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Playboy defenders, you’re embarrassing yourselves

By Amanda Marcotte
Sunday, January 4, 2009 20:02 EDT
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Thanks to seeker for pointing me towards this maudlin mourning of Playboy magazine’s increasing irrelevance. Playboy! So brilliant, so innovative, so….what’s the word? The one the writer avoids like the plague? Oh yeah, so misogynist!

If you want to know why Playboy can’t compete anymore as an intellectual heavyweight, it has less to do with the competition from internet porn (though that has something to do with it) and more to do with the growing social realization that intellectual spaces that deliberately exclude women are not so intellectually heavy at all. Oh sure, Playboy realized at some point that it needed to include female writers and thinkers in its pages, and show some amount of comfort with feminism, or it would lose relevance even faster. Brett Popplewell even goes out of his way to dig up a famous feminist writer that wrote for Playboy (Margaret Atwood), probably after realizing after getting halfway through the article that the intellectual heavyweights he mentions from the early days are all men. Playboy’s good reputation as an intelligent wank magazine pretty much requires it to show familiarity with feminism—Playboy praised Pandagon, even as Pandagon mocks Playboy! It’s smart of them to try to change with the times in order to stay relevant.* But let’s face it—as long as your main objective is putting out pictures of impossibly beautiful, uber-airbrushed, nude 18-year-olds, women are going to know that this is a boys-only environment. And boys-only environments are not intellectually relevant ones, because you’re excluding the brain power of half the human race. A handful of female writers doesn’t change the fact that the majority of women who make it into Playboy do so by getting naked.

The avoidance of this basic reality is what makes this article nonsensical.

Not so much the magazine found at the newsstand but in the basement of BMV, a book store on Bloor St. W. where you can buy back issues from 30, 40, 50 years ago. What attracts me? I read it for the articles.

Like the Q&A with Martin Luther King Jr. in the January, 1965 issue, in which the Nobel-winning leader of the civil rights movement discusses his family, faith, hopes, and his fears for the future.

“After a while, if your life is more or less constantly in peril, you come to a point where you accept the possibility philosophically,” King tells interviewer Alex Haley (of later Roots fame), in that Playboy interview. “I must face the fact … that something could well happen to me at any time. I feel, though, that if I should lose my life, in some way it would aid the cause.”

Elsewhere in that thick issue can be found 13 pages of intellectual philosophizing by Hugh Hefner himself, fiction by Jack Kerouac and Vladimir Nabokov, a tale by P.G. Wodehouse called Bingo Bans the Bomb, Ray Bradbury writing about the space age, and humour by a rising talent named Woody Allen.

It’s absolutely true that it was admirable of Hefner to use his porn money to help enrich writers who are usually aching for money. I don’t dispute that, and wish that it happened more often. I highly recommend reading this counterpart that makes it clear what a put-on this all is—writers took their paychecks from Hef, but submitted their inferior works. It worked out both ways. Writers got paid and got to hang onto their best work for more prestigious if less profitable publication, and Hefner got to be considered an intellectual by association, though not by effort. The credibility allows wankers who never actually read the Playboy “philosophy” assume that it’s a meaningful philosophy. The notion that it was especially feminist because it was pro-female pleasure is historical revisionism—Hefner made no bones about how male pleasure was the center of his world, and female pleasure is an accoutrement that exists to make sex hotter, not as a good onto itself.

In the first issue of Playboy magazine, published in December 1953, Hugh M. Hefner wrote an essay speaking for its envisioned readers: “We like our apartment. We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.” On first blush his commercial strategy here seemed straightforward: Men who make a habit of inviting female acquaintances in to talk Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz and sex will have a lot of free nights for reading Playboy magazine. Empires have been built on lesser principles.

