Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)–Some folks are fit and fun at 50. Some haven’t evolved with the times. The latter would describe Playboy magazine, now marking a half-century as some men’s substitute for dating.

Playboy still ranks 19th in circulation among U.S. consumer magazines, although at 3.1 million, its subscriber base is less than half of its highs of the 1970s. To build readership, the magazine seems to be trying to appeal tomore kinds of readers: chaps who like cigars andcognac, chaps who like tractor pulls and chaps who are into video gaming. A disparate group, but no worries, mate: They all like naked women, the core of the original Playboy formula, the unchanging bedrock of the franchise.

Hugh Hefner says that he started Playboy for urbane, sophisticated men who enjoyed sex and liked to look at beautiful women. However classy the magazine claimed to be, it still was all about men leering at women’s passive bodies.

And today’s Playboy has a Hooters-like personality, with unpleasant "heh-heh-heh" snickering about women’s bodies from readers who write in and staff members who reply. The cartoons are dated and juvenile. It’s like expecting to meet James Bond and finding yourself introduced to Beavis and Butthead. No doubt pressured by edgier, more explicit competitors such as Penthouse and Hustler in the 1970s, and later, Maxim and FHM, plus the need to attract a younger demographic to satisfy advertiser demands, Playboy has been dumbed down–if you can imagine that.

Photo History of Hefner at Play

The January 2004 "Collector’s Edition" anniversary issue is a celebration of Hefner, the founder of the magazine and Playboy Enterprises, Inc., a multi-media company now headed by Hefner’s daughter Christie Hefner. By looking through the issue’s annotated pictorial history, the photos of Hefner partying down through the ages, the articles (and yes, the ads), readers can track his evolution from sweater-wearing entrepreneur to bathrobe-wearing writer defending personal liberties to permanently pajamaed caricature of the U.S. playboy reclining in his boudoir. In many shots, the aging Hefner is surrounded by fetching young women, including his current half-dozen underdressed girlfriends, all young enough to be his granddaughters.

Hefner launched the magazine on a shoestring at a time when sex was under wraps in the United States. In 1953, the magazine’s debut year, movie couples slept in twin beds. You couldn’t say the word "pregnant" on the air. Hefner thought he could draw a dotted line from World War II pinups to publishing and develop a consumer magazine for males that would challenge conservatism in society and in media. And he would take women’s clothes off to do it while claiming to keep the "romance" in sexual frankness.

"What we created with Playmates was artistic," he wrote in Fortune Small Business (September 2003). "We put the girl into a natural setting and introduced the suggestion of a male presence in the picture . . . there would be a second glass, or a pipe, or a necktie. It was intentionally a situation that suggested the possibility of seduction. Although it was kind of at an unconscious level at that time, the message was that nice girls like sex, too."

Little Changed From First Issue

Playboy’s nude models haven’t varied much from the formula launched in the first issue, which featured a clothed Marilyn Monroe waving from the cover next to a cover line promising "for the first time in any magazine, in full color, the famous Marilyn Monroe nude." The Playmates look friendly. They don’t simulate sexual acts. They usually are wearing an article of clothing (small and sheer) and stilettos. They smile and look inviting and ready. All are young and nearly all are white. In the anniversary issue you can see hundreds of them–each about the size of a postage stamp–who have appeared over 50 years.

Scattered among the peroxide, the silicone and the thigh-high stockings are lifestyle articles and celebrity interviews. Every woman has known a man who said, "I just buy Playboy for the interviews." Don’t believe it. No guy spends $6.99 ($7.99 for the anniversary issue) to read interviews. They are paying that to look at features such as the Women of Enron, a pictorial of nude employees of that symbol of corporate malfeasance, and other similar offerings.

Journalists on Fox News Watch in December (as well as those in other forums) debated Playboy’s place in the culture. "A dirty magazine wrapped in the pseudo-respectability of a few articles," the columnist Cal Thomas said. "A great magazine," said Jim Pinkerton of Newsday. "A great magazine? I don’t think so," said Jane Hall of American University. The most prescient comment came from a media critic, Neal Gabler: "It made pornography respectable and it helped mainstream it. And now we see the effects of that everywhere." There’s the rub: In the name of romance, Hefner destroyed it. He helped to take sex in media from extreme reticence to sleazy prurience.

Rejected by Feminism

Hefner expresses a mixture of bewilderment and bitterness about feminists’ longtime criticism of his magazine, adult-only networks, Web entertainment, videos and Playboy Clubs staffed by women in revealing costumes. (Gloria Steinem’s turn as a bunny in the New York Playboy Club and her famous article about the experience documented yet another way in which the Hefner empire exploited women).

At the same time that the company is adding harder-core material to its TV networks and Web sites, the anniversary issue trumpets the Playboy Foundation’s history of legal battles in support of birth control, sex education, reproductive choice and equal rights for women, which for Playboy Enterprises, Inc. seems to be as much cause-related marketing as social altruism. (It should be acknowledged that Playboy is not an uncharitable organization; its foundation has provided support over the years to defenders of free speech (the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Coalition Against Censorship), family planning (Planned Parenthood Federation of America), breast cancer awareness (Bosom Buddies, Inc. and Associates for Breast and Prostate Cancer Studies) and filmmakers, including producers of women-themed documentaries.)

Hef seems steamed about women’s ingratitude about it all, saying in Fortune Small Business that by the early 1980s "the feminist movement had embraced a kind of anti-sexual, anti-Playboy attitude. It was the beginning of political correctness."

The Playboy Forum in the anniversary issue comments that "Sadly, the feminist movement was hijacked during the 1980s by a fringe element that felt that pornography, [was the target] not the pious, subjugated women."

Religion certainly plays a role in subjugating women, and feminists continue to work on that aspect of personal freedom as well. But Hefner conveniently ignores the reality that the hard-core TV and Web offerings of Playboy Enterprises work against women at the same time the Playboy Foundation contends it is working for them, and his hubris doesn’t allow him to see what role he played in the current pornography boom and its consequences.

Liberated women may indeed enjoy sex, but few enjoy stripping down for all to ogle.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism," Strata Publishing, Inc., and of "Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World," Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.