With the recent announcement that Playboy Magazine will stop publishing nudes, I want to take this opportunity to reflect on the impact of Hugh Hefner’s vision of the sophisticated mid-century men’s magazine and how it radically changed our culture. I also want to share some of my experience as an employee of the magazine from 1990 to 1993.
Hugh Hefner deserves a huge amount of credit for mainstreaming sex in the modern age. He brought a dynamic and cross-platform lifestyle dimension into the lives of men, refining from the start his own vision of contemporary manhood that included personal style, living quarters, hot rides, literature and the arts (and of course, sexy ladies) as integral elements of the well-rounded man. In the process Playboy shaped the self-image of millions of men and women throughout the world, for better or worse, depending on your view of things. That masturbation was merely implied by the Playboy brand, but never spoken of for decades, is one of the strange successes of Hef’s revolutionary vision. Playboy magazine was a precursor to good sex, according to its mythology, but it was also most likely an outlet for masturbation for a lot of straight guys who couldn’t get anything close to sex partners that resembled the Playboy Playmate.
It’s a well-worn gag that people read Playboy for the articles, but Playboy‘s editorial content was exceptional from the start, with a sophisticated cultural focus and a respect for intelligence and educated discourse. Working there I became steeped in nearly forty years of Playboy history, with access to archives of all the back issues, all the current international editions, stories from colleagues who’d worked there for decades, walls stocked with prints and original illustrations, plus a library of books and magazines mostly focused on sex (where else would I have dared to read Screw magazine?)
Some of the world’s leading writers have contributed to Playboy, and the magazine had the finest illustration and editorial cartoons found in any publication on Earth. The quality of the illustration is staggering to me. The walls of the office were decorated in prints and original illustrations, and seeing it in bulk you begin to realize just how much vision went into the content and style of the magazine. Its editorial content was consistently insightful, incisive, and densely packed with all kinds of cool stuff to make life more interesting, informative, and fun. The Playboy Interview has produced some of the most definitive conversations of countless important and fascinating people in the worlds of politics, entertainment, music, sports and literature. That’s a huge accomplishment, and part of a clear vision that Hefner had from the beginning.
It’s hard to over-estimate the effects of Hugh Hefner on our culture. It’s likely that the James Bond franchise would never have exploded out of the gate like it did, were it not for Hefner’s pioneering of Playboy. The Playboy Man of its heyday in the fifties, sixties and seventies, was a sophisticated, worldly globe trotter with refined tastes in cars, liquor, jazz, decor, dress, and, of course, women. Women were the literal center and most important element of the Playboy lifestyle. The foldout Playmate was its dick-pleasing masturbatory focus, ramping up the hard male energy primed to spill its seed in lustful fantasies of casual sexual fulfillment.
Playboy continued to pioneer the sexual revolution as it branched out into other mediums. First with Playboy Penthouse, the late night television series patterned after “typical parties” at the Playboy Mansion, then with an international chain of Playboy Clubs. In 1982 they launched The Playboy Channel on cable (now PlayboyTV) and then in 1994 they introduced Playboy.com, which now has several separate branches such as Playmates.com. They’ve branded products and clothing lines and published books, calendars and playing cards. Along they way there’s been staggering success and challenging publishing environments, but I’m really glad that Playboy is still here, still evolving, and I hope the magazine and its offshoots will continue to evolve with the times.
When Playboy started in 1953, it was illegal to distribute erotic publications through the mail in many parts of the US, but as those laws began to change Playboy Enterprises continued to champion first amendment freedoms through The Playboy Foundation. They’ve given millions to protect and defend against proudly sex-phobic politicians, preachers and pundits who’ve tried to shut down Playboy and other forms of sex speech all along the way, and its success as a magazine, as a company and as a cultural icon should be measured by its battles won, along with Playboy‘s other impressive accomplishments.
Hefner deftly refined his mythology and for decades rode a wave of success that’s legendary. At 89, he’s still running his empire from home in his silk pajamas, flanked by an interchangeable selection of women who seem to enjoy being in his entourage. Hefner’s quality standards for the production elements of Playboy were something I feel very proud to have been a part of. I worked as a Type Compositor (a more evolved version of a typesetter, since I didn’t actually input type), and I learned a great deal from the experience. This was the period when Playboy was switching over to digital production, after nearly 40 years of hot type and physically setting up pages for printing. In addition to working on each current issue, I also created new digital templates from scratch in QuarkXPress, based on page designs that they’d used for decades. It was the beginning of digital type, and Quark was working with Playboy to refine their software. It was an education for me, and a real honor to be there for the transition from analog to digital. At least one of the copy editors decided to retire rather than face the new typeface. “It has no grace!” she lamented.
