I come here neither to praise Playboy nor bury it.
I was once a regular reader of the magazine (snicker all you want at the word “reader”) but I haven’t bought one in probably 20 years. I think I last looked through one in the early 2000s, when a (female) friend of mine had a subscription.
So news this week that Playboy would no longer publish photos containing nudity didn’t make me chuckle or mourn or wax nostalgic. If that’s what you think this blog entry is, you should be aware this particular post is non-waxing.
The news did leave me wondering, though: Can Playboy do anything to be relevant again? (The answer: Not really.)
And the news made me a little sad that Playboy had been so thoroughly irrelevant for the past two decades.
It’s not (really it’s not) the lack of carefully waxed (and airbrushed) nude models that anybody will miss. There’s no deficit of naked women (and men, for that matter, although they were never Playboy’s thing) out there, from one end of the Internet to the other.
There was a time, for a couple of decades after Playboy debuted in 1953, when the magazine was a big deal. Sure there were the photo layouts of beautiful women who compliantly posed naked in front of the refrigerator or in the barn (“Friends” made mincemeat of this cliche) and listed their turn-ons (“avocados, sunshine”) and turn-offs (“rude people”) – like you were ever gonna make use of that information – in the gatefold (NOT centerfold) interview.
And scoff all you want about “reading Playboy for the articles,” but the fiction and non-fiction content of the magazine was great. Ask most of the authors working in the 1970s: They wanted to get their short stories and articles in front of more than 5 million pairs of eyeballs.
Now the magazine’s circulation is about 800,000.
While a lot of that decline can be attributed to the wide variety of nekkidness online, it’s also because almost nobody thinks about Playboy for its fiction or non-fiction or interviews anymore.
The cover of the latest issue promises not only Girls of the Big 12 but a list of the top party schools and interviews with actors Jeff Garlin and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Would that be enough to draw you in without the promise of even “tasteful” nudity, whatever that is?
Okay, here’s a little waxing. Remember when Jimmy Carter gave Playboy that “lust in my heart” interview?
If not, how about the February 1975 issue with the most hilarious celebrity interview ever, with director Mel Brooks. Brooks had two movies out that year. You might have heard of them: “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein.”
Playboy did THE relevant articles and interviews. They helped sell the seriousness with photos of naked women. Sometimes in barns.
I will praise, just a bit, Playboy’s role in the sexual revolution. Yes, the magazine totally objectified women. But I read plenty of articles and Q-and-As from the time that demonstrated an eagerness for sexual equality that had to have been mirrored in some of the country’s most liberal bastions. It was a selfish motivation, of course: Who wouldn’t want your partner to feel sexually free? But the ends justified the means.
I have to say I’m less than enchanted, in retrospect, with the anything-for-the-pursuit-of-sex practices that surrounded the Playboy philosophy. The magazine regularly published a page of photos of models, playmates and guests like Cosby and Shel Silverstein and Jimmy Caan hanging out in the Chicago or L.A. mansions and I would bet there were few of us who didn’t wish we were there.
I picked the photo at the top there, of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and pal Bill Cosby, to illustrate this entry because they symbolize to me and plenty of others the Playboy lifestyle most of us aspired to.
We know now, of course, the poisonous fruits of that lifestyle, at least as typified by Cosby.
So while Playboy captured some attention with the announcement that it would no longer publish nudes – presumably joining the likes of Esquire and … what, tattoo and biker magazines? – it’s hard to imagine anyone coming to the magazine for Chive-type shots of chicks with picturesque tattoos.
So can Playboy reinvent itself?
No. And it shouldn’t.
The Saturday Evening Post typified a time in publishing. So did Life and Newsweek and one of my favorites, National Lampoon.
So did Playboy. And that time is past.