In a press release on October 13, 2015 Playboy announced that it will eliminate nude imagery from its print magazine as the next step in their brand realignment strategy. The changes began last summer with a re-launch of Playboy.com as a “safe for work” website. This is the first time in their 62 year history that there will be no nudes in their publication, with the magazine redesign to debut as the March 2016 issue. Helming the overhaul is Chief Content Officer Cory Jones, and Chief Executive Officer Scott Flanders.
It is impossible to discuss this radical departure from their brand ethos without touching on the social and historical impact Playboy has made on our culture. Flanders was quick to point out that, “The political and sexual climate of 1953, the year Hugh Hefner introduced Playboy to the world, bears almost no resemblance to today. We are more free to express ourselves politically, sexually and culturally today, and that’s in large part thanks to Hef’s heroic mission to expand those freedoms.” Hefner has stated time and again that Playboy’s mission was to expose its audience to the finer things in life, including pleasure for its own sake, that they were offering a lifestyle.
The 1950s in America was rife with traditional family values, and cookie cutter homes and appearances, so whether you support Hefner’s intentions or not, what he achieved was groundbreaking. Playboy became a reflection of the rapidly changing times, and with that it falls in a vastly overlapping social and cultural Venn diagram of masculinity, feminism, nudity, artifice and sex. Taking all of this into account, and the proliferation of free sexual and pornographic content available on the Internet in our modern age, one wonders what lifestyle they are offering now.
Playboy was a strong component of the sexual revolution that sparked its fair share of backlash, imitation, and appreciation. Coinciding with the Feminist Movement and Women’s Liberation, Playboy was often derided as a “skin mag” on par with its raunchier counterparts Hustler and Penthouse. Playboy, however, retained its reputation as a publication that presented investigative journalism, in-depth interviews, and intriguing fiction – while the latter made up for what they lacked in depth by presenting ever more salacious content. While it is a long running joke that Playboy subscribers only “read the articles,” the magazine’s features on relevant public figures and celebrities captured the true essence of the brand. Playboy was aspirational, and almost attainable.
Looking back on past issues, the first Playmate centerfolds look downright wholesome. They appear to have an “awe shucks” air about them, as though they have been caught undressing in sight of an attractive neighbor’s window. As time progressed, and advances in culture, science and equality were made; subscribers were greeted with an ever-changing presentation of the “ideal” female form. However, the common denominator amongst all Playmate’s is that they fit the Playboy mould, “On top is the face of Shirley Temple; below is the body of Jayne Mansfield.”
Moving through the decades the Playmates lose their dewy youthfulness in appearance as both the women and the settings become more stylized. The most noticeable change occurred during the 1970s with the first photographs revealing pubic hair in an attempt to compete with the racier Penthouse. During the 1980s artificiality increased apace with the decade of excess. Increasingly the settings, props, and poses of the nude women spoke to the nature of artifice. There was nothing natural about the woman presenting herself to you. Where once the voyeur might have believed in an invitation from this entity of their desire, she became a flat object of unrealistic perfection.
The Playmate centerfold photographs of today reveal no flaws; nothing to individualize the subject, but maybe that is the point. It could just be a reflection of our time, the current appeal in artifice as seen in all other publications that render today’s models, athletes and celebrities as unattainable, airbrushed vessels of perfection. The nude form has lost all of its artistic connotations, and nearly all of its eroticism because of the deluge of sexual imagery we are subjected to daily. The ease with which anyone can acquire titillating content on multiple electric devices has reduced the nude form to pure objectification, removing all traces of personality and humanity. So then, perhaps Playboy still defines the values of our era by presenting to its audience a blank canvas for which to project upon its own sexual desires, merely a vehicle for our pleasurable catharsis.
So we have to ask ourselves, are we disappointed? Is the point now that to break societal barriers Playboy must choose to not show nudes, to not stay the course as Hustler did – becoming even raunchier as its only defense against the proliferation of free porn available on the Internet. Is the next big thing to cover up instead of uncovering? Case in point, Miley Cyrus shocks no one with her pasties and barely-there ensembles. Or the fact that some of the most famous “celebrities” acquired said fame through self-made, and most likely self-released, sex tapes.
Despite all of its pretensions as “the classy man’s smut,” Playboy was a socially acceptable platform for the appreciation of the naked female body. Decry if you will the objectification and misogyny that this implies, the publication was not always a roadblock to Feminism. At its height Playboy paved the way for similar publications. Its very existence and acceptance helped give rise to Playgirl magazine in 1973 as a counterpoint to the hyper-masculine, swinger lifestyle that Playboy promoted. Increasingly there is a dichotomy in Feminism where one half eschews all things associated with feminine wiles, and the other half embraces it fully, using sex appeal, make-up and nudity to make a point.
Some of the most notable corporate figures of Playboy have been women – Hugh Hefner’s own daughter Christie Hefner was Chief Executive for 20 years. She brought Playboy into the modern age, helping to start Playboy TV and Playboy.com. She also expanded their pornography products, including the purchase of Spice TV. A long time contributing editor of the magazine was also a woman, Gretchen Edgren. With the magazine revamp, Jones stated that their resident sex columnist will be a “sex-positive female,” writing enthusiastically about sex.
The target audience for Playboy, as it is for most media, is the Millennial, as Jones stated specifically “young men that live in cities.” Millennials, however, are notorious for refusing to pay for content and being suspicious of anything that seems inauthentic. More details of the brand realignment will be announced in the coming months, with hopes that Playboy will survive by taking up the mantle as a sophisticated men’s magazine, instead of a “lad mag.” Whether or not their content continues to be relevant, their brand is recognized worldwide. As Playboy leverages this universal recognition, one wonders if we are losing the last vestiges of an outlet for those who wish to celebrate the beauty of the female figure. There is a space in society for “tasteful” nudes without gratuitous crotch shots and senseless props. It depends on the reader if that celebration of the female form is for voyeuristic rather than artistic pursuits. After all, sex sells.
Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer, and are not supported by the companies discussed herein.
References: Playboy Enterprises, The New York Times, Forbes, The New Yorker.