Playboy, for many years, was a number of things.
It was, for generations of kids since the 1950s- their furtive first look at the naked female form. A stash of a dad or uncle's Playboys stuck discreetly in places kids knew to hunt for and find once the parents were gone - and what was a mystery to anyone devoid of sisters or curious female neighborhood kid friends interested in playing doctor was no longer a mystery.
It put a crease in the brain of many a male child, and very probably some female ones as well: and depending on the generation of the Playboys in question - that crease was either for a healthy front lawn, or an area as denuded and smooth as a veal cutlet.
State fairs had Playboy mirrors as the sort of thing a blue-collar muscle car driving guy from New Jersey would class up his rented room with. Even if you didn't necessarily look like the ideal they portrayed - the bunny logo was ubiquitous, and notorious.
But what it really added to the popular narrative, apart from a notorious name and some pornography - was the zeitgeist of post-war America into the sexual liberation. Young men fresh off the G.I. Bill and being courted into high wage positions suddenly had a lot of disposable income. And with the invention of the birth control pill and reliable contraception, the old rules didn't make much sense anymore. No longer did many people marry at 18, some in more shotgun related circumstances as others. (Nor did young women go visit relatives out of state and come back with a "cousin" or "younger sister"). There was a pool of young men who had disposable income and the desire for class.
And whereas Playboy was known for advancing and celebrating the sexual revolution and being on the forefront of publishing erotic photography as something that wasn't seedy - it was really known for its articles.
Oh, sure - the joke was: "I read it for the articles". But a strong case could be made for it.
The Playboy book of jazz is a seminal work, its bartending guide isn't bad either - and it published anthologies of its writing. Whether you were looking for an insightful interview or to read some hard hitting short stories, Playboy was there. It was not a place, by the 1970s, for newcomers to get their start - you really had to have the chops and you had to have serious cred to be featured in the magazine. The people who've written for the magazine was a veritable who's who and included Hunter S. Thompson, Georges Simenon, P.G. Wodehouse, Len Deighton, essays by the likes of Marshall McLuhan and Arthur C. Clarke. It even published the first English translation of a poem by Goethe. Hefner was famous for telling the Playmates, "but not for you, this would be a literary magazine". And it was.
Interview subjects didn't play it safe in talking to Playboy either. Frank Sinatra admitted to atheism. Gary Oldman ranted about how Jewish people ruled Hollywood. Michael Savage admitted to skinny dipping with Allan Ginsberg. Whether you liked or hated the people being interviewed, the interviews usually got you to see a side of the subject you never saw before.
It created some careers and it rejuvenated some. Interestingly, pop sensation Tiffany tried to reboot her career by being yet another celebrity to pose nude within its covers - a list which even included Marge Simpson of the Simpsons. Unfortunately, she decided that what she wanted was the press without actually being nude - so she took some "arty" blurry photographs with the various parts of her people would be curious about obscured with long hair, or covered with an artfully placed thigh. According to what's probably an urban legend her photos were sent back with the suggestion that maybe she try again with the relevant parts of interest unobscured. (She later did a duet with industrial band Front Line Assembly).
Playboy were instrumental in presenting an atomic age, young moneyed young professional, suave, jazz-listener, complete with nice car and the bachelor pad - the most famous of which is the Playboy Mansion, up for sale (Hugh Hefner as permanent resident included). He might have appreciated female breasts, but he also wanted to know about art, style, geopolitics, and how to mix the perfect cold martini. It was the kind of suave, self-assured manliness of a 007 type that generations of men aspired to.
Other magazines took up the mantle. Penthouse was harder hitting, Hustler was more about the skin and went far raunchier than Playboy's artfully lit, soft focus tableaux. But as a lifestyle brand, or even as philosophy - Playboy was IT.
Then a few things happened.
Feminism, for starters. The sexual revolution takes both genders to work properly, and in theory Playboy was all for women's liberation. For a man to escape a script of marrying the teenage sweetheart and everyone waiting for marriage, a certain amount of emancipation of women had to happen, just from a pragmatic perspective. But subsequent waves of feminism brought about the idea that the male gaze was problematic at best and part of rape culture at most. Objection to the centerfold went from Puritan pseudo-Christian prudery and appeal to modesty - to a far more real concern that women are not objects to be consumed. Suddenly the idea of being a suave, seductive alpha wolf lost its appeal.
Men also lost their footing in terms of earning power. The kind of salary that used to finance a family of four (and by extension, a really nice standard of living for one) became half of what it took to afford to live in most cities, with two-income households being a near-necessity. In the 2010s, in many cities in America - young women often outearn men. The body of young affluent male professionals with leisure time and tons of disposable income, the core demographic of the Playboy brand - disappeared.
