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Lithium Playboy is only as woke as its readers

Aug. 13, 2020
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It’s a classic coming-of-age scene: a young teenage boy, on the cusp of puberty, jacking off to a centerfold of Farrah Fawcett. Maybe his mom walks in and he rushes to cover up, but the moment has already happened: a sexual awakening as a boy turns into a man. And, of course, it’s sponsored by Playboy. Since its founding in 1953, the magazine and its iconic display of nudity have redefined sex and media. To some, it represented luxury, freedom, and infinite pleasure. To others, it was the ultimate barrier to feminism. Gloria Steinem’s exposébecame a rallying cry against Hugh Hefner’s voyeuristic self-indulgence and the sexism of the Playboy brand, the “Entertainment for Men” subheadline indicating that sexual freedom should be highly visible for men and nonexistent for women. Depending on who you asked, Playboy could be reminiscent of either the ultimate sexual prowess or a gaudy James Bond imitation with the veneer of new money and exploitation.

So when Hugh Hefner died in 2017, writers and cultural critics rushed to examine his legacy: a pioneer of sexual freedom or just an old creep? On the one hand, a magazine about sex is inherently subversive in a society that represses sexuality. However, when men are the ones in charge—the ones controlling the Playboy mansion, designing the photoshoots, and dictating the ideal bust sizes for bunnies, the entire concept of sexual freedom is trivialized, watered down into something for men’s consumption. In an article for The Huffington Post, Emma Gray notes that Hefner’s vision of freedom applied only to men and placed women in a position to “publicly fulfill those desires and appear as outwardly sexual beings.” Hefner did encourage the sexual freedom of women, but this freedom was entirely for men’s benefit, a framework of female sexuality built solely to fulfill the male fantasy.

Hefner’s death didn’t just inspire dozens of thinkpieces; it also represented a crucial moment for a brand in search of itself. With its iconic founder gone, Playboy has been forced to consider its future in the midst of the #MeToo movement and immense criticism. Enter: the rebranding of Playboy.

The magazine was relaunched in 2019 as a quarterly, run by a diverse set of new young editors, with print issues centered on themes like “Equality,” “Speech,” and “Gender and Sexuality.” Content has become more political and socially conscious, partly in order to adapt to changing societal ideals, and partly to stay financially afloat by appealing to a younger audience. On a trip to the website, one might encounter interviews with the ACLU and Kali Uchis, intimacy educator Shan Boodram’s series on the female orgasm, and features on sex education, OnlyFans, gender-neutral sex toys, and how to support queer people of color and sex workers during a pandemic. With a focus on female photographers, artsy pictorials, and feminist cues, it looks like the magazine is now run by a combination of Petra Collins and someone who finally told Hugh Hefner about the male gaze. 

The mission statement of the magazine is also explicitly social justice-oriented: “We’ve been on the front lines of the sexual revolution, advocating for civil rights, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, and cannabis reform… We’re for the open-minded, the sex-positive, and for all those who value equality, free expression, and the finer things in life.” It’s clear that Playboy is trying to stay relevant. Which, in today’s world, means staying woke.

Responses to the rebranding were largely positive, if a bit skeptical. The New York Times wrote a glowing profileof the millennial editors who compared working at Playboy 2.0 to being “in a gender studies class,” but Jezebel pointed out the danger of applauding Playboy’s pop feminism after decades of encouraging sexual domination of women. Similar to critical analyses of Hefner’s death, commentary on the rebranding grappled with how to confront the tension between a sensitive cultural landscape and an iconic media institution deemed problematic by today’s standards of consent, equality, and representation.

But today’s standards within the feminist community also place a heavy emphasis on sex positivity, something that the rebranded Playboy champions. Sex-positive feminism advocates for everything from the decriminalization of sex work to candid discussions about masturbating, watching porn, and other “taboo” sexual topics for women. Sex positivity is the mainstream for young people now, seductive both because of its urban edginess and its exciting feminist ideology. The Call Her Daddy podcast, Slutever, Killer and a Sweet Thang, and trendy, aesthetic sex toy brands could all be seen as extensions of the sex-positivity movement.

