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Playboy magazine has announced that its March 2016 issue – on newsstands this week – and those that follow will no longer feature nude photos. Playboy Editor Cory Jones has explained that the magazine still will publish sexy, suggestive photos, but they will be “PG-13.”
This will mark the end of an era.
From his apartment in Hyde Park, Hugh Hefner in 1953 launched what would become an empire with the magazine’s first issue featuring Marilyn Monroe as the nude centerfold.
In that first edition, Hefner’s Letter from the Editor proclaimed, “We want to make it clear from the very start, we aren’t a ‘family magazine.’ If you’re somebody’s sister, wife, or mother-in-law and picked us up by mistake, please pass us along to the man in your life and get back to your Ladies Home Companion.”
The idea that only men would read Playboy and learn about idealized women’s bodies through that medium seems rather narrow in retrospect.
Most kids I grew up with—girls and boys—saw their first nude photos in Playboy magazines. We all gawked at the photos together, crammed elbow to elbow around the contraband magazines we’d found in the woods, under an older brother’s bed, or in a dad’s tool box, ready to shove it back where we found it if an adult walked in. All of our perceptions of beauty and desirability were shaped by those images.
Looking back now, the overt heteronormative assumptions built into the Hefner empire seem short-sighted. Nevertheless, he clearly was onto something.
As Kinsey Institute Research, Paul Gebhard reportedly told Time magazine, Hefner cleverly tied porn to upward mobility, capturing the imagination of millions of men who wanted to think of themselves as “playboys.”
In that first edition, Hefner showed his ambition to impact the world of sex, writing, “We believe, too, that are filling a publishing need only slightly less important than the one just taken care of by the Kinsey report.”
While his work is patently different than that of sex researchers like Kinsey and Masters and Johnson, Hefner has been credited—mostly by himself—as helping to spawn the sexual revolution and for emancipating society from sexual puritanism. Hefner designed Playboy to facilitate the “male gaze,” first through the magazine and later through the Playboy Clubs, where men could pursue the rewards of consuming women.
Arguing explicitly that women are sex objects and should be celebrated as such, Hefner claims to have liberated women by objectifying them. Many people have bought this argument. In writing about “Hef,” many journalists debate whether or not he should be referred to as a feminist for what he has done for women.
Although there are many versions of feminism, most feminists agree that objectification is in no way empowering.
Feminists have been talking back to Hefner for decades. In 1963, feminist icon Gloria Steinem went undercover as a Playboy Bunny for a couple of weeks and wrote an exposé that started a new conversation about sexism and the hypersexualization of women. Critics have argued, among other things, that women’s value in society should not hinge upon how much they are desired by men.
Does Playboy’s move to eliminate nudes altogether portend a decline of sexual objectification in society? Is this a “win” for feminism? No, and probably not.
Sales of Playboy magazine have fallen steadily in the past decade, not because of feminist push-back, but because of increasingly blurred lines between mainstream society and the world of pornography. Playboy is not the only company with “skin in the game.”
Nudity and “sexual situations” are no longer confined to the world of “adult entertainment.” Men’s magazines like Maxim and GQ publish photos of all-but-nude models in suggestive poses. Arguably, women’s magazines like Cosmopolitan and Vogue do the same thing.
You can turn on the television and see nearly nude actors in highly suggestive sex scenes on network programs like “How to Get Away with Murder,” and if you have access to paid channels (which 83 percent of American households do) and/or Netflix (which 40 percent of households do), you can see soft-core sex on “Game of Thrones,” “American Horror Story,” “Orange is the New Black,” etc.
Nudity and “sexual situations” are simply not that remarkable any more.
Further, the pornography industry itself has undergone changes with the increasing accessibility of the Internet. Despite the proliferation of sex in mainstream media, the pornography industry is not hurting. NBC.com reports that porn is a $97 billion global industry. This industry has evolved as new technologies have developed, from print, to film, to video, to the Internet.
As Playboy CEO Scott Flanders told the New York Times, how can Playboy compete in a world where, “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free?”
Will the elimination of nudes kill Playboy? Probably not. Apparently people actually do read Playboy for the articles, as evidenced by its highly successful website and app, which publish only “work-friendly” material (aka, no nudes).
Playboy isn’t the only company making changes. Marriott and Hilton hotel chains removed pay-per-view porn from their hotel rooms, ostensibly to be “family friendly,” but also to save costs: hotel guests can stream porn over the internet instead of paying hotel premium prices.
On the surface, removing porn from hotels might seem to be a rejection of women’s objectification, but as with Playboy, it’s really about money.
Kristen Myers is a Presidential Teaching Professor in the Department of Sociology and director of Women’s Studies at NIU.