If Hugh Hefner embodies the Playboy ideal, then it’s one where you’re talking at some deliberately obtuse but well-plasticized bimbo about these things, and she pretends to be impressed before sucking your cock. Clearly, this is an expensive hobby, because most women that fit this ideal are smart enough not to indulge the fantasy for free. The Playboy philosophy fails to read any differently than some half-literate thing you read at Men’s News Daily. Some quotes from an eye-opening article I wrote about a couple years ago:

Playboy also promoted flight from conventional domestic obligation. The lead article in the first issue, “Miss Gold Digger of 1953,” complained of the unfair treatment of men in divorce courts. This new urbane bachelor was linked to the social order not as husband but consumer — be it of a new hi-fi or different woman every night. Hefner, a 27-year-old unhappily married man with a young daughter when Playboy debuted, divorced in 1959, becoming the front man for the incipient sexual revolution. His mission was to liberate America from sexual repression……

Life at the mansion was tightly controlled. At 9 p.m. curfew was imposed when they weren’t out with Hefner. Lest Hef be seen as a cuckold, Girfriends weren’t allowed to see other men (an edict the women violated). Privacy was limited; security shadowed them at clubs; their phone calls were screened. “It is not a real, equal or intimate relationship,” St. James writes, should the reader be in doubt.

The Girlfriends’ schedules were dictated by Hefner’s, which was infant-like in its routine. It left plenty of downtime to fill with internecine Survivor-like power struggles, which St. James details at length. At their centre was Holly, a former Hooters waitress who shared Hefner’s bedroom and ran interference to keep her No. 1 Girlfriend standing.

A scattering of well-respected female writers in Playboy’s pages doesn’t change the larger issue here. In fact, it reinforces the idea that there’s a gulf between sexually attractive women and intelligent women. I’ve always been impressed by how images of the Playboy mansion have a clean divide between the women that are there as actual guests, and who keep their clothes on and engage in conversation, and women who are clearly there as entertainment, to walk around naked and be stared at, but not engaged in any mental way. I’ve read female writers in Playboy who gallantly try to push back by expressing female sexual desire as a real entity, but it always rings hollow in the middle of a landscape where female sexuality is constructed as that of a very elaborate pocket pussy—all object, and the pleasure of women is a performance designed for male pleasure, not a thing unto itself. A woman orgasming by herself is like a tree falling in an unpeopled forest. Writing about subjective female desire in that context is impossible, since the context renders everything you write as an object performance for male pleasure. I suppose you could push the boundaries and write things that make your average man uncomfortable, but that just ends up reinforcing the dynamic that “sexually attractive” and “intelligent” are mutually exclusive categories for women. When you’re playing on turf where most women are utterly objectified, your options are limited. If you want a really funny example of how this works, check out the episode of “Sex and the City” where the gals go to the Playboy mansion. The writers literally write themselves into a hole, because they want Samantha to be a fan of Playboy, but it’s nonsensical, and so everything explodes by Sam getting into a fight over a fake purse, and getting them kicked out. And I think it’s because placing female characters who have previously been constructed as sexually independent actors into the Playboy environment makes no sense at all.

These tensions are why Playboy’s had a slow decline. The internet might be putting the nail in the coffin, but even this article demonstrates that there’s been a steady decline in the quality of writing since the late 60s. Feminism, and specifically the idea that an intellectual environment should include women, was what made Playboy’s slow decline into silliness inevitable. It was long before the internet really took off that Playboy had gotten mired in the habit of using its centerfold to portray the scandalous celebrity of the moment, and every cover like that meant that a little more intellectual credibility was chipped away. The notion that Playboy is porn for the thinking man is a joke when you compare it to the infinitely superior Nerve, which reflects, however imperfectly, that the 21st century thinking straight man wants dirty-minded thinking women to be along for the ride, not to be nothing but the object to be ridden.

*Also, and I communicated with the writer of the piece who felt terrible about the feminist backlash against it, the reality is that it was an individual writer’s judgment, not the entire magazine staff’s. Like most pieces in magazines, it was assigned to a writer, and the editor’s job is to make sure that it’s coherent, not that the politics of the piece are completely purged of any conflicts that are unlikely to even reach the average reader’s attention.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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