Playboy magazine used to be the illicit thrill that men of all ages hid in their sock drawers.
Now it's more like the socks. Even though the magazine recently decided to add naked ladies back into the mix (having temporarily dropped them), it's still hard to get excited by Playboy anymore. But it's also hard to imagine we would ever be as blasé as we are today about sex — and even women's lib — if it weren't for Hugh Hefner and his crazy 1953 creation.
Hef was a frustrated cartoonist at the time, working in the Esquire subscription department. When his request for a $5-a-week raise got turned down, he decided to strike out on his own. Somehow he pulled together $10,000 and prepared to launch a racy new magazine: Stag.
Fortunately for him, the name Stag was already taken. So instead, he called it Playboy. The first edition featured a centerfold (a word we wouldn't even have without Hef!), dubbed "Sweetheart of the Month." By the very next issue, the centerfold was rechristened "Playmate." Author Julie Keller has mused, "There is a vast ideological gap between the words."
There sure is. "Sweetheart" harked back to courtship. A playmate is someone you play with. It's fun, but it's not forever.
Thus began the smashing of taboos.
The genius of Playboy was not that it published bare bunnies. You could buy dirty pictures even then. As Time magazine noted in a cover story on Hefner at the height of his career — 1972, when Playboy was selling 7 million copies a month — "he took the old-fashioned, shame-thumbed girlie magazine, stripped off the plain wrapper (and) added gloss, class and culture."
And how! As Playboy's subscriber base grew, so did its reputation as a purveyor of taste, showcasing some of the best writers around. So yes — obligatory joke here — you really could read Playboy just for the articles.
Then again, you could read The New York Review of Books for the same thing. Did you?
The lofty writing not only provided gentlemen with an excuse for their subscriptions but also helped change the entire perception of nonmarital sex, from dark, dirty doings with prostitutes to a sophisticated pastime men pursued with willing women of their own class. This, of course, required willing women. And that required a revolution.
Hefner himself has said he was a feminist before it was cool. Exactly how feminist remains a question for the gender studies classes. Sure he "objectified" women's bodies. But he also supported birth control (he had to), premarital sex (ditto) and sexual pleasure for both partners (why not?).
But it's possible that Hefner wasn't really selling sex. He was selling lifestyle. The women were simply part of a modern man's lair, along with a wet bar and hi-fi. That's why Hef made sure all the advertising was aspirational. Howard Lederer, the magazine's ad director, once said, "We don't want a reader to come suddenly on an ad that says he has bad breath."
As ads, classy or otherwise, started migrating to the web, Playboy took a hit just as surely as Redbook. Unlike Redbook, it took another hit, as it became easy — and free — to get a ton of porn.
Today the bunny logo, once so titillating, looks like something from a '70s time capsule. But because it is still one of the most recognizable brands on earth, publicist Richard Laermer came up with a great idea for it:
Open a Playboy Museum.
I say they should do it in Vegas. Showcase the man, the mansion, the magazine. Trace their trajectory across the times they changed. Fill the gift shop with Playboy overstock — mugs, sunglasses, keychains. And in the cafe, maybe they could serve Hefuccino.
Bunnies! Male, female and gender-fluid, wiggling their tails. Just like that, Playboy could go from creaky to cheeky again and be celebrated for its amazing place in American history.
Not just its place in the sock drawer.
Lenore Skenazy is author of the book and blog "Free-Range Kids" and a keynote speaker at conferences, companies and schools. To find out more about Lenore Skenazy ([email protected]) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.