Playboy has announced that it’s closing down its flagship magazine for the rest of 2020. It seems unlikely, given the wording of the announcement and the state of print magazine-making, that it will ever return. It’s not a surprise, exactly — its circulation and advertising drooped long ago, accelerating as the nudie pictures for which it was celebrated became available everywhere for free. Hugh Marston Hefner, its founder/editor/latter-day reality-show star/loungewear enthusiast, died in 2017, as his faded empire contracted around him, and one got the sense that the magazine was kept going partly because nobody wanted Hef to outlive it.
Hard to imagine it now, but Playboy once felt forward-thinking and modern. Founded in 1953, it was a significant force in the loosening of anti-obscenity laws regarding the press. By the early 1960s, it was a huge success, soon expanding to open its namesake clubs all over the world. It also moved into TV with Playboy’s Penthouse (later Playboy After Dark), a late-night talk show of sorts starring Hefner and an array of celebrity guests. The magazine peaked in the early 1970s at a circulation, breathtaking to see now, of 5.6 million copies a month. The magazine’s licensing operation since then has put the signature rabbit logo on cocktail glasses, clothes, car accessories, and far more. Plus, of course, online porn.
Men (and some women) joked that they bought the magazine for the articles, even though the centerfold and its associated pictorials were, of course, the main draw. The articles were, indeed, pretty good, even if Playboy tended to pay extremely well for the second-tier writing of first-tier talents. (The Simpsons once showed a parody of the magazine, called “Playdude,” bearing the cover line UPDIKE ON THE MARTINI.) But that’s also a little unfair: Playboy published good work by Ursula K. Le Guin, Joyce Carol Oates, and James Baldwin. At that part of the craft of magazine-making, Playboy was often great. Its lifestyle coverage, all that cocktails-and-great-stereo-equipment stuff, could be delicious as well.
Of course, that was not its reason for being, and it’s hard to concoct a truly feminist case for Playboy.“The Playboy Philosophy,” a series of published musings by Hefner that broadly expressed his worldview, argued that the shaking-off of Puritan and Victorian prudishness was good for women, good for the world, and all-around great for our mental health. That his version of this liberation was mostly defined by men, highly objectifying, and fundamentally skewed in its power dynamics — the very epitome of the male gaze — well, Hef basically shrugged those thoughts off, saying that women should just step up and go toe-to-toe with men. Donald Trump, in 1990, smirked from its cover, featured in a story he of course loved. A generation later, a Playboy model, Karen McDougal, began an affair with him after a taping of The Apprentice that took place at the Playboy Mansion, and the cover-up of her payoffs semi-directly led to his impeachment. Playboy did, arguably, present women as desirous creatures, not just passive sexual objects, and it argued for legalized abortion and the destigmatization of sex work. But its cover, for 60 years, bore the words ENTERTAINMENT FOR MEN, and that’s mostly what it was.
Its latter days were, for the most part, not its best. Hefner’s daughter, Christie, took over in 1988, running the corporate end of the business for two decades and saving it from going broke. In the magazine itself, the 1990s and beyond brought unsettling degrees of airbrushing and surgical plumping to its golden-lit Playmates, who began to look like they had been molded out of some kind of creamy, poreless vinyl. A couple of tell-all books about the goings-on at Hefner’s Playboy Mansion left a sense that it was not a very happy place, and one where terrible things could happen. As the magazine became unsustainable in the 2010s, a brief attempt to gain new attention by eliminating its nude photography only accelerated the plunge; the full-frontal was brought back a year or so later, but that didn’t do much, although the photography got a lot better in this very last era. It was down to quarterly publication before today’s announcement.
Needless to say, Playboy, the brand, will continue. It’s a very big adult-entertainment business online. The magazine’s best standing feature, the Playboy Interview, remains pretty good, even in its seventh decade. (I recommend that you start with the one from February 1975, with Mel Brooks. According to the announcement, the Interview will continue to be published online.) And it remains a name and label that means something to a great many people, and that itself is worth money, because Playboy remains a huge licensing operation. Those spangled bunny baby tees, ubiquitous in Los Angeles boutiques, pay pretty well.