Art Out: Playboy Magazine: The New Post-Hugh Hefner Era
By Ashley Yu
Buried under mattresses of boys in the throes of puberty; hidden in the back of men’s sock drawers, away from their wives and girlfriends; filed as “spank bank material” for millions of heterosexual men who are obsessed with women they can’t have, Playboy magazine has been Hugh Hefner’s pride and joy since 1953. It’s now 2019, and the morally-dubious slimeball of a founder has since passed away in the confines of the elusive Playboy Mansion. In an effort to rebrand the magazine during our post-Hefner, socially-aware era, Playboy magazine has done a complete U-turn, aiming for diversity and inclusivity. As Playboy pivots towards the millennial definition of #woke, Playboy pop-up stores, named “Playhouse,” are springing up in Los Angeles and, most recently in New York. On June 20, “Playhouse” inaugurated their first panel discussion, titled “Behind The Lens: Considering the Playboy Gaze,” at their temporary SoHo location in New York.
Of course, we are exhausted by the infinite stockpiles of softcore photoshoots featuring white, bust-heavy, bottle-blondes, donned in strings of fabric (commonly called thongs.) These days, the aesthetics of Pamela Anderson, and Anna Nicole Smith, whom all men slobbered over and all girls idolized, are now fondly described as “trashy.” It’s refreshing for Playboy—the publication that has long set the standard for “sexy”—to finally deviate from its historical portrayals and step into the realm of (what seems to be) social activism. Moderated by Geena Rocero, a gorgeous trans model, activist and producer, the four panelists are the newest contributing photographers to Playboy: Ryan Pfluger, who captured the charismatic Ezra Miller, as not only the subject of desire, but also as the first queer male for the magazine’s cover; Adrienne Racquel, who directed a glamor shoot with the first plus-size black Playmate and unapologetic pop singer Lizzo; as well as the duo Ed Freeman and Carlos G. Palimieri, who photographed the most upcoming cover of nude women of color while underwater, despite Freeman’s surprising lack of swimming skills.
Playboy’s demographic over the years has been the same straight, white men, that comprise a majority of America. If they haven’t already alienated their loyal customers with their entire aesthetic rebranding: is it naïve of me to think that Playboy can foster social awareness? Don’t get me wrong, I love Playboy’s new vibe. Ezra Miller in a lacy bodysuit and high-heels? Yes. Lizzo in a furry satin robe, spreading her fishnet-covered ass cheeks? Hell, yes. But when you first step into the “Playhouse,” you can tell that Playboy seems to be stuck in a limbo. With “Intercourse” loveseats on exhibit, blood-red lighting, and white fur carpeting all across the space, the decor could have been straight out of Hefner’s old orgy parties— completely at odds with the new message of inclusivity and equality.
It must be said that it is revolutionary for Playboy magazine to completely overhaul the direction of the magazine, distancing themselves from its erotic soft-core legacy that made their name into a trademark in the first place. To visually represent the bodies of marginalized minorities— be them people of color, queer, plus-sized (i.e. not bust-heavy bleach-blondes,) as sexually desirable is to empower and validate these communities and, in the words of Geena, “to make them seen.”
As refreshing as Playboy’s new creative direction seems, the hour-long panel talk almost feels like a game of liberal buzzwords, with the terms of “journeys,” “visibility,” and “diversity.” Perhaps I sound slightly more jaded than warranted, yet lingering doubts always remain when large brands and corporations jump onto the bandwagon of inclusion and identity politics to attract millennial or Gen-Z customers. But maybe their ulterior (for-profit) motives do not matter. What does matter is that Playboy’s new message is an empowering example of redressing a sordid, less-than-favorable history for radical change. I see where Playboy wants to go and I shall cheer from the sidelines as they wander in limbo, for now. It’s a difficult place to be and I cross my heart that no magazine will have to deal with the troubles they are facing. But looking at their upcoming cover of naked women floating in water, I wonder, too, if they will sink or swim. Will we actually start reading Playboy “for the articles” now? We’ll see.