The new Playboy, with its longform articles about sex work and photoshoots with nonbinary models, seems to be embracing not the misogynistic leering of ‘70s-era Hefner, but the sex-positive feminism of the 2000s. But where do we draw the line between advocating for sexual empowerment and co-opting the rhetoric of sex-positivite feminism? Sex positivity can so easily be appropriated by men who think, “Great. Women want to have more sex with me.” Women know that’s not the point, but do men? Does Playboy?

It’s great that Playboy is changing. I do think there are good intentions behind its commitment to a more progressive version of the magazine. The articles online are genuinely interesting, with a real chance at appealing to a younger audience. But if Playboy actually wants to stick to its new image, it isn’t enough to write social justice features and make the executive editor a gay man. 

First, get rid of PlayboyTV. This extension of the Playboy brand is one of the brand’s revenue streams, and is essentially supposed to be porn but a little classier. It’s really not. Sure, it’s more professionally produced and there are recurring TV shows that viewers can tune into regularly, but the videos feel catered to a male audience. Playboy journalism may be getting better, but Playboy porn is stuck in the ‘70s, showing lesbian sex scenes and celebrity pornstars from blowjob angles in order to indulge the fantasies of the male demographic that subscribes to the TV service. That needs to end. 

The future of Playboy is also definitely not brand expansion. CEO Ben Kohn has said that the company was exploring business routes in cannabis, skin care, sex toys, and sexual wellness, but the truth is that young people are not attracted to the Playboy lifestyle anymore. Playboy no longer represents the ultimate dream of luxury, sex, and wealth—to many young people, that dream is uncomfortable because it is tainted with misogyny or is simply outdated. And while attempts to market to younger demographics, like a collaboration with Pacsun, have allowed Playboy to re-enter the psyche of Gen-Z consumption, I don’t think turning Playboy into a “company first, magazine second” business model would do the most good for the sexual revolution.

Content creation and digital media is where Playboy might find a home. “I read it for the articles” has been a classic tongue-in-cheek phrase for decades, but it’s even more relevant at this point in Playboy’s history. Right now, young people are craving bold content about sexuality, femininity, and the politics of sex, all topics that Playboy covers. As hundreds of young, independent creators pave the way for tasteful and gritty depictions of sexuality, Playboy might not be changing the world, but it is still an iconic cultural institution that changed how we view sex. This gives the magazine the opportunity to not just rebrand, but genuinely change, ditching the nods to Hefner in the form of PlayboyTV and Playboy clubs, and instead moving squarely into the realm of sex-positive media.

Playboy has already changed, mainly due to forces outside of its control. Despite the attempt to maintain production, Kohn announced in March that Playboy would be ending print issues entirely. The immediate reasoning was the difficulty of Spring 2020 distribution during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the decision also came after years of financial struggle. Largely because of the availability of free porn and the decline of print media, distribution plummeted from 5.6 million in 1975 to just over 200,000 in 2018. In many ways, Playboy represents simply another print magazine drowning in the demands of a media industry dominated by digital content.

As the brand navigates its business future, its past has come into focus. A commitment to sex positivity is hard to reconcile with the objectification of women in Playboy’s history. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give Playboy a chance to enter into the modern era. Centerfolds of Pamela Anderson may be over, but it’s time to let Playboy push the boundaries of sexual freedom today with a revitalized feminist grit. In the context of cancel culture, it’s easy to dismiss the brand as problematic and leave it at that. But ultimately, Playboy has the right idea. As I read an interview with Princess Nokia or scroll through recommendations for female sex toys, I can’t help but hope that Playboy survives. Its revival would usher in not just a rejection of its past, but a restoration of optimism, a vision for our sexual and cultural future.

Illustration by Taylor Wang