In noting its decision to drop nude photos of women after 62 years of publication, Playboy magazine gave itself a giant pat on the back this week for having had them in the first place.
“We (society) 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,” the publication said in a statement, referring to its famous founder, Hugh Hefner.
“Heroic” and “freedom” are not the words that spring naturally to my mind to describe Playboy and Hefner, who turned the sexual objectification of women into a multimillion dollar commercial enterprise. Even if Hefner were right that his magazine influenced more people worldwide than any other in the 20th century, what was that influence? It gave men permission to view and treat women as sex objects on a whole new level. It made women see themselves that way too, breeding insecurity and limiting ambitions. That has helped fuel eating disorders and enrich the plastic surgery industry. And the lowered self worth has increased women’s and girls’ vulnerability to domination and even abuse. Females in many cultures are still struggling to replace those self-perceptions with real forms of empowerment.
Now the magazine is itself struggling. Its circulation has fallen from a high of 5.6 million in 1975 to 800,000 today. It has been losing $3 million a year. The leading analyses, including by its executives, center on the abundance of sexual images now available on the Internet, invading Playboy’s niche. In other words, you don’t need to buy the magazine for titillation. The same change happened at Rupert Murdoch’s British tabloid, The Sun, which stopped putting topless women on its Page 3 after 44 years.
Sure, the magazine has also done investigative journalism, but that hasn’t been its main franchise, which will continue as is. Playboy will still be around, they say, but it will be cleaner. It will still feature provocative pictures of scantily clad women in sexually suggestive poses.
Print journalism in general has suffered from online competition. But I have to think at least part of Playboy’s problem is that new generations of men don’t necessarily subscribe to the view that Hefner and his magazine have — of women’s sexuality as created for male entertainment. There have been international movements to value women for their inherent worth rather than their perky breasts, skinny waists or what they can to do make themselves exciting to men.
The use of nudity is not the main reason many object to Playboy. Consenting adults should be free to express themselves sexually however they choose, and some of the greatest art explores the unclothed male and female forms. The problem is the misogynist paradigm the porn industry has cultivated. Playboy could keep naked female pictures and add naked male ones and maybe grow its circulation. But it would need to depart from Hefner’s core perception of women as little more than collections of body parts airbrushed, painted and attired to conform to male fantasies.
As one of Hefner’s former girlfriends, Holly Madison, wrote in her book, “Down the Rabbit Hole,” Hefner wanted his girlfriends dressed in “trashy” outfits — barely visible skirts and rhinestone bustiers — but complained if Madison wore red lipstick or cut her hair short because she looked “cheap,” old and hard. Because the last thing an old, hard man (Hefner is 89) wants to be associated with is a hard, old-looking woman, even if she’s half his age. Subtext: Women who are sexual on their own terms are trash.
He paid not just for his girlfriends’ clothes but for their plastic surgery — breast enhancements, nose jobs, liposuction. Every morning after a club night, he’d make sure they got pictures to critique how they looked. But when Madison was severely depressed and asked to see a psychiatrist, he forbade it. Madison’s book described an environment in which girlfriends were isolated, had to stay near Hefner all evening at parties and could only leave to go to the bathroom.
Is this really so different from some religious fundamentalists’ efforts to isolate women, with restrictions on their freedom of movement and dictates against wearing revealing dress styles? Some suppress women’s sexuality while others exploit it. But in both cases, men are trying to exert their control over women’s sexuality.
Honestly, it makes little difference whether Playboy scraps nude pictures or not. The suggestive poses that remain might even be more salaciously sexist than nudity, as a friend of mine used to argue in our college years in defense of the hardcore porn magazine Hustler. At least, she claimed, Hustler’s pictures zeroed in on women’s private parts without any illusion of seduction using rhinestone-studded bikinis and pouty expressions. Either way, Playboy is a dinosaur whose days are bound to be numbered.
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Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at email@example.com.