Wednesday 16 August 2017

Comment: Is a return to nudity Playboy's 'Trump' card?

Divisive brand: The new edition of Playboy
Divisive brand: The new edition of Playboy
Kate Moss's iconic shoot for the cover of Playboy
Hugh Hefner, owner of 'Playboy' Photo: AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian
Ed Power

Ed Power

The latest issue of Playboy contains a surprise: the magazine is full of images of naked women.

This might be considered a bombshell of Pamela Anderson / Channing Tatum proportions. In January 2016, the original R-rated publication announced it was banning nudity. Playboy was growing up.

Now, just a year later, it's full steam backwards. There's even an official hashtag: "Naked is normal".

"I'll be the first to admit that the way in which the magazine portrayed nudity was dated, but nudity was never the problem because nudity isn't a problem," said the magazine's new creative officer Cooper Hefner, 25-year-old son of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner.

(L-R) Cooper Hefner, Hugh Hefner and Crystal Hefner attend Playboy Mansion's Annual Halloween Bash at The Playboy Mansion on October 25, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Playboy)
(L-R) Cooper Hefner, Hugh Hefner and Crystal Hefner attend Playboy Mansion's Annual Halloween Bash at The Playboy Mansion on October 25, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Playboy)

"Today, we're taking our identity back and reclaiming who we are."

The turnabout was, he said, the latest chapter in Playboy's ongoing mission "to promote a healthy conversation about sex while also encouraging dialogue on social, philosophical and religious opinions".

Playboy has long been one of the most divisive brands in publishing. Some have argued that the magazine, founded by Hefner in 1953 as a lifestyle guide for the sophisticated modern man, was a driving force in the Sixties sexual revolution.

Others will claim that, beneath the Don Draper veneer, Playboy was, and continues to be, a lowest-denominator ogle-fest. How could the relentless objectification of woman as "playmates" and "bunnies" be anything else?

What can be agreed is that Hefner the younger's announcement comes at a significant moment. America recently elected to the presidency a man with a track record in treating women in a demeaning fashion. Political correctness is under assault as never before.

"We are seeing a more misogynistic, more pornified culture," says Meghan Murphy, founder and editor of the website Feminist Current.

"How does someone like Donald Trump survive and thrive, never mind become president? We accept women exist as decorative objects, to be used by men. This is how Trump sees women: pretty things for him to use and look at - things he is entitled to access, sexually. That so many Americans voted for him demonstrates he isn't alone in his opinions.

"The fact is: it's not just Trump who believes this. Most will deny they support Trump's ethos, but any man who uses pornography or pays for sex sees women exactly the same way Trump does, and therefore participate in and perpetuate a misogynist culture."

Nudes: Elizabeth Elam is the cover star on the new Playboy
Nudes: Elizabeth Elam is the cover star on the new Playboy

Yet Playboy has its defenders. Indeed, within feminism there is an argument that the magazine has elevated rather than repressed women.

"Playboy championed birth control, equal pay and abortion rights, something both impressive and surprising," feminist writer and editor Rosie Boycott wrote in Stylist Magazine in 2013.

"Again, it can be dismissed as a cynical ploy to disguise soft porn as something campaigning and serious, but Hefner went further, writing about civil rights, racism and gay liberation at a time when those topics were mainly confined to small-selling alternative publications."

Kate Moss's iconic shoot for the cover of Playboy
Kate Moss's iconic shoot for the cover of Playboy

Beyond question is the fact that political correctness is being attacked on both sides of the Atlantic.

"The big problem this country has is being politically correct," Trump declared on the campaign trial. In Britain, the UK Independence Party - a driving force behind Brexit - has declared war on PC-culture.

"We would end political correctness in schools and introduce a specific act aimed at banning damaging political propaganda being passed off as fact," the party promised in 2016. "Indoctrination of young minds is wrong. What we must give them is the desire and capacity to think freely for themselves."

All of which leaves Playboy at an impasse. As the culture turns increasing toxic and divisive, can it really profit from the high moral ground?

On the other hand, it finds itself locked in an unwinnable existential struggle with internet pornography. Going upmarket clearly hasn't worked - but sinking to the fetid depths of web porn isn't an option for a magazine that, along with the nudity, sees itself as a purveyor of quality journalism.

Thus Playboy is caught in the middle: excessively sleazy for the mainstream, too prim and old-school to compete with the free titillation available online.

"The problem with Playboy is it not only lost its powerful interviews, but it lost its lead," says Samir Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Centre at the University of Mississippi School of Journalism.

"This is no longer the Fifties and Sixties when people talked about the interviews. And who cannot see the girl next door naked in this day and age?"

"The bottom line is that boobs aren't going to save Playboy," says Feminist Current's Meghan Murphy. "People who want to see naked women are going to watch porn online. And people who want thought-provoking articles are going to read... literally anything else.

"The fact that Playboy thought it could maintain readership without literal porn is, in my opinion, deluded. Playboy appears not to understand its own legacy. The line that men 'read Playboy for the articles' was always a joke, but one that, apparently, even Playboy didn't get."

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