PLAYBOY ENTERPRISE gave birth to an all-American sex symbol: the woman in bunny ears, a bow tie and tail, a degrading costume by today’s standards, and yet deemed liberating by many of the women (though, not Gloria Steinem) who slipped into the tights and satin suits. Women who were otherwise expected to wear an apron and a grin. Begging the question: which is more demeaning, being in charge of your future even if it includes a fluffy cotton-tail bigger than your head, or being thought the property of a husband, but supplied with as many aprons as your heart desires? Many women opted for the former.
It has been reported that in the 1970s a quarter of all college men bought Playboy, and presumably stuffed the dirty magazine under their dorm room mattresses.
In 1971 the company went public.
But as the magazine dealt with competition from monthlies like Hustler and Penthouse, and as they witnessed the advent of online porn, Playboy’s market holding weakened– there was racier content to be streamed– for free at that– and at the beginning of 2011, Hugh Hefner, who has remained editor in chief since founding the magazine in 1953, bought back the company’s public stock for $6.15 per share, and took the company private once more. This decision provided many outlets the opportunity to seal Playboy’s fate with a this-place-is-dead-anyway kiss, and a don’t-let-the-door-hit-your-tail-on-the-way-out slap on the back. They weren’t entirely wrong.
For a long time Playboy has been trying to put old wine in new bottles, or still, cheap plastic shot glasses sold in Vegas with matching low cut tank-tops. Even amid falling sales and prolonged periods of lassitude, it has continued to package Hefner’s dated vision for the magazine which, much like the mansion, has been in disrepair for years. Subscriptions are down. Interest is lazy. Hef can’t relinquish control. Even the fall of the empire is meh.
What the magazine needs to do is put new wine in old bottles– adapt to the new generation while maintaining the classiness and thoughtful articles that it’s always joked the smut-mag contains. Something that editorial director Jimmy Jellinek, who has said that he wants female readers, might be able to do if he can overcome the misogynist pellets that trail Hef, his clubs, and the brand.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Playboy benefited greatly from the Sexual Revolution, the advent of the Pill, and the purported notion that its founder loved women. While Hef’s own views on woman are more than murky, in many ways Playboy was one of the first outlets that allowed women to “own” their sexuality, confirming conservatives’ worst fears that women could be mothers and more, a conversation that continues to swirl around celebrities like Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus. Can you wedge feminism between a stripper pole and a baby? We say yes.
But today, Playboy Enterprise needs to make Playboy the magazine relevant to the new generation of men and women who want something more from the all-American sex symbol. The generation who has the F-word on the end of their tongues. If Jellinek plays his cards right, and manages to supersede his silky-robed boss, what Playboy will benefit from is owning the landscape as a truly progressive publication– something that it has shown signs of in the last weeks.
In 2003, then-associate editor of Playboy, Alison Prato, told the Chicago Tribune,“Playboy has always stood for freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom to take your clothes off if you please.”
If you please are three very important words in the wake of this past week’s egregious violation of female privacy. The women who have posed for the magazine willingly took their clothes off. They knew exactly what they were getting into, and subsequently out of; they knew people were going to be looking. And that was their choice to make, perhaps sometimes coerced by Hef or managers who dangled the promise of career or fame like carrots, but nonetheless they were given agency in their decision. Remember in the first season of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” when Kim is considering doing Playboy? The now media mogul asks Hef if she will have to be naked. His response is a very clear: “Oh yes.”
Kim Kardashian’s decision, as well as those of countless other women, some actresses, some models, some still unknowns, was active. She was part of the conversation, a voice at the table.
Unlike the 101 actresses who unwillingly had nude photos stolen from their iClouds and proliferated across the Internet. (Side note: Please don’t call it a leak. A leak is passive. A leak is something your faucet does. Or something a man takes when he’s on a long road trip. A leak is not an appropriate term for the aggressive nature of this abuse.)
The blatant violation of the female body was very neatly summed up in this sentence from Playboy article “Jennifer Lawrence Is Not a Thing to be Passed Around:”
As exciting as I found the prospect of looking at JLaw’s naked body (and I did find it very exciting), my deliberate pause made me consider something. And that something was this: I wanted to look at Jennifer Lawrence’s naked business, but Jennifer Lawrence probably really, really, really did not want me to look at Jennifer Lawrence’s naked business.
This is the same Playboy who, the week prior, published a spot-on infograph about whether or not you should cat-call a woman. Its main takeaway: unless you know the woman and know she would enjoy your advances, her body is not your wonderland and it certainly isn’t for hollering.
Whether this is good marketing, or Jellinek’s smarts, Playboy appears to understand, and understand better than any other men’s publication, that women’s bodies can be enjoyed by men, but only when it is at the affirmative of the woman herself. Still, many will argue that Playboy, which, on its own cover is deemed “Entertainment for Men,” thinks women’s bodies are indeed for men: to be enjoyed by men sitting on the john, men on business trips, men in the privacy of their own homes.
But if Playboy continues to present itself in this new light, and could market itself so that a quarter of all college women subscribed to the magazine, it could not only be the ticket to its rebirth, but could supply college women with body-positive messaging and the great articles it’s always been known for. And if college men started to steal the pub from female friends’ dorm rooms, displayed on desks and not under decade old mattress springs? Well, they could greatly benefit from a sex-positive, empowering conversation too.
Could Playboy once again change the pornscape of America? We sure could use it.