Because of Hefner’s exacting demands for perfection, as well as the complicated ego politics of the place, it was no simple process to get final approval for the new digital templates. In the entire three years I worked there, Hef never signed off on a final version of the text bullet — a round black dot. The bullet was either too small or too large, too right or too left, too far up or too far down, and every combination of that, for draft after draft after draft, year after year after year. I don’t blame Hefner for wanting it right after forty years of having it just so, because it was awesome learning from someone with such pride and dedication to quality. He was never an asshole about it, and I never interacted directly with him, so it was just a matter of doing the work I was given. I learned so much there about publishing and copy editing and it’s certainly translated into my work here on this blog. Online text, alas, now THAT has no grace. From a typesetting perspective, it’s a madhouse.
During my days working at Playboy, I’d have long periods of down time waiting for text galleys to come in, and then we’d get slammed with work. During the down time I read voraciously, mostly things like The Village Voice and Chicago Reader from the library downstairs. The Lake Shore Drive office had an atrium design taking up the top two floors of a large building in downtown Chicago. The center area was open to the ceiling, with the production and other offices on one side of the atrium’s top floor, and the executive and editorial offices on the other. The unique feature of the place was that the top executive’s offices were exposed to the employees in a large glass wall, with curtains for private meetings. It was weird being able to see into Christie Hefner’s office, like she was in a zoo or something. But actually it was a great indication of the openness of the company policies toward employees. We were made to feel important by upper management, and it was a nice gesture to be able to feel like we could talk to them at any time.
Christie Hefner, daughter of Hugh, was Chairman and CEO of the company at that time, and she’s an extraordinary woman with a long list of accomplishments of her own. She knew what she was doing, and there was never an air of corporate bullshit. She always had a sense of honesty and openness toward everyone at the company, and Christie’s genuinely taken her privilege to heart to focus on issues like AIDS and human rights, beyond her duties to the company. It was funny because in the yearly meetings Ms. Hefner could always be counted on to decry the Playboy logo air fresheners for cars. She really wanted the magazine’s products to reflect sophistication, and hated the tacky unauthorized shit like that which pops up everywhere.
I understand the concerns of people who think Playboy is sexist and exploits women, but it’s a complex issue with many facets. When I worked there, many if not most of the department heads were female. Not ex-Bunnies but mostly ordinary women from all walks of life, racial makeups, etc. If they were okay with it, I have to accept that it’s not a cut and dried issue. The women I worked with there were completely empowered to be themselves. My boss, head of the Production Department, was really a character, often dressing in giant-bell-bottom suits and skyscraper heels. She was a tough boss and I sincerely feared her, though she was extremely likable, fair, and fantastic to work for. It was a great group of people to work with, both in my department and around the building, and the management of the place deserves a lot of credit for creating that environment.
While I would never claim that female liberation was the main reason for Playboy, its impact has given sexual empowerment to women as well as men, and I admire the women who felt the self-confidence to expose their naked beauty to the cause of sexual liberation. Many famous women have posed for the magazine and created some especially iconic images. I worked on the July 1992 issue featuring Madonna during the Sex and Truth or Dare period, and the photos in that are works of art.
I also think there’s something to be said for letting men fantasize with what they’re drawn to sexually. While it’s not always going to be well-rounded, a man’s fancy during masturbation can be a shapely sensuous woman without any other concerns, without it reflecting upon his respect for all women. Many of the women in Playboy during my three years there had become much more extreme than those of the first few decades, to me really to the point of caricature, photoshopped beyond recognition as human. The magazine’s Playmate photography began to lose its sense of playfulness and humor, and along with it, its taste in real women. But Playboy Magazine‘s images have always been fantasy photos of unattainable goddesses, and the Playboy Playmate reflected the generalized straight men’s tastes of the time.
I think the women who pose sexually for men’s pleasure in Playboy enjoy the power it gives them to feel provocative, attractive, and pleasurable to others. There’s a gift in giving erotic pleasure in any form, and as the concept of sexual agency evolves in our culture, it seems to me that women and men are sharing equally in the benefits of Playboy‘s legacy. Men don’t all stop understanding how those images can create an unreasonable strain on women when irresponsibly applied. For the most part, it’s unlikely the men reading the magazine have women in their lives who look or act like that, but it’s an effective masturbation fantasy, and I’m all for men masturbating.
It’ll be really interesting to see how Playboy continues to evolve in the internet era. It’s faced some really difficult challenges, and the Chicago offices are now long closed down. I imagine most of the people I worked with have moved on, and I’m really sorry that they lost their careers. But I’m glad the print version will continue to evolve. It’s the start of a brand new era for Playboy.
Image already added