And of course, the third revolution was the Internet. You didn't have to buy a magazine to look at the naked female form: at a click of a mouse you can get everything from man-on-girl to four-men-and-a-stick-of-butter. On Reddit and elsewhere, tons of gleeful young girls next door happily and joyfully volunteer their bodies for the prurient thrill of interacting with an enthusiastic crowd appreciating their form. In a world where a cellphone camera can take a high definition photo of the girl next door, why drive somewhere and pay money to buy a magazine featuring the cheerleader at the local university?
The answer, of course, is the articles.
Facing a serious sea change in terms of people's consumption of magazines - namely that many read articles by magazines shared on the Internet on Reddit and on Facebook rather than purchasing one in print - Playboy took the bold step of announcing it was eliminating nudity completely from its magazine, making viewing the site and consuming the brand worksafe (where most people consume new media). The fact that the editorial helm was taken over by a young woman, and one with strong feminist leanings - also affected this decision.
And in theory, that's awesome. As a subscriber for many years, I genuinely did read it for the articles, and updating the brand as something both genders can enjoy, together - is nothing short of fantastic.
But, just to be on the safe side, I let my subscription lapse. The final issue I got was the final nudity-included one. Pamela Anderson on the cover. (It's a collector's item, now). I figured I'd buy the first edition on the newsstand and decide from there if I was going to purchase it again.
And I am glad that I did.
The format's different. The fonts have changed. It now looks like the magazine you get inside the seat pocket of an airplane, in terms of format and in terms of paper stock, print and so forth. Steel yourself Angie, I told myself - you can get through this.
The cover, for the record, is of a young woman, wearing a tank top and panties, with her arm extended as if taking a selfie with the camera involved. At the bottom is the text "heyyy ;)".
The first article looked promising: in a "Food and Wine" vibe, they were presenting the latest in cocktails, an amber vermouth/whiskey combination presented in a Collins glass. Okay, fair enough...
Then the body blows kept coming. Jesse Eisesnberg, described almost third person, in terms of becoming Lex Luthor. An interview with two comedienne Amy Schumer knockoffs "who will explain pegging to your mom". A (female) bartender explaining to me how to pick her up. ("Buy me a drink from my own bar and don't complain about how I do my job.") A female author talking about how awesome an IUD is. A sex question answered. "Is it a problem if I'm into phone sex?" "Yes." And Rachel Maddow talking about being a lesbian, and a socialist and how people wanted to kill her. And of course, the commentary that just because a woman takes a pic of herself nude doesn't mean she isn't a feminist.
The only half-interesting article is a first person narrative from a guy who was deported back to Mexico after being arrested multiple times for DUI and drug possession, who was amazed to find out that he's not eligible for Obama's amnesty program as a habitual criminal (but I started a magazine called THROWD!)
There are photographs in the publication, of course. A few underwear shots, some shot close up at the mons veneris area. Some advertisers published photos of women with bits of pictures of their product occupying the spots where breasts, buttocks and or the pudenda would be. A picture of Dree Hemingway, totally nude but with her hand over both breasts and another one parked over her pubic mound, with her hunched over, giggling. A lot of suggestive gazes, but nothing beyond the boundaries of what you'd see in the average fashion magazine advertisement.
I could be in the minority here, and sales figures are too soon to tell - but frankly, this isn't exactly the kind of new order girl power missive that would mollify its former critics. It doesn't matter whether you can actually see someone's pubic mound, or she's got her thigh curved to the side obscuring it - the intent of having her body as there for male consumption is still the same. Whether it was the old school girl posing with pearls in a beachside bedroom, or a new-school one where the girl is naked on a bearskin rug, biting her lower lip, though it's posed so there's no parts of her visible that would be against PG-13 rules.
Also juxtaposed in the pages of this magazine: protestors with signs saying "keep your rosaries off my ovaries", and a self-flagellating young man asking if sex is still meaningful if it's practically on demand.
All it's managed to do is take what was once formerly a self-assured sophistication, and turn it into an exercise in mewling self-pity juxtaposed with what amounts to being assured that it's OK - girls like sex too. But we knew that. A significant percentage of its old guard subscribers were female. But not only did it tear that to pieces, it dumbed itself down far too much. It was a magazine that interviewed Miles Davis and introduced the world to Marshall McLuhan with an epic, long-form in-depth interview - do I really want to read a mag whose biggest scoop is a bit about a female bartender telling me how to pick her up? What's the matter, did Mens Fitness already have its fluff piece for the month?
What it's turned into - in other words, is Maxim. Even though those magazines are dying a very very rapid death. Maxim - only toned down and spoken from the perspective of a would be female best-friend-wingwoman who really has your best interests in mind. It reminded me far too much of too many requests on Reddit where young women inquired how to be hot and sexually suggestive without actually doing anything remotely prurient. Maybe Tiffany should reconsider submitting her photos again - and allow some 20something female staffer to tell her story in the third person, with her - like everything else, now at arm's length.