The XX Factor

Book of the Week: “Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America”

A confession: I’ve never paged through an issue of Playboy , whether by dint of my sex or age. So it’s to Elizabeth Fraterrigo’s credit that she managed, in Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in America , to interest me for 216 pages in ” a titty magazine that has been culturally irrelevant since the late 1970s .” She did so by arguing that Playboy was about far more than breasts; it helped shape the consumer desires of the midcentury man as much as it shaped his carnal tastes. And, it turns out, a book about Playboy ‘s history is also a corollary history of American gender roles in the second half of the 20 th century.

Hugh Hefner, long before he was an old man escorting pretty young silicone things around cable TV, was an unhappily married, disatisfied-with-his-lot Chicago desk worker. Before leaving his wife, but perhaps indicating what was to come, he struck out to create a magazine that glamorized the life that he felt was of the philosophically highest order: that of an urban single man with a lot of disposable cash that he spent on a certain kind of sports car, a bachelor pad in the city, a hi-fi, just the right cut of suit. Intended as a challenge and update to more staid Esquire , Playboy redefined and became a global symbol of all that it meant to be American, claims Fraterrigo. In 1967, David Halbestrom was asked by a Polish intellectual to whom he owed a favor simply for a copy of the magazine: ” ‘It doesn’t matter that all American young men don’t live like Playboy heroes; what matters is that we think they do. For us Playboy is the symbol of your good life.’ ”

The magazine started losing readers and cultural caché when Penthouse , Hustler , and the more “worldly” Oui entered the market and ratcheted up the standard level of graphic nudity. This was also the moment when the women’s movement took serious hold. Though Hefner had long publicly advocated for women’s sexual freedom (Gloria Steinem once credited the magazine with helping jump-start feminism’s so-called second wave), the magazine was clumsy in adapting to a new world order, running screeds against frightening man-haters and struggling to make sense of the inherently anti-consumerist hippie movment. The formerly suave Playboy man looked just a little more like Archie Bunker every year.

Be forewarned- Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in America is an academic work, and the prose gets bogged down in places. Despite the subject matter, the book is not remotely titillating, or meant to be. Fraterrigo also skims over a lot, particularly how the magazine shaped sexuality and notions of female beauty (she prefers ruminating on the social lives of Playboy bachelors and Helen Gurley Brown’s single girls; it’s more about materialism and the city than sex and the city). But it helps parse exactly how sex, money, goods, and urban living got mixed up together into a certain idea of the good life that’s still poured out, no longer in Playboy but on, yes, Sex and The City- or Mad Men , the current vogue of which perhaps proves how strongly Hefner’s original vision shaped our culture.