Can Playboy Be Politically Relevant?

How successful is the magazine’s relaunch at shedding its problematic image?

I must confess, I didn’t think I was the audience for Pla yboy. I thought it was a magazine for straight men interested in cigars, cocktails, cars and pictures of naked women. When it launched in 1953, Playboy was a revelation. Its founder, Hugh Hefner, aimed to ‘liberate’ heterosexual men from their responsibilities as breadwinning husbands and fathers. He proposed an aspirational lifestyle full of jazz music, literature, current affairs and endless sex. An issue could simultaneously feature a serialized story by Roald Dahl, an interview with Ayn Rand and a centrefold of Jayne Mansfield.  

Playboy, more than any other magazine, has a reputation for deviance. Depending on your position, it represents either freedom of sexual expression or the objectification of women. Since Hefner’s death in 2017, however, the new editors have tried to make Playboy more politically relevant. Now published quarterly, it contains fewer adverts and boasts a diverse young cohort of contributors. How successful is this relaunch at shedding the magazine’s problematic image?

Geena Rocero, photographed for Playboy’s Gender and Sexuality Issue, 2019. Courtesy: Playboy; photograph: Wiissa

Geena Rocero, photographed for Playboy’s Gender and Sexuality Issue, 2019. Courtesy: Playboy; photograph: Wiissa

On the front cover of the latest issue, three distinctly androgynous naked figures appear suspended in powder-blue coloured water; the classical composition gives the impression of a Renaissance painting. The famous Playboy bunny insignia levitates above them, barely perceptible in the guise of their shimmering reflection. On the inside front cover is a grid of 1960s-looking photographs of women trying on lingerie, reminiscent of the polaroids of Italian artist Carlo Mollino. While the cover suggests rebirth and renewal, the interior spread immediately assures loyal readers that Playboy hasn’t changed beyond all recognition.

In the early 1950s, the magazine contested conservative ideas about how to conduct relationships. Now, some 60 years later, it’s applying the same mentality to challenge conventional gender and sexuality roles. Perplexingly, the editors state that this ‘issue is committed to providing a platform for those voices who broaden the definition of “normal”’. Here, the word ‘normal’ feels misplaced; LGBTQ+ voices of dissent want to dismantle oppressive systems of heteropatriarchy, not join them. 

Inside, there’s an enormous amount of content – certainly enough to justify the US$24.99 cover price. As you might expect, it’s almost all sex-related. Topics include: ‘The Future of Sex Toys Is Gender Neutral’, ‘My Sex Education’, ‘Rebel Erotica’ and ‘Give Me More’ – a pictorial examining consent in BDSM. The message is clear: embrace sexual discourse; talk about desires, relationships, butt plugs, masturbation and STIs. There is still nudity: three fold-out pin-ups, four pictorials and a shoot – redolent of artist Vanessa Beecroft’s performances – in which a female troupe marches around town dressed only in red glitter.

Playmate Teela LaRoux, photographed for Playboy’s Gender and Sexuality Issue, 2019. Courtesy: Playboy; photograph: Ana Dias

Playmate Teela LaRoux, photographed for Playboy’s Gender and Sexuality Issue, 2019. Courtesy: Playboy; photograph: Ana Dias

The Hefner family no longer has any involvement in the publication. Strange, then, that Hugh Hefner’s name still appears emblazoned atop the masthead as editor-in-chief. It does feel like a balancing act: on one side, there’s kitsch, problematic Playboy; on the other, a more politically conscious and representative vision for the future. The challenge the editors face is ensuring that new readers don’t interpret the excellent progressive content as merely an attempt to ameliorate the brand.

It’s difficult to fault the advocacy in the writing. Stand-out items include an extensive interview with #MeToo activist Tarana Burke – in which she utters the killer line: ‘I have new boundaries. I’m also fresh out of fucks’ – and ‘Our Country Which Art in Panic’, a detailed opinion piece on gender, sex and the law. Hefner often took a liberal political stance and, in this issue, the current editors profile Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg in the optimistically titled piece ‘President Pete’. 

In ‘A Fat Black Politics of Desire’, author Sonya Renee Taylor writes critically on Playboy’s historical lack of POC representation. This kind of self-reflexive stance is what’s needed to redress the faults of the magazine’s past. If Playboy is to become a mouthpiece for a politically conscious generation, it will need to start re-examining Hefner’s legacy with less deference. 

Main image: The final cover of Playboy’s Summer 2019 quarterly, On Gender and Sexuality. Courtesy: Playboy; photograph: Ed Freeman

Sean Burns is an artist, writer and frieze editorial assistant based in London, UK. 

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