Nothing in life is wholly one way or the other… (except, of course, my assertion there – ha!) Social behaviors, happenings, and artifacts evolve and shift over time, as does their meanings in an ever-changing landscape.
Playboy — the magazine and the website — is no different.
I was recently contacted by Jessica Kline, writing for The Outline. She was exploring the meanings contained in and, presumably, espoused by Playboys of the ’70s through today, and she had a few questions. I obliged with responses, which informed her article, “For Better and For Worse, Playboy of the ’70s Helped Shape the America of Today” (published July 29, 2018).
In framing up her piece, Kline wrote:
My brother showed up at my door last month with a stack of ‘70s-era Playboy magazines that he’d come across on the street outside my apartment. I find the history of popular magazines fascinating, so he correctly figured the Playboys would make a welcome addition to my personal library.
As she perused the content, some parts of it delighted her. Other parts, not so much. She wrote:
Everything that wasn’t charming or smartly prescient, however, horrified me. The magazine objectified women in ways I never imagined could have been socially acceptable — even as a woman who knows intimately what it’s like to be objectified. Stories referred to women as “dishes,” and the “Playboy’s Party Jokes” section included several featuring assault or rape.
You can read Kline’s full piece here and our full correspondence below. What do you think?
Jessica Kline: As someone who’s written for Playboy in 2014 – 2016, what are your thoughts on the current form of the publication (as opposed to its original incarnation), and what drove you to publish pieces in it?
DrCT: As a public scholar, one of my primary goals is to make sociology more accessible – to take it out of the academy. I have written many peer reviewed articles about adult entertainment, labor, gender etc, but unless you’re affiliated with a university or want to pay for a pricey one-off print directly from a publisher, it’s difficult to access that work. Playboy was a way more accessible venue to write up more bite-sized and accessible pieces of work, all of which help make up an overall body of scholarship.
Further, I do not think that “shouting into an echo chamber” or only writing to like-minded, relative peers is the way to enact social change or contribute to a more inclusive social world. So, rather than write for places one may expect, I opted to write for Playboy (as well as other sites like UPROXX and Men’s Health) as a way to ideally reach a broader audience. My thinking was that perhaps I would get to reach readers I may not cross paths with in other venues. I was very grateful for the opportunity to do so.
As far as the current iteration of the publication, though I am no longer as familiar with their editorial process or content, I think they are making great efforts. They have some great freelancers who write thoughtful content that I certainly think pushes on the edges of their readership. Playboy today might not be a radical publication in terms of social awareness, but sometimes the greatest change comes from gentle, slow, and/or small nuggets of information and nudges in thought. I think Playboy is working to those ends within the context of their readership.
JK: What are your thoughts on Playboy’s history and how it has contributed to ideas in the US about female sexuality, sex in general, and pornography?
DrCT: That’s a tricky question, which shifts a bit when you consider historical context and changing ideas of what’s conventionally pornographic. When Playboy first launched in the 1950s, it was certainly galvanizing in terms of sexual expression. Today, Playboy seems downright tame – and has for decades now. At least, that’s how I see it (tame). The reality is probably somewhere in the middle though.
Because Playboy (the magazine) has never published anything remotely hardcore, its consistency is actually a good metric for how our ideas about what pornography is have shifted. Put simply, a nude centerfold featuring one airbrushed woman meant something different in 1965, 1985, and 2005. Their content form has essentially always been the same, but how we as a society interacted with has varied and changed.
JK: How does the current iteration of Playboy influence these three cultural areas?
(just kinda rolled this response into the previous question)
JK: Have you read older Playboys, from the publication’s early days? If so, what was your reaction to their tone and content?
DrCT: I mean… Reading any “old” publication or old issues of existing folios with 2018 eyes is going to be somewhat vexing. This includes Playboy, and it also includes, for instance, the currently-lauded-as-feminist-AF teen mag, Teen Vogue.
Cultural artifacts, especially ones as popular as Playboys from decades passed, are important reflections of culture at a given time. They are also a great metric to assess how much narratives and society have changed over time. So though I am not ever going to suggest people go back to a 1970s issue of Playboy for relationship advise, I certainly appreciate what that content shows us about the changing world.
Another important thing to remember about Playboy is the caliber of featured writer they would get – consider Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jack Kerouac, Margaret Atwood (!!). She wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, as I am sure you know, among so many other things. I raise this to point out how significant of a cultural marker Playboy is. The magazine brought some of the most highly regarded authors and thinkers around to “the masses” – as a cultural artifact, this also says something about wider society, as well as Playboy editorial itself.
JK: In what way have publications like Playboy positively influenced society (particularly in regards to female-identified people, but feel free to answer this in any way you think applies)? How about negatively?
DrCT: Positively: see previous
Negatively: Between sexist and heterosexist lifestyle and relationship advice to privileging certain aesthetics (and presenting very distorted versions of those aesthetics to boot), the negative impacts of Playboy on women specifically and society overall are well documented.
JK: How would you describe Playboy today?
DrCT: Not unlike many other publications with a long history, Playboy today seems to be trying — trying to evolve within the rapidly changing cultural landscape, trying to remain relevant within the context of front-facing media while also staying connected to an established readership, and trying to stay competitive in a marketplace that has rendered its business model all but obsolete.
Read my articles published in Playboy here.
(pictured: image via The Outline)
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