy may have been famous first for its Playmates, there has always been more to the magazine and the Playboy brand than that. When people invoke that old chestnut of the Playboy fan who insists that he reads the magazine only for the articles, they’re ignoring that Playboy has published tons of great, perceptive journalism over the course of its long existence. And the magazine has long sold not just images of women, but an idea of how men might productively relate to women, one that combined a new vision of masculinity with the insight that heterosexual men had a lot to gain from the sexual liberation of heterosexual women.
“Unlike the role models of other men’s publications, the Playboy bachelor did not have to display his manhood by conquering the wilderness or scoring the winning touchdown,” Howard P. Chudacoff noted in “The Age of the Bachelor: Creating an American Subculture.” “Rather, as publisher — and unmistakable bachelor — Hugh Hefner declared in the magazine’s first issue in the fall of 1953, Playboy men liked to spend most of their time indoors, in their own apartment, ‘mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, [Nietzsche], jazz, sex.’ ”
Hefner and Playboy smartly burnished this image by selling the magazine and the spinoff Playboy Clubs as a kind of convenient cultural shorthand. As early as 1965, Hefner was making guest-starring appearances in TV shows and movies, showing up in procedural “Burke’s Law” as a manager of one of the clubs and in “The Odd Couple” as himself. “Mad Men” ad executive Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) pursued a relationship with an African American Playboy club waitress, Toni Charles (Naturi Naughton), in a storyline that made Playboy look racially progressive and communicated Lane’s longing for a different kind of life. Characters as varied as “Sex and the City” libertine Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall) and “Entourage” hanger-on Johnny Drama (Kevin Dillon) made pilgrimages to Hefner. Their meetings were a way for “Sex and the City” to illustrate the extent to which Samantha had both incorporated Hefner’s sexual ideals for men into her own life and behavior and lived up to the visual fantasies of the Playboy woman, and for “Entourage” to emphasize, yet again, that Johnny Drama had a wildly exaggerated sense of his own sophistication. And that’s not even to mention Playboy-specific movies like “The House Bunny” or shows like “The Playboy Club,” NBC’s short-lived period piece about the original outpost.
If Playboy set itself up as a symbol of sophistication, the magazine also helped men prepare themselves to take advantage of second- and third-wave feminism. Playboy reported on and advocated for the movement to liberalize American abortion laws and to expand access to contraception, changes that certainly improved life for American women, but that also made it easier for men to be sexual adventurers without worrying that they’d accidentally become fathers. And rather than falling prey to an adversarial dynamic, Playboy’s sexual scripts gave men a language that allowed them to side with women without abasing themselves or feeling guilty for being men.
“The typical Playboy guy—arm candy, sports car, Canadian Club, pinkie ring—may or may not have been an exponent of marriage (I knew some who were), and certainly his getup wasn’t complete without a cool splash of patriarchalism, but it’s just as certain that girlfriend didn’t threaten him,” Jon Zobenica wrote in a terrific 2007 essay about Playboy. “This was, it seemed to me, exactly what Playboy had espoused: finding a nifty chick and sharing the good life with her.” That relaxed, confident vision of relationships between men and women is a far cry from the conversations about “alpha” and “beta” men that crop up in certain discussions about dating today.
That glorified vision of mutually consenting libertinism can be easier to achieve in theory than in practice, of course. Holly Madison, formerly one of Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends, has painted an ugly portrait of how Hefner ran his domestic life, suggesting that he essentially traded housing and a shot at fame in exchange for sex with his much younger stable of girlfriends. The Hefner of 1953 may have idealized intellectual exchanges between equals, but he appears to have enjoyed the benefits of trading on his power and cultural cachet. And while Playboy might once have been a venue for Bill Cosby to speak out about racism, the comedian, who faces scores of sexual assault allegations, is also accused of attacking women at the Playboy Mansion and a Playboy Club.
Though Playboy and Hefner’s acolytes may not have always lived up to the magazine’s stated ideals, the vision Playboy was selling also made it a target for a certain class of crasser competitors.
“Penthouse announced its entry into the American marketplace in full-page newspaper advertisements depicting the Playboy rabbit logo in the crosshairs of a rifle. ‘We’re going rabbit hunting,’ the ads proclaimed,” writes Elizabeth Fraterrigo in “Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America.” “Penthouse mocked Hefner’s pretentious crusading, promising ‘the pictures without the lectures. The pinups without the hang-ups. Writers yes, philosophizers no.’ According to [Penthouse founder Bob] Guccione, ‘They were still fighting the sexual revolution. Our starting points was that the revolution had already been won,’ ” — and that men ought to press the full advantages that had sprung from persuading women to be more sexually available.
The very sexual revolution that Playboy once championed has helped make selling images of naked women a less viable business (Penthouse’s parent company filed for bankruptcy in 2013). “Hot Girls Wanted,” a striking documentary released by Netflix this year, explores how the online pornography business cycles through a large supply of young women who are, at least for a time, willing to have sex on camera without the at least semi-glamorous trappings of a Playboy photoshoot.
In this context, Playboy’s decision to go PG-13 may be a business decision. But it’s also an opportunity to look more clearly at the magazine — and at Hefner’s — legacy without the distraction of naked pictures. It’s a different, and perhaps unintentional striptease.