clock menu more-arrow no yes

Playboy's drowning. Is feminism its life raft?

Playboy bunnies circa 2011
Playboy bunnies circa 2011
Dan Kitwood/Getty

In August, a flowchart explaining to men when they should catcall women went viral.

It starts off ominously, with questions like "Is that booty bangin'?" and "Does she have legs that go on for days?" Keep scrolling down, though, and it becomes apparent that the flowchart only allows for two scenarios in which you can catcall, the first is if "you know her and have both consensually agreed to shout sexually suggestive comments in public"; the second is if you are literally yelling at a cat. All other answers lead to "nope." The chart, created by artist and designer Shea Strauss, was Facebook-friendly and went viral across feminist sites. Feministing picked it up. Bustle dubbed it an "ingenious piece of wonderfulness." Ms. Magazine called it "delightfully — and surprisingly — feminist." (Vox picked it up, too.)

The flowchart's feminist tone might have come as such a surprise because of where it originated: Playboy.com.

A few weeks later, writer Sara Benincasa wrote a searing Playboy.com article after hackers posted stolen nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence and other female celebrities on the internet. The headline was a direct challenge to Playboy's readership: "JENNIFER LAWRENCE IS NOT A THING TO BE PASSED AROUND", it said. Benincasa argued that no one should look at the stolen pictures of the victims, because none of the women had offered consent. "Jennifer Lawrence is a human fucking being," she wrote. "And she's not my property, and she's not your property, and we all need to back the fuck off."

In August, just before Benincasa's and Strauss's pieces were published, Playboy.com relaunched a new version of its site. Earlier that summer, the online arm of the 61-year-old men's magazine was shaken up when Cory Jones, former editor of AOL men's site Mandatory.com, took the reins of Playboy's digital content. The revamped Playboy.com will now focus on Facebook-friendly, SFW content to attract more advertisers and users. "The editorial mantra for content is to ask ourselves, 'Would you send this to a friend?'" Jones told Advertising Age.

From a strategic perspective, shareable and engaging pieces like Strauss's and Benincasa's reflect that new goal — they're really popular. But it's not as clear how this content fits into Playboy's identity as a brand. Jones told me that Playboy is pro-woman, but he stopped short of using the F-word. "The fact that this is called feminist is kind of sad," Jones said of the flowchart and Jennifer Lawrence article, "when it's really just being a gentleman."

Playboy is not the only men's magazine that's known for sexualized images of women and is now looking for a more diverse readership. Maxim just hired Kate Lanphear, who was previously style director at T: The New York Times Style Magazine and Elle, as its new editor-in-chief. (She told WWD that she hopes "to cultivate and broaden Maxim's coverage of style and culture.") Maxim has also published great profiles on women artists and their work that choose not to veer into evaluating how sexy the artists are. FHM, a British men's magazine, published a humorous version of "leaked" celebrity nudes that subtly reminded readers about consent.

These things signal change. But some things are staying the same. On Playboy.com, the catcalling flowchart features the silhouettes of two posing women stamped next to the words "Should You Catcall Her?" In the navigation bar, the men's style section is right next to a tab that just reads "Girls," where visitors can find photos of women posing in bikinis and underwear — not quite naked, but almost.

"To be honest, the 'Girls' section is always going to be a part of who Playboy is," Jones told me. "It's as much a part of our brand as humor, and entertainment and longform is."

Is there such a thing as lad-mag feminism?

Magazines like Playboy, Maxim, and FHM thrived in a time before the popularization of the internet, when sexualized images of women were not available at the click of the button or swipe of the screen. But the internet wrecked their business model; there was no need to buy a magazine at the store and no need to pay Maxim for images that could be seen for free. But while its readers were disappearing, Maxim and other magazines like it continued publishing content that degraded women. In 2003, Maxim published an article titled "How to Cure a Feminist."

how to cure a feminist

The piece is a horrifying how-to demonstration that directs men on how to "cure a feminist" and turn her into an "actual girl." A feminist, the article says, is a woman who can be fixed. Or to borrow Nora Ephron's words, "get back, get back to where you once belonged."

Here's how ugly much of what the men's mags published actually was: a 2011 study published in the British Journal of Psychology found that "people can't tell the language of men's mags and convicted rapists apart, and men even identify more with the rapists' words." This is obvious in features like Playboy's 2009 "conservative women we'd like to hate fuck."

When I asked Sara Benincasa, the actress and comedian who wrote about the celebrity hackings for Playboy.com, if she received any backlash for writing about women's rights for such an infamous brand, she said, "Some folks thought it was hypocritical, and that I had some secret agenda to try and advance Playboy's cause as the HQ of hot nudie ladies."

Playboy definitely has a reputation as the headquarters of "hot nudie ladies," but it's trying to change that. Magazines in its class, Ezzell said, have traditionally "sneered at feminism and produced explicitly patriarchal, anti-feminist, and misogynist content." But today, the online presences of Playboy, Maxim, and FHM aren't sneering. Instead, he said, they are using the mainstream popularity of feminism — as seen in Beyonce's VMA perfomance and Emma Watson's recent UN speech — to their advantage.

"I don't read [articles like Benincasa's] as an attempt [on Playboy.com's part] to actually embrace feminism or support it," Ezzel said. "It would be more apt to say that this is a marketing ploy to ride the recent wave of mainstream coverage of (liberal) feminist representation."

