January 13, 2004,
I grew up with seeing Playboy around the house, although as small children my sister and I were ambivalent about it. The other day I was cleaning out the garage and saw some of these mid-'60s Playboys we'd decorated with our mixed feelings. We drew bull's-eye targets on the Playmates' butts to make them look ridiculous, and then added cat's ears on their heads to make them look even more beautiful.
When a friend lost his job recently, I gave him one of these old copies of Playboy as a present. I felt a nostalgic pull to do this because when I was a child, my mother was in the habit of buying Playboy for any man in her life who'd suffered a setback: My father's grandmother had died, an apartment manager was in the hospital, the handyman had fallen off the roof.
"It's just cheesecake!" she'd say cheerfully. And really, at the time this was true.
Then one day, she bought a copy and was appalled. I think the ailing apartment manager got a bottle of Scotch that year instead. But the Playboy I gave my friend was an old 1970 issue I'd found in the garage. The girls in their unsiliconed breasts some of which are even covered by bikinis now looked antiquely demure.
Playboy celebrates its 50th anniversary with the January collector's edition, and once again the pictures seem like pretty mild cheesecake. Yes, there's plenty of (rigorously styled) hair down there and I kind of wish filmmaker Kevin Smith's wife had refrained from revealing her own little trimmed and shaved Hitler's moustache but I think the pendulum has begun to swing back in that department.
LeRoy Neiman's famous Femlin, the little drawing that illustrates the Party Jokes, is once again pre-pubescent down below. And if that old "I read it for the articles" line is rather less convincing than before I'd say Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson have passed their sell-by dates there's really nothing in Playboy now that needs to be hidden in a plain brown wrapper.
But then I know what else is out there. Hustler is disgusting. The financially ailing Penthouse is back on the stands with the current holiday issue, I'm happy to say (because I write for them, and they pay well), but I'd really rather not see photos of some guy's precious bodily fluids that have exited their source.
By the way, to proper feminists who ask how I can work for a magazine that exploits women, my answer is always, go write for a women's magazine before you talk to me about exploited women.
Lured by the prospect of what, ludicrously, always seems like easy money, I have occasionally over the years done just that. But after endless, snippy, sorority slambook-style negotiations "And FYI, the editor said, why does she think she should get that much?" and torturous rewriting until the correct women's mag tone (perky, smarmy, know-it-all, generic) is achieved, that fatally tempting $2 a word shrinks to something like $2 an hour.
At Penthouse, on the other hand, the drill always went like this: Accept advance, turn in article, hear back from editor within hours about how much he liked it, collect $6,000.
So, you know, I can live with my prose being surrounded by close-ups of some girl's rectum. But that's Penthouse. Anyone who calls Playboy pornography at this point is being willfully na´ve.
The 77-year-old Hugh Hefner has a well-deserved reputation now as a dirty old man, which gets him much contemptuous ribbing from the media, and that's fair enough. But for the record, the hoi polloi think he's just great.
I witnessed this a few years ago at a Warner Brothers Records party for Madonna at some grittily located dance club, and no celebrity got nearly as big a roar of approval from fans in the bleachers as Hef did when he showed up with his gaggle of blonde girlfriends. (I think he was with Brande and the twins Sandy and Mandy at the time, but he's since made his way through a bunch more: Handy, Dandee, Randi, Glandee and Post-Priandee...although I may not have their names exactly right.)
When he was starting Playboy, Hef imagined a brand that was "frisky, playful and fun," as he put it, rather than dirty.
Hefner had originally thought of calling his new magazine Stag Party, but got a cease-and-desist letter from another magazine then in existence called Stag. "I was starting to have reservations about the name anyway," he said at recent press conference. No wonder. Stag Party conjures up the sort of kinky '50s men's magazines featured in the new Feral House book It's a Man's World.
"Swank published new stories by William Saroyan and Graham Greene, and God alone knows who read them," Bruce Jay Friedman recalls in the book's preface. "I assigned the late A.C. Spectorsky to do an article on girl pinching. He did one on girl bumping which I rejected. He did a second version on girl shoving; I sent it back. He countered with a third, on girl tickling. I returned it and paid him half his fee. Years later, he asked me to join him at Playboy."
"I am making this offer,' he said, 'because of your quite proper refusal to accept anything but girl pinching.'"
But what about the distorted image Playboy gives young women about their bodies? I know from experience this can happen. When I was about 12, I asked my mother when my breasts were going to get spherically round on top, like balloons, instead of just round on the bottom. "When you get a push-up bra," she said.
"But Little Annie Fanny doesn't wear any bra at all and hers are shaped exactly like balloons!"
"Because she's a cartoon." Oh. Well, that was a disappointment, but I got over it.
It's easy to make fun of Playboy. And indeed there's something faintly ridiculous about seeing Drew Carey rattle on about freedom and women's empowerment, as he did at the anniversary party, while Hef strained to hear and his Playmate companions nodded sagely.
Except Playboy really does have something to do with freedom, and these days maybe that's worth remembering. A society that allows Playboy is not a society that allows women to be stoned to death for adultery. Human nature being what it is, we're probably stuck with either burkas or naked balloon breasts forever. I know which I prefer.
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog "Cathy's World."