Thursday, December 11, 2003

Russell Smith

p. R1.

In a dumb America, even Playboy looks smart

Playboy magazine's January issue, which is on sale now, is a special 50th-anniversary edition. In Toronto, the occasion means that we will be treated to a visit by the centrefold, Miss January, who will be signing copies of herself at a downtown newsstand at lunchtime tomorrow. Last weekend the A&E channel televised Hugh Hefner's celebratory party at his California mansion, which was packed with the usual inflatable platinum women, and came with a hagiographic mini-documentary on Playboy's brilliant past (crusader for sexual freedom, sophistication, political moderation etc.), and almost weepy speeches from B-list Hollywood celebrities about how important a cultural institution it was. You'd think they were talking about the United Nations. And when it came to the elegies for Hefner himself, you'd think he was Mahatma Gandhi. There was no stress on the masculinity of the magazine's audience: Its fans (as presented by the TV special) are women and men alike. Meanwhile, next week in New York, Christie's auction house is selling off Playboy memorabilia, including signed manuscripts, cartoons, a limousine, a 1960s bunny outfit. The whole confluence of events underlines how Playboy is now, like Canadian novels, basically a backward-looking enterprise, a reminiscence.

The magazine's special edition contains remarkably few naked women. It has a few shots of famous Playmates from history (including a lovely photo of Catherine Deneuve), but most are from recent history. There is the now-familiar summation of the evolution of Playboy (it seems every second issue contains this potted history now), crediting it with launching the sexual revolution, supporting the civil-rights movement, and finally, contributing to women's empowerment ("The Playboy Foundation formed an early alliance with mainstream feminists to fight for reproductive rights and the Equal Rights Amendment…"). And there are the usual serious pieces of fiction and memoirs and interviews: Over the years, Playboy has published fiction by almost every major U.S. writer since 1953, including Updike, Mailer, Vonnegut and Kerouac. It has published drawings by Picasso, and interviews with Martin Luther King and Fidel Castro.

Perhaps seriousness itself is out of date and perhaps this explains why soft-core porn magazines like Playboy are foundering.

Penthouse, the only remaining full-nudie magazine that combines some general interest reading with its nudes, filed for bankruptcy protection last August. Playboy is surviving, yes.

Business analysts disagree about the company's conflicting indicators: Some say its profits are healthy, some say its expenditures are too high. All would agree, it is a much diminished enterprise since its 1970s heyday, the age of Playboy clubs and casinos and a private DC-9 and mansions on each coast, the age before videotape made hard-core porn private and cheap, the age before Ronald Reagan and the Meese Commission on Pornography, the age before the Internet.

It's not, actually, Internet porn that has eaten into Playboy's market; in fact, Playboy itself has profited from the Internet, and owns several web sites. I don't even think it's the easy access to, or societal acceptance of, more graphic and extreme porn that has distracted the readership.

The Playboy readership has been socially conservative since at least the seventies; it has never been interested in the portrayal of real sex acts or even in real-looking women, for that matter. The women photographed in Playboy fit a very narrowly defined mould, are mostly blond, implanted, have a bizarre pubic trim (a coiffure that could be nicknamed "The John Waters"), and are Photoshopped until their skin disappears into a sort of warm caramel.

Meanwhile, video porn becomes ever more grainy, more intent on ugliness and gritty naturalism. Playmates look so unlike actual women that actual women are not, on the whole, offended or threatened by Playboy; in fact, in my experience, women are just as intrigued by it as men are. It's about a particular — and particularly dated — beauty ideal. The appeal of Playboy is a nostalgic one.

And contrary to popular belief, the magazines that are doing better than Playboy are not the more graphic, more extreme porn mags; they are not Hustler and Score. (It's magazines like Hustler that have suffered the most from easy-access Internet porn.) The most successful magazines of the past few years show even less of the female body: they are the lad mags — Maxim, FHM and Loaded. Everyone in the magazine industry is astounded by the success of Maxim in particular, which some statistics say is the most popular magazine in the world.

Maxim's girls are sexy, sure, but they are not quite as inaccessible as Playboy's gauzy statues. They are raunchy girls: They may be wearing more clothes, but they look dirtier. They have rock 'n' roll jeans and artful rips in their T-shirts; they could be bartenders at a dance club you've been to. Maxim is more democratic.

Maxim, like Playboy, aims at being a general-interest magazine for men. It has articles. But Maxim isn't going to waste its time with difficult stories by John Updike or political analyses by Norman Mailer, or by anyone.

The Maxim advantage is that it's lighter and more proletarian. Its articles are about fighting or drinking or cars.

It's amusing that Playboy, which was once derided as being juvenile and superficial, now seems positively elitist. It is treading water financially for the same reasons that Harper's is — smart isn't selling. And when Playboy seems sophisticated — with its 1970s aesthetic, its adolescent idea of luxury (an underground swimming pool! with a fireman's pole!) — you know your culture is in trouble. This decline isn't about attitudes to sex. This has nothing to do with sex. It's an indication of how America has changed: not, in fact, more permissive or more conservative, not desirous of more gynecology in magazines, nor desirous of more sophistication. Just dumber.

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Created: January 5, 2004
Last modified: January 14, 2004
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