Caroline West: Playboy's next move in an post-#metoo world

Almost 63 years old, Playboy has shuttered its magazine, focusing on a packed digital landscape, writes Caroline West
Caroline West: Playboy's next move in an post-#metoo world
An aerial view of the Playboy Mansion
An aerial view of the Playboy Mansion

Covid-19 has impacted businesses across the world. Most people have remorse about this, but one business closure in particular has resulted in celebration for many women.

March 18, 2020, was the end of an era — one that disgusted some, excited others, and made a lot of people rich. On this day, Playboy announced it was shutting down its print magazine for the rest of 2020, blaming the impact of Covid-19. Having already moved to quarterly issues, many felt the announcement meant Playboy was retiring its print edition for good.

Playboy as a brand has reached grandparent status, running for almost 63 years and surviving many challenges. Initially  it faced feminist opposition to the magazine through protests and calls for boycotts. Playboy was blamed for sanitizing and developing the porn industry, with others arguing that the infamous bunny costume was exploitation, not liberation. Feminists such as Gloria Steinem went undercover in the Playboy clubs, reporting many cases of sexual harassment and harm caused by the strict rules that the bunny outfit had to be worn two sizes too small.

Founder Hugh Hefner died in 2017 at the age of 91, and he left behind a complicated legacy.

The magazine published articles that were supportive of the women's liberation movement, LGBT rights, and access to abortion, going as far as donating millions of dollars to these movements.

Older women were featured in the magazine, with some centrefolds such as Pamela Anderson returning many times for new cover shoots.

However, the magazine also simultaneously perpetuated the male gaze, and the majority of women featured were slim, young, and blonde. Hefner advocated for ‘traditional’ gender roles in society to be maintained while deriding what he called ‘extreme’ feminists who protested his work. Many rumours swirled around about Hefner being controlling to his many girlfriends, with ex-girlfriend Holly Madison publishing an eviscerating expose of life in the Playboy mansion.

The magazine may have helped Marilyn Monroe's career after it used nude images of her in its first issue; however, she did not consent to this. These were old images that she was embarrassed by and did not want made public — nor was she paid by Playboy.

While Playboy defended itself against feminist opposition, it also fought off competition from magazines such as Hustler, which aimed for shock value with graphic content rather than the luxury lifestyle that Playboy advocated. But it could not win all challenges.

These came not from a moral perspective, but from a technological perspective. With the advent of the internet and smartphones, the print industry as a whole was heavily impacted. The magazine fell from a high of 5.6m sales in the 1970s to below 700,000 in 2016, mainly as a result of the accessibility of internet pornography.

The nude centrefold may have launched the careers of many women, but was removed in 2016 in an effort to stem declining sales. This was a divisive move and the feature was brought back in 2017 — to little avail, it now seems.

On his death, Hefner left the company to his son, Cooper, who appears to have worked hard to revamp the brand's image. Discarding the sleazy ‘silk pyjamas and slippers’ wearing persona that Hugh Hefner embodied, Cooper has moved the brand forward into the digital world, while continuing to monetise the bunny logo.

Playboy claims that its logo has a global rate of 97% brand recognition — more than Coca-Cola, or indeed, the face of Jesus. In 1972 Playboy executive vice-president Bob Preuss described the vision for the brand, which included limousines, luxury cars, planes, restaurants, and theatres. While it may not have achieved this, it has enjoyed enormous success through branding, selling everything from bedsheets to pencils. Feminists have often successfully campaigned to have the products removed from retailers such as Argos and WH Smith.

Playboy has embraced the move to online, particularly in relation to social media. In its announcement, it claims to have "gained over 4m new Instagram followers and saw over 50% growth in engagement on our social channels in the past six months, grew our digital video subscriptions by almost 30% year-over-year, and acquired a direct-to-consumer commerce operation that serves almost 1m active customers every month".

It has also moved its agony aunt section online through live broadcasts, and built upon the exponential growth of the legal cannabis industry through hosting live panels about cannabis products and sexual wellness.

While it has removed its longstanding strapline of ‘entertainment for men’, it remains to be seen if it will remove its traditional male gaze going forward. Playboy promoted an ideal version of middle-to-upper class masculinity, alongside an ideal version of femininity in the context of capitalism. The brand's next movements will build on its history and it will be curious to see where it goes in a digitalised, post #MeToo world where camming and social media are rapidly shaping the sex industry.

Whether you claimed to read it just for the articles, or hated its very existence, there is no doubt that Playboy magazine left a lasting impact on conversations about feminism, sexuality, gender, and capitalism.

Dr Caroline West is a lecturer in sexuality studies in DCU and the host of the Glow West podcast. She can be found at iamcarolinewest.com

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