This overtly feminist content has worked for Playboy.com, but the brand is not a place to get deep into feminist theory. Strauss, for instance, felt comfortable scratching the surface with her flowchart. But she said that if she "were creating a more critical diagram on catcalling for a readership familiar with the issue, I would have touched on further nuances of street harassment, but that piece would not have reached the same audience."

Ezzell said this "elbow-rubbing" with surface-level feminism can be harmful, "as it could allow male consumers of these materials to feel like they are doing the work of feminism, that they are ‘the good ones.'" But Jezebel's Erin Gloria Ryan disagreed. Feminist content, she said, "might make Playboy okay to read and subscribe to again for men (and women) who are interested in sex and culture but uninterested in a magazine that doesn't reflect what they're currently thinking about." The topics addressed in her campus rape piece or the catcalling flowchart are not simply women's problems. "Issues that affect women — consent, collegiate culture, rape and how it's discussed and prosecuted, sexuality, birth control, representation of genders on TV and in film, domestic violence — also affect men," she said in an email.

Channeling the history of Playboy

playboy one

Playboy bunnies do a bunny dance in 1963 (Victor Blackman/Hulton Archive/Getty)

Over the last six decades, Playboy has published some incredible longform journalism. Jones said he wants to bring that legacy of excellent writing to Playboy.com. "By creating stories that are smart, funny, and sexy, we can establish a community of people who come to the site consistently for our opinions." Sometimes, those articles will be written by women. "We didn't sit down and say we need to have female voices on the site," Jones said. "We just wanted to have good voices."

Jones mentioned that icons such as Betty Friedan, Camille Paglia, and Margaret Atwood had written for the magazine. "We are very pro-woman," he said. "I love that people are sort of taking notice of what we are doing."

Playboy's history, which Jones said he wants to capture the "essence" of for the website, is complicated when it comes to women's rights. Hugh Hefner, the storied founder and chief creative officer for Playboy, said in an interview on the 1998 mini-series Cold War that the "Playboy Philosophy" was inextricably tied with the American Dream. "The notion that we indeed did and do own our own minds and bodies, and that anything from church or state that limits that is inappropriate and inconsistent with the ... society that America is supposed to be," he said. The face of this revolution is perhaps an unwitting Marilyn Monroe, who appeared on the magazine's first cover in 1953. Then a rising star in Hollywood, Monroe found herself splashed on the pages of the men's magazine after Hefner secured rights to nude photos she had taken earlier in her career at the age of 23, but she didn't find out she would be in the magazine until it hit stands that December. She was never paid a dime.

"I was hesitant [to write for Playboy] at first," said Strauss over email. "But Playboy has a great literary history and sex-positive influence. I am happy to be a representative of female creators in a male-dominated area, and I thought it was an exciting opportunity to add a female voice to their mix."

Jones and Shea used the exact same phrasing when I asked them if Playboy was a feminist publication: that the magazine has "a great literary history and sex-positive influence." They are right on both counts. Playboy has published work by Norman Mailer, Haruki Marukami, Ray Bradbury, and Kurt Vonnegut. The brand was also one of the first to treat female sexuality seriously, pushing the idea that women desire sex they way that men do, which in 1953 was a revolution.

Are the lad mags as outdated as their mindsets?

hefner old

Hugh Hefner poses with the Playboy bunnies for Playboy's 60th Anniversary (Rachel Murray/Getty)

The circulation of Playboy, Maxim, and FHM in print has dropped drastically in the past 10 years, and their online presence hasn't performed much better.

The circulation of Playboy hovered at 1.5 million subscribers last year. In 2009, that number was 2 million, and in the 1970s, Playboy subscriptions peaked at 7 million. In 1995, Maxim had 2.5 million subscribers. This year, that number still sits close to 2.5 million, but the magazine has had to cut down to 10 issues a year to save money. FHM, the third largest United States lad mag in the 1990s, stopped printing in 2006. (The British version is still in print, but its circulation is below 100,000.)

To be fair, most of the print magazine industry took a nose dive during the recession. But when other magazines recovered, Playboy's circulation continued to drop, possibly because its niche is no longer needed. Men can find pornography and great content in the same place now: on the internet.

Ezzell noted that his studies have found that 98 percent of male college students in the US had been exposed to pornography by the age of 17 and that 89 percent were active consumers. Ninety percent of those men, according to Ezzell's research, found that content online. Based on Playboy's traffic numbers though, they aren't finding it on Playboy.

As early as 2009, The Week was questioning Playboy's relevancy. And even in the last year, Playboy.com's traffic has plummeted. According to Comscore data for September 2014, Playboy.com had 989,000 unique visitors. Maxim.com came in slightly ahead of Playboy.com in September with 1.189 million unique visitors, and FHM trailed with 383,00 unique viewers.

These numbers are nothing compared to the mammoth numbers of visitors to free porn sites such as Pornhub and Red Tube. Pornhub had over 38 million unique visitors in September 2014. That's 38 times the viewers of Maxim and Playboy. RedTube had 21 million.  It's an amazing sign of the times that Playboy and other lad's mags are trying to compete by edging into pieces women might share on Facebook, but it probably won't work. Being a gentleman, honey, simply isn't enough.

Update: An earlier version of this story included the word "honey" in one of Jones' quotes. He disputes that he said this, and it has been removed.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.