I hadn't thought much about the recent demise of Playgirl magazine until a New York Times obituary -- in the Sunday Styles section -- gave me reason to grieve. Apparently, Playgirl launched in 1973 as a "feminist response to Playboy and Penthouse." Somehow that historic moment was overshadowed in my women's studies textbooks by that year's wee little court ruling on reproductive rights. But it is good to now know that, as many celebrated their right to choose, some also rejoiced at their right to sexy pictorials of men with feathered locks, handlebar mustaches and hair busting cleavage-like from plunging necklines.
In the years that followed, the magazine featured Burt Reynolds in a Santa hat and Christmas PJs, cover model Alan Thicke alongside a reference to his -- nudge, nudge -- "growing pains" and Jean-Claude Van Damme in a stretch purple unitard. Woo, feminism?
In fairness, I do have a single fond memory of Playgirl's 35-year history: the Brad Pitt issue. The (OK, seriously ethically questionable) photos of him frolicking in the nude while on vacation were published when I was in 8th grade, and I managed to hunt down one of the shots online. Flooded with confused excitement, I immediately announced my discovery to my mother, who replied: "Print me out a copy?" In her infinite motherly wisdom she recognized it as an opportunity to communicate her view of the naked human body as natural and shameless, and, if necessary, to discuss any unhealthy messages about sex and sexuality conveyed in the photo. (But, also: Brad Pitt, naked. Hello!)
This was Playgirl's history from the outside, though -- the obstructed view of the magazine as it peeked out from behind rows and rows of more acceptable magazines. Apparently the looks of its cheese-ball cover models deceived; there was a whole lot more going on behind the scenes. In recent years, a team of three female editors in their 20s took over and decided to try to "bring Playgirl back to its roots" and cover "issues like abortion and equal rights, interspersing sexy shots of men with work from writers like Raymond Carver and Joyce Carol Oates." That description alone is orgasm-worthy.
But the magazine's publisher, Blue Horizon Media, wanted fewer words and more extreme closeups of waxed private parts. The Times reports that the women adopted a "do-it-yourself ethic" -- call it riot grrrl porn -- and tried desperately to revive the magazine with parties and a blog, and very little help from higher-ups. But, alas, their efforts went unrewarded and the publisher decided this summer to shutter the magazine. The final, January/February 2009 issue now sits on newsstands.
Don't get me wrong: I won't miss Playgirl. The few times I flipped through it, I instantly felt that I was not even remotely the target, that the photos were aimed at gay men, or women with very different leanings. That isn't to suggest that only gay men like to look at photos of naked men, it's just that there was nothing for me in the pictorials of greasy, fully-waxed musclemen. Former Playgirl editor Colleen Kane recently wrote in Radar that it was a challenge for the editorial team to meet the tastes of all of their readers, "to recognize that some want smiling hunks only, some like manscaping, some hate it, some loved tattooed models while others hated them, and one woman's cougar-bait is another woman's jailbait."
I suppose that's the trouble you run into when you are the only magazine publishing photos of naked men for women. (And, even at that, according to some reports, men comprised roughly 50 percent of the audience.) Also, look at how endless celebrity centerfolds have firmly propped up the Playboy brand; meanwhile, Playgirl had ... Burt Reynolds, stripped to his rawhide skin. Male celebrities simply don't have the same motivation to bare all -- and I refuse to believe it's for actual lack of interest on women's part.
Kane also suggested that there might be "some parallels between Playgirl's struggle to find its identity and readership and the developing lack of cohesiveness among feminists, as the ranks divided into second and third waves, and the waves subdivided with different opinions about sex, porn." But certainly one doesn't have to be a feminist to have a hunger for porn, and I dare say that if the previously mentioned vision of legitimately sexy shots alongside smart writing didn't bridge feminists' supposed generational divide, it still would have gained a large enough audience to thrive. That vision was never realized, though; it seems the publisher never gave it a chance.
In the Radar piece, Kane writes: "What are women going to do for porn now? I don't know; honestly, I don't even particularly like porn." Maybe some women who do like porn will come along and create a little something for other women who do too.