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I can't defend Playboy against charges of objectifying women. In fact, the airbrushed perfection of some Playmates struck me as robotoid, threw cold water on my desires even when every voyeuristic impulse was begging to be satisfied. And putting cotton tails and bunny ears on Playboy Club hostesses made them no more alluring than Bugs Bunny in drag. But just as surely, the feminists' very sensible argument flies in the face of biology and culture. "Men look at women," John Berger famously wrote. "Women watch themselves being looked at." I believe he also said that the camera is a man looking at a woman. And for better or worse, for 50 years, Playboy has been that camera.
Those wishing to savor the visual delights of Hefner's world should thumb through "Playboy 50 Years: the Photographs," with text by Joe Peterson.There the amateur sociologist will be able to gauge seismic shifts in both sexual tolerance and body fashion.
In the early years the models were often redheads (as were many 50s movie actresses), but blonds quickly came to dominate the selection (as they did Hefner's choice of companion). The traces of baby fat in the 50s and 60s Playmates gave way to the buffed and sanded ladies of the workout era. They were usually, though not necessarily, busty, and almost always Caucasian. And always very American: the ideal of the middle-class Midwestern boy who ran the magazine. Even the German models Hefner added for spice in 1961 (Heidi Becker, Christa Speck) looked like red-white-and-blue farm girls.
As Hefner has tirelessly proclaimed, Playboy helped spur the sexual revolution with a wink and a nudge. But by the 70s the magazine was not pushing but being dragged. It had introduced pubic hair in the August 1969 issue, with a stroboscopic sequence of actress-dancer Paula Kelly. (Because she was African-American, the breakthrough had a tinge of National Geographic ethnographic exoticism.) The Playmates went decorously full-frontal in 1972, when Hefner felt the competition of the raunchier Penthouse. By then Playboy was a successful franchise with news dealers and big advertisers to consider, and Hefner seemed unsure of how far was too far. On October 15, 1977, Hefner was the guest host of "Saturday Night Live" and participated in a skit that imagined him, as the Playboy Philosopher, in ancient Greece, pontificating along with Plato and Socrates. At the end he stares into the camera and poses the Hamlet-like question: "To go pink, or not to go pink?"
The magazine never did stoop to Penthouse's or Hustler's gynecological avidity. Instead, it applied its techniques of photo enhancement and Vidal Sassoon-style grooming to the pubis. Air-brushed? Say Impressionist. Those unsung Playboy retouchers were Monets of the mons veneris.
But Playboy did surrender to the eroto-chemical revolution: the siliconing of women's breasts. No longer was the Playmate a triumph of good genes, a pretty smile and a light workout. Now when you looked at a Playmate you had to think of the plastic surgeon who made her that way. Bette Midler once made a joke about Bruce Springsteen in his 80s buff phase: "Nice body, Bruce. Where'd you buy it?" Same goes for many of the Playmates of the past 20 years. The 50th Anniversary Playmate, Colleen Shannon, is a Pamela Anderson clone, a pneumatic cartoon drawn by Alberto Vargas or Frank Frazetta a sex-toy doll inflated to Macy's Thanksgiving Parade proportions.
PLAYBOY BECOMES OLDBOY
In a recent interview with Rick Bentley in the Sacramento Bee, Hefner declared that the Playmate was as young and hip as ever: "The trademark products are now more popular than ever before, and you see them on high school girls, and you see the fashions in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. There are more references to Playboy in rap songs and hip-hop songs, the music of young people, than there has ever been before. Playboy is both contemporary and retro."
I think Playboy is as much a child of 50s fantasies as I am, and Hefner as much the creator and captive of those fantasies. The 50s was the last decade when to be cool meant to be sophisticated. Back then, success and glamour included pretensions to education: not just the famous-author bylines but to racy films with subtitles; Playboy's equivalent was the Ribald Classics, translations of naughty tales by Chaucer, Rabelais, Balzac. And jazz. Jazz was cool then, Hefner loved it, so he started an annual readers' poll of jazz favorites and, in 1978, a Playboy Jazz Festival. (Sorry, Hef, wrong music.)
"I was not really trying to create a sex magazine," Hefner told Bentley. "I was trying to give sex a good name in a context of a lifestyle magazine." How very true. Playboy wasn't just about the sex. It was about being accepted by the arbiters of 50s middle-browism. That brow has disappeared. Now there's a tiny high-brow culture and a vast low- or no-brow one. Playboy and Hef stayed in the center that did not hold.
You see it in the 50th anniversary issue. Naturally it has has a retro air, with photos of favorite old Playmates and actresses who undressed for the magazine. But some of the issue's contributors aren't toddlers either: Mailer (80), Hunter S. Thompson (66), Frank Gehry (74), George Plimpton (76 when he died last year). The Interview subject is Jack Nicholson (66). The main profile is of Alfred C. Kinsey, the sex researcher whose "Sexual Behavior of the Human Female" was published the year Playboy first hit the newsstands.
What Kinsey studied, Hefner exploited, in a very 50s way. It was a serious decade, and Hef was, is, a serious fellow serious even about having fun. He always struck me as an Organization Man (as long as it was his organization). His careful conversation and tight smile reminded me of any number of Midwestern businessmen, politicians, anchormen, clergymen. Hefner was raised a Methodist and remained methodical, at heart and at head. In a second A&E special, "Inside the Playboy Mansion," he shows off his Holmby Hills estate; it's a sort of Neverland, with the wildlife preserve and the video-game rooms (but with older kids). He's proud to have organized it all, all the parties and Playmates. But it's not just his pleasure, his image. It's his job. He's America's CEO of lust.
Hefner at 77, Playboy at 50: both are aging roués, the kind Dedini used to draw in his cartoons. The iconic bunny (a rabbit in an ascot) is today as much an anachronism as the New Yorker's Eustace Tilley (a fop with a monocle). Or as Hefner, in his silk pajamas and red smoking jacket, when billionaires wear T shirts. Hef, with his interchangeable sex partners (two are twins) and his trademark pipe traded in for Diet Pepsi and Viagra, has become what we are all in danger of morphing into as we grow old: parodies of our younger selves.
On A&E he attends the unveiling of his own likeness at the Hollywood Wax Museum, and it's, no kidding, impossble to tell the man from his effigy. The magazine, too, has the waxy buildup of age my age. In the Sacramento Bee, Syracuse University Professor Robert Thompson notes that Playboy "was so successful at communicating and advocating a new lifestyle and set of values, that by 2003 it's made itself unnecessary."
I don't want to sound as if I pity Hefner because he has sex all the time and I don't. And I don't want to knock the magazine because it doesn't fulfill the needs I had 45 years ago. But magazines, like people, mature and calcify especially a magazine run by one man for its entire life. (When Hefner started the magazine, Stalin had just died, Castro was five years from power and rock 'n roll was still race music.) The trick of aging is not to try to sustain what we were when we were young, but to remember it, and not begrudge those adolescent or infantile dreams to the next generation.
So, lads, sneak off and buy a copy of Playboy. May it offer you the same gilded ticket to puberty that it did to me long ago.