Playboy will no longer publish pictures of naked women. I know what you’re thinking: Wherever will you find photos of naked women now?!
The Playboy powers-that-be, still somehow led by nearly-90-year-old founder Hugh Hefner, are well aware that magazine has been edged out of the girls-girls-girls arena by the sexual revolution it helped to spark. (The internet will surely send Hefner a thank you note any day now; maybe it got lost in the email?)
The news broke, incidentally, on the same day that Esquire trumpeted its selection of this year’s Sexiest Woman Alive, Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke. Clarke is on the cover, of course, nude in the way that one presumes women in future-Playboy will be nude.
The juxtaposition did not look great for Playboy. Getting out of the nudes-only field isn’t a bad business idea (a yearlong subscription would set you back about $20, and why buy the cow, etc.) but the space Playboy wants to enter is pretty crowded, too.
The biggest moneymaker in the Playboy kingdom isn’t the real-life bunnies — blonde, busty, bouncy — but the actual bunny in the logo. Playboy makes the lion’s (err, rabbit’s) share of its profits from licensing its iconic, bow-tied mascot, which Chicago artist Art Paul, hired by Hugh Hefner as the magazine’s first creative director, doodled up in 30 minutes.
It is that bunny, the bunny-as-#brand, that still carries with it any cultural significance or value. The bunnies in the magazine? Not so much. Maybe there are still men who turn to Playboy to see naked women, just like maybe there are still people who turn on MTV to see music videos. Neither brand has been associated with what was ostensibly its marquee product in ages.
The surprise shouldn’t be that Playboy is doing away with naked pictures. The surprise should be that Playboy kept naked pictures for so long, claiming that under its plastic-wrapped cover was some rare, special commodity when in fact what it had to offer was just a dated version of what has been readily and plentifully available elsewhere for well over a decade. The surprise, really, is that anyone still cares.
Hugh Hefner, founder and chairman of the Playboy Enterprises, Inc., is pictured amid a group of Bunnies, at the flagship Playboy Club, in Chicago, Ill., circa 1960.
In fact, it seems like most of the caring is not directed at Playboy at present but at the Playboy of the past and, by extension, a simpler time. (From the New York Times: “For a generation of American men, reading Playboy was a cultural rite, an illicit thrill consumed by flashlight.”)
So sure, people care about bygone eras, and people care about the more abstract sense that technology is taking over our lives and innocence has been all but obliterated by the rise of the internet. But does anyone really still care about Playboy? Its circulation is 800,000, down from 5.6 million in 1975. For context, the top U.S. consumer magazine is that classic, titillating rag, AARP Magazine, which boasts 22.8 million subscribers. Then comes another AARP-affiliated magazine, then a decent-size drop to Better Homes and Gardens (7.6 million). Also in the top ten: Good Housekeeping (4.3 million), Family Circle (4 million), National Geographic (almost 3.7 million), and People (about 3.5 million, but personal experience suggests that could just be because it’s kind of impossible to unsubscribe).
Much as been made of the way the internet has Sherman Marched to the Sea through the world of print, decimating every legacy institution in its path: Fare thee well, newspapers! It’s been real, glossy magazines! See you never, hardcover books! And of course the internet is a cornucopia of pornography, its offerings boundless in variety and supply. As Playboy CEO Scott Flanders told the Times, “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free.” What a time to be alive.
But it’s more than just the internet at large that’s essentially drained Playboy of its demand by flooding the world’s screens with supply. The two dominant social media platforms for imagery, Facebook and Instagram, have strict (though, many have argued, arbitrary) policies against full nudity. And in our culture of “pics or it didn’t happen,” does an image that’s never Instagrammed even exist?
This decision to, one assumes, strategically drape lingerie over models, seems to rely on a belief that the only thing standing between Playboy and success is the fact that its monopoly on full-frontal female nudity is a monopoly no more. Yet it’s not just sheer nudity that Playboy once offered. As every defensive guy you’ve ever met has surely noted, fiction by some excellent writers has run in the magazine — Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami — as have thoughtful, in-depth interviews with the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jimmy Carter.
For models and actresses, a cover was a carnal-coming-out. It was a springboard to bigger and better gigs: Anna Nicole Smith, for instance, parlayed her Playboy debut into a contract with Guess Jeans. Three years after being named Playmate of the Month, Pamela Anderson landed the role on Baywatch that made her a household name. And beyond the bodies was the promise of a lifestyle that was unattainable but not so far off from a decently-paid post-war middle class. As Jeet Heer points out at the New Republic, this Mad Men target demo was eager to partake in a culture of conspicuous consumption, with the Great Depression well in the rearview and today’s recession not even a glimmer in a Wall Street banker’s eye.
But Playboy’s brand, which once signified at least something within spitting distance of sophistication, now sets a mood that’s less “jazz and Nietzche” and more “old dude in a bathrobe and sticky floors.” In an age where Beyoncé is backlit by the glowing label of FEMINIST, young women who want to assert their sexuality aren’t likely to do so in Playboy’s pages. Models who aim to earn their Victoria’s Secret wings are better off posing next-to-naked in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue; celebrities will never want for a Sexiest Woman Alive/Woman of the Year/Hot 100/Sure, We’d Do Her/Etc spread in this gentlemanly world. Both can emerge from those photo shoots with their preferred credentials — as serious actresses and musicians, as fashion icons, as feminists, even — in tact.
Hugh Hefner with girlfriends Kendra Wilkinson, Bridget Marquardt and Holly Madison arrive at the Barnstable Brown Derby party in Louisville, Ky., Friday, May 2, 2008.
CREDIT: AP Photo/Darron Cummings
The beauty standard beloved by Playboy hasn’t kept up with the beauty standards favored by, well, everyone else. Something about today’s Playboy still feels frozen in an early-oughts aesthetic, when Paris Hilton reigned supreme and Kim Kardashian was just some brunette sorting Paris’ closet. The trio of Playmates made semi-famous by Girls Next Door, Kendra Wilkinson, Bridget Marquardt and Holly Madison, all have that long, peroxide-blonde hair, that Hooters-waitress build, that orange-tan sheen to their skin, like an Oompa-Loompa just back from the beach. There was a time when this was also the preferred look of mainstream female stars. That time was 2004.
What is Playboy in 2015? Well, in June, former Girls Next Door star Madison made the rounds promoting her book Down the Rabbit Hole, detailing her life as one of Hefner’s live-in girlfriends, in which she details her sexually disturbing, verbally abusive existence. Madison’s interviews generated a little backlash, a little backlash-to-the-backlash, and another book deal. But the main catalyst keeping Playboy ticking across that evening news chyron has been its role as the unofficial sponsor of many of Bill Cosby’s alleged rapes. Multiple women have accused Cosby of assaulting them at the Playboy Mansion. So if this news is a victory for anyone, it’s whoever at Playboy PR found a way to get “Playboy” in a headline in 2015 without the words “drugged” or “sexually assaulted” alongside it.
Playboy was intended, in Hefner’s words, for “a man between the ages of 18 and 80.” In a way, this is reminiscent of what all the late night shows are trying to do: Court all the demographics at once by providing some form of entertainment that appeals to everybody. Which is why they are mostly fast-forwardable hours with the occasional must-see YouTube clip you take with your morning coffee the day after they air. The monoculture to which Hefner catered no longer exists. And even if it did, it wouldn’t read Playboy.
The post When It Comes To Playboy, It’s Not About The Bunnies. It’s About The #Brand. appeared first on ThinkProgress.