This week, over on The Cut, Kat Stoeffel wrote an interesting and thoughtful exploration into modern feminist criticism of Playboy. Her thesis, more or less, is that while Playboy may have indeed been a viable enemy of feminism as it existed in its first and second waves, today, the publication lies somewhere between irrelevance and pseudo-feminist, "quaint" softcore. Some critics are still taking the magazine to task, but as Stoeffel argues, there are bigger fish to fry. A fair point, but if you ask us, there is still a lot to discuss here — and it has less to do with more limited, traditional views of feminism and more to do with seeking out a more progressive future of gender politics and media sexuality in general.
The magazine has recently undergone a rebranding of sorts, aiming to move away from, as editorial director Jimmy Jellinek put it for Slate, "unattainable" images of female beauty in favor of something more "naturalistic." Jellinek has expressed concern that those same images were harmful to women and resulted in heightened competition and self-image issues. The goal now, it seems, is to return to the culturally relevant commentary with a side of highbrow sex. As demonstrated through Kate Moss' throwback cover, Playboy in 2014 will seek to evoke the aesthetic that made the magazine famous in the '60s and '70s, moving away from the plastic, platinum look that marked its turn away from a more intellectual, if still misogynistic, approach to pornography in the last 20 years. Though Playboy may be late to the game, it's a change that reflects evolving preferences in American culture overall, including fashion.
Photo: Courtesy of Playboy.
Natural is best, Jellinek says, though of course that comes with the caveat that you are naturally beautiful and look like Kate Moss (though, we do have to give props to Playboy for obscuring the tagline and letting it read "entertainment for me" instead of "entertainment for men," particularly given that one of the mag's goals is to attract rather than offend female customers). Make no mistake about it: Playboy might be changing the packaging, but it's still selling images of a very particular type of woman, designed to appeal to a particular type of man. It's still perpetuating the cult of objectified, open-mouthed female sexuality as the primary focus of porn at any level.
If we read Jellinek's comments correctly, he and his staff are interested in atoning for the sins of decades past. What we're seeing here, though, is not a departure in a new direction. It's a return to the precedents of the mid 20th century, which may be appealing in a retro-chic way, but are still rooted in a lot of problematic traditions. Gender politics have changed since then, so if they're looking to create a progressive magazine that offers up challenging content and intellectually stomach-able sex, they need to do more than just bank on the nostalgia of a bygone aesthetic. "Entertainment for men" might have denoted a certain type of lady mag back in the day, but now, "entertainment for me" is a lot more varied — just check out some Tumblr porn for proof that humanity's many fetishes and preferences are as specific and widespread as our tastes in clothing, food, or music.
Stoeffel might not feel that Playboy is something to get outraged about. And, we're not exactly outraged, here. Rather, we just think it's worth discussing, and that this magazine's attempts to maintain relevance are indicative of how we see femininity today in mainstream and pop culture. Playboy wants to climb back up the mountain of class after tumbling way, way down, and they are doing a fine job. But, rather than redefining what it means to be an interesting, worthwhile sex magazine that is appealing to men and women, they're buying into an old ideal of classiness, of boy's-club, armchair sexuality that may select a more rarified type of female beauty but still does nothing to push the boundaries of the medium and the genre.
There is, of course, a valid argument that applies to most magazines today: You've got to be premium, because anything less is available on the Internet. It's why glossies are getting glossier and news-based publications are struggling. But, we'd argue that big-budget magazines like Playboy have an opportunity to do something really interesting, here, by taking a leaf out of our favorite alternative magazines' books. In the same way that Vanity Fair has to pivot to maintain healthy competition with sites like Gawker or The Cut, softcore sex magazines have to reevaluate to compete with the breadth and creativity of Tumblr. Right now, no mainstream publication is doing that. If Playboy can see that opportunity and act on it, though, they have the chance to not only instigate some real change in media but also to make a name for themselves that is more shocking, more enticing, and entirely more fascinating than simply falling back on legacy.
Look, we're not naive. It's probably not gonna happen anytime soon. But, we're also not crazy. When we spoke to Richard Phillips about the rebranding back in November, he said that "Playboy is looking for us to see things anew." His work in partnership with the magazine was not, he explained, destined to fall "into the idea of producing to the normative standard." The resulting pieces were interesting, and clearly a mostly successful initiative for the brand to return to its roots as a cultural publication with sex served in equal measure. It seems like the modification of the sexier pages, though, is decidedly less radical. That, we have to say, is unfortunate. There is so much opportunity to provide big-budget, mass-appeal sex content that is still reflective of a more progressive age. As far as print goes, it's an untapped market. But, that won't last long. It's just a matter of who wises up first.