What kind of woman reads Playboy?

After 45 years, your grandfather's skin magazine is trying to be all things to all groins.

By James Poniewozik

Published November 24, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

So you're turning 45. You've had a productive career; you've socked away a nice piece of change; people worldwide consider you the class of your field. Is it enough? Of course it's not enough. You want to feel young. You want to turn heads again the way you did in 1973. You want to feel -- oh, it sounds silly, doesn't it? -- you want to feel sexy again.

Feelings must have been bruised at Playboy Enterprises, then, when this fall the Pentagon, eager to transform this man's Army into a more family-friendly killing machine, began enforcing a 2-year-old order prohibiting military stores from selling material that "depicts or describes nudity ... in a lascivious way." MPs began clearing commissary shelves of over 150 "adult sophisticate titles" -- and they left Playboy untouched.

Ouch. Aging, beset by competition and insufficiently lascivious, at least in the eyes of the federal government, to give even a lonely GI a stiffie: This is not an enviable position for the putative flagship of the eternal sexual revolution.

Oh, the Playboy empire is still turning profits, enjoying a healthy run-up in its stock price and is one of the few established media ventures succeeding online. But the organization certainly came across as a bit nervous this month when Christie Hefner, Playboy CEO and Hugh's daughter, told the Wall Street Journal that it plans to end-around the sex-market competition for men by going after ... women. Its plan includes merchandising aimed at women and more celebrity pictorials, designed to resemble fashion shoots: The current issue (December), for instance, features ice skater Katarina Witt, and the October issue, featuring Cindy Crawford, was by Playboy's account a strong seller thanks largely to women readers.

There's a column and a half worth of cheap yuks in that premise, sure, but the idea of a more-female-positive nude Playboy pictorial is really not that ludicrous. Compared with December's Playmates, the butterscotch-blond Dahm triplets of Minnesota -- pubes shaven, draped in lace and arranged on beds of satin in fuzzy tableaux of entry-ready vulnerability -- Witt is practically a feminist icon of powerful womanliness, a lusty, bushy Sheela-na-Gig of the ice. Her photo spread, set outdoors in Hawaii, eschews the veal-calf-like weakness of traditional shoots like the Dahms', emphasizing her athleticism. She shows off strong biceps, stalks across the rain-forest floor, does a handstand and generally looks like she could KO the average reader in the first round.

It's an advance at least over the winsome-to-a-fault Dahm triplets (the very phrase makes them sound like a threesome Fonzie would have dated). Still, while the curvy Teuton might appeal to women turned off by the prepubescent aesthetic of contemporary ice skating -- just try that move, Tara, you little Pixie Stick! -- at the end of the day you're still looking at a woman with big ta-tas jumping around on a lava rock, which makes it hard to imagine crossover appeal at a $5.95 cover price.

Playboy's gender-bending ploy may be an extreme example of a bigger long-term question: How well can pitching a big sexual tent still work? Specialized and fetish magazines are hardly new (and Playboy has branched out with newsstand specials like "Women of Color" and "Voluptuous Vixens"), but even within Playboy's middle-of-the-road pin-up category, its airbrushed examples of idealized, innocent sexuality may seem a little dated to an audience that seems to have a greater appetite for (relative) realism. "Amateur" is the great buzzword of online erotica, and one of the more noteworthy skin magazines to emerge recently was Perfect 10 ("The Connoisseur's Magazine"), which in its mission statement promises "the world's most naturally beautiful women. NO IMPLANTS, and almost no retouching!" (Perhaps catching on, Playboy issued "Natural Beauties" in October.)

Playboy is in the classic dilemma of trying to remain an institution without becoming a museum, an effort that isn't helped by such self-hagiographic features as the tour of the Playboy mansion in the current issue (December), complete with a heavy-on-the-'70s nostalgia photo spread including nods to roller disco and the Village People. A 45-year history gives Playboy a valuable brand and an infinitely resalable back catalog. But it also makes it 45 years old.

Case in point: The magazine announced recently that it would mark its birthday in January with a commemorative issue graced by a photomosaic of its first cover girl, Marilyn Monroe, composed of 500 old Playboy covers (a collage effect that was neat the first few times we saw it but is fast becoming the Magic Eye of the late '90s). That choice is a natural and timeless one, true, but the selection of a dead woman who would have been 73 today only emphasizes that Playboy can't seem to decide whether to drop or embrace its smoking-jacket image. Editorially, it has on the one hand opened itself to young, bright journalists and humorists; on the other, it still can't shake albatrosses like the "party jokes" section and has even resuscitated the mortifying "Little Annie Fanny" cartoon (the old joke notwithstanding, it would be far less embarrassing to cop to buying the magazine for the pictures).

Even Playboy's pitches to the young are conflicted: In September, it ran an ad sporting a shot from behind of a young man in tight jeans -- with a bottle of Viagra in his back pocket. One might think that conjuring the image of Bob and Liddy Dole tryin' to get the feeling again would be shall-we-say counterproductive in reaffirming one's vitality (the ad ran in publications like Gear, presumably to draw a young demographic). Playboy vice president Cindy Rakowitz told Brandweek the message was simply, "'Everybody's talking about (Viagra) and probably everybody's using it,' including younger men" -- and I'm sure it's just a matter of time until Page Six is all over the Viagra-fueled sexploits of Leo DiCaprio and Puff Daddy -- but the image remains one of the most ill-advised uses of pharmacopeia in a print ad since Esquire likened itself to Rogaine.

The ad's most telling aspect is not the Viagra joke, however, but its tag line: "The revolution isn't over, it's just begun." This insistent declaration of nonvictory hints at the crisis of an erotic magazine founded in the '50s: Its original sexual revolution, if not decisively over, is at least at this point reduced to mop-up operations against Bill Bennett and Andrea Dworkin's deep-jungle hideouts. That's why the Starr investigation was such a tonic for Woodstock-era lions like Jann Wenner, who seemed positively spry given the chance to let their freak flags fly against The Man's hang-ups one more time (the December Playboy Forum contains 17 items on the scandal). A general-interest magazine of mainstream erotica depends on a continuing revolution -- Hugh Hefner told Bob Guccione Jr., in Gear magazine, "We'll win the war (against censorship), we'll win it battle by battle" -- because after the revolution comes civil war, which is to say, market fragmentation.

But whereas the legal right of heterosexual men who are not president to get it on with hot heterosexual chicks is more or less conceded in the larger culture, there are other fronts yet, as the Matthew Shepard case shows. And in fact Playboy, at its editorial strongest, is really a magazine of libertarian culture and politics, with mild T&A thrown in for its base. Playboy Online recently ran a feature on gays and the transgendered in rural America, for instance, and the December issue includes discussions of anti-drug hysteria and privacy issues, but the cover plays up "Phil Hartman's Guide to Office Parties" instead.

To return to the old joke, the articles, not the pictures, are probably where Playboy has the greatest chance to claim the revolutionary position it still seems to covet. Even more aggressively covering America's big remaining sexual prejudices -- rather than hunting down the world's last accountant jokes and harrying Gloria Steinem to her grave -- might at least be more likely than the Dahm girls to rattle the epaulets of the don't-ask-don't-tell crowd, to send a message to the Army as it polices its news racks: You want me off that wall! You need me off that wall!

James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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