Meet Playboy Sr.

Has the once-groundbreaking magazine become culturally irrelevant?

Playboy, the world’s best-selling men’s magazine, is about to turn 50, and the upcoming months are awhirl with festivities to celebrate what parent company Playboy Enterprises Inc. likes to refer to as its “iconic brand.” But behind all the merriment, how’s this supremely youth-fixated magazine dealing with the greatest of narcissistic injuries: impending senior citizenship? Pretty awkwardly, just like the rest of us, grasping at the same ineffectual antidotes: extreme makeovers (check out those taut new “infographics”) and messy divorces (aging senior editors ditched for a more nubile masthead, airlifted in from Maxim).

Playboy’sfounding father, Hugh Hefner, 77, has eased his own similar predicament by dosing himself with Viagra to keep up with his seven girlfriends. Or at least that’s what he says. It’s always been unclear how much of Hefner’s act is self-parody, and these days his magazine begs much the same question. The recent infusions of frat-boy raunchiness are shouldering out the old smoking-jacketed sophistication, and the magazine seems to have lost all control over its editorial tone, confused about whether to act its age or try to get down with the kids. The result—well, it’s a lot like a 77-year-old guy surrounded by Playmates and maxed out on Viagra: really pumped, but wheezing.

Or is the problem that Playboy just doesn’t have anything to crusade against these days, having won so many of its cultural skirmishes? Bachelors aren’t automatically suspected of being gay anymore, the nuclear family is floundering, and even if alimony isn’t entirely abolished, at least men can now legally milk their exes, too. Maybe Playboy failed by succeeding too well: These days it barely turns a profit; the revenues come from the multimedia empire overseen by Hefner’s daughter Christie (who’s too kind to pull the plug on old dad yet).

The decline in sales is offset by the upswing in self-mythologizing, however, and the anniversary is sure providing the occasion for a lot of pomposity. Clearly the media empire and the bevy of babes aren’t enough to ease Hef into his golden years; what he really wants these days is culturallegitimacy. As Larry Flynt has said of Hefner, “He has never been able to come to grips with the fact that he is a pornographer.” No, Hef wants his place in history, and to see that he gets it, Playboy’s archivists have resuscitated the rambling 345-page “Playboy Philosophy,” originally published in 1962, and posted it on the 50th-anniversary Web site. Listen up, America: Playboy wasn’t just some girlie mag; it had its own philosophical tome.

Which brings us back to the identity problem. All old geezers have their endless war stories; that’s exactly how you identify a geezer. The war in this case was the sexual revolution: Hef battled sexual repression in America, muskets blazing, and Puritanism lost. Hef trots the story out in every interview: The magazine “was a response to repression.” “… [W]e lived in what I then and now viewed as a very repressive, sick society. …” The liberating hero motif was picked up by popular chroniclers like Gay Talese, who first canonized Hefner in his sexual revolution frontline report, Thy Neighbor’s Wife, and hasn’t let up, proclaiming in a recent interview that Hefner is a “major figure” in the fight against—you guessed it—repression.  

Oh come on, guys: Where would pornography be without repression? Out of business, that’s where. If we all ran around naked, humping each other left and right whenever we felt like it, would porn exist? Doubtful! Who’d be interested in leering at this month’s Playmate; who’d be snorting over the latest round of smirky “Party Jokes”? Pornography needs sexual repression to have something to overcome (or claim to overcome); it requires taboos to be able to ruffle them: Pornographers and censors are the world’s most interdependent couple.

But let’s say that sexual mores are more relaxed than they were 50 years ago; let’s even say that Playboy had a hand in loosening them. This doesn’t necessarily mean less repression. Freud’s premise was that a nonrepressive civilization just isn’t possible, unfortunately for us. If this is true, then here’s the question: How is repression reformulated differently to suit the requirements of each era? Here we come to Playboy’s real cultural achievement: the repression makeover. Refashioned into guises far more captivating than old-fashioned prohibitions, repression now comes in the form of permissions and inducements, too.

The fact is that Playboy was always more devoted to the business of marketing repression than to freeing anyone from it. For instance, consider the undercurrent of anxiety running through its pages. It’s not just that the consumer items required to sustain the Playboy lifestyle are, for most readers, unaffordable. It’s that anyone would feel inadequate alongside those impossibly perfect female bodies, so famously airbrushed and surgically enhanced—especially given the numerous imperfections afflicting the reader’s own body. And if you didn’t feel inadequate before, you will after paging through all the products and regimes offered to fix you. The testosterone-enhancement formulas (“As heard on Howard Stern!”); the hidden height increasers (“Tired of being considered short?”); the hair-loss remedies ("Start growing a full, healthy body of hair today!”); and the sex education videos ("There’s no such thing as a Born Lover”). The sheer variety of anxiety circulating through just one issue of Playboy is painful: bodily anxieties, class and status anxieties, masculinity anxieties, and most of all, technique anxiety.

Technique has always been the cornerstone of the Playboy brand: The magazine’s operating premise is the fantasy notion of a world of ultrasophistication out there somewhere, and buying into those bachelor lifestyle accoutrements is what gives you entree to it. Technique is what will remedy your inadequacies; thus there are techniques for everything from dressing, dating, and picking wine to (of course) sex. There it is in the magazine’s editorial tone: savvy, world-weary, slightly ironic, but reassuringly avuncular, too, as it dispenses technique. And there in the “Playboy Advisor,” that oracle of technique. In recent issues readers have written in with questions like, “What’s the proper angle for kissing?” and even for advice on masturbation techniques. (Are Playboy’s readers so alienated from their own bodies that head-tilting and masturbating require technical assistance?)

Playboy’s brilliance is its skillfulness at alleviating the sense of inadequacy that it’s also so skillful at producing. Consider this emblematic Playboy moment. In a monthly feature called “Centerfolds on Sex,” the lovely Shanna frankly discusses what is, no doubt, the male reader’s worst nightmare: finding himself in bed with a Playmate and … unable to perform. “I had an experience with a guy who lost his erection,” Shanna recounts. “He was freaking out because, I suppose, what was going through his mind was, this is the wrong girl for this to happen with.” Luckily Shanna is the patient type. “So we just started slower—I gave him a massage, kind of relaxing him so that he wouldn’t be nervous.” But still no go. “I think when the time came, he was so excited, he couldn’t make it happen. So I said, ‘It’s OK, let’s not worry about it.’ ” If the tease of the Playboy brand is inadequacy-producing fantasy females, the good news is that they’re also imbued with therapeutic qualities. The irony is that it’s the laminated flawlessness of the bodies that produces the need for therapeutics in the first place.

Can you have more liberty and less freedom at the same time? The same assembly line that turns out Playboy Playmates also mass-produces the anxiety that all those various corporate brands exist to alleviate. And we’re so distracted by the lure of these supposed freedoms that no one remembers to ask if something’s been lost in the process. (Back in the repressive old days, at least sex was oppositional to the social order, rather than a way of upholding it or financing it; that’s certainly been lost.) Bret Easton Ellis portrayed it pretty brilliantly in American Psycho: After all, his serial killer antihero Patrick Bateman, with his designer lifestyle and sexually eager bachelorettes, had the repression problem solved, too. The consummate Playboy bachelor?