Escaping the plastic wrap soon.

Photographer: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

The Centerfold Dies So Playboy Man Might Live

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
Read More.
a | A

Long ago, when I was just a wee thing, really, I was browsing through a flea market with a boyfriend who found some old Playboys. Naturally he bought them. Naturally, he said with a smirk, he just wanted to read them for the articles. The joke was on him; some previous owner had carefully razored out the centerfolds.

As a result, the one time I read Playboy, I did read it for the articles … and it turned out the articles were pretty good. There were interviews with famous interesting people. (I seem to recall one with William F. Buckley.) There was short fiction. There was an overall gestalt of mod hipness that now reads as faintly amusing. (Vodka cocktails are the next big thing? Do tell.)

All in all, it was surprisingly serious stuff, next to … well, I suppose the centerfolds represent the most serious subject in the history of the human race, but they weren’t intellectually stimulating.

Now it looks like we’ll all be able to read Playboy for the articles, because the magazine is recasting itself as a straight lad mag, no nudity required, or even allowed.

As a business decision, this makes perfect sense. The Internet has killed the print skin trade. It offers video, chats and incredible variety, and as long as you’re careful to scrub your search history, you don’t even need to hide your tablet at the back of the closet.

Playboy's American print magazine now loses millions of dollars a year, and is essentially a loss-leader for the Playboy brand, which is licensed hither and thither across the globe. That brand is well established, right down to its bunny logo. At this point nude photos may cost the magazine more audience than they bring in.

On the other hand, what is the brand without the centerfold? Playboy has always had an odd tension between the editorial content and the visual aids.

In its heyday among the mod generation, the writing essentially peddled the fantasy of being a more sedentary James Bond: a sophisticated and urbane man about town, drowning in lady friends. The New York Times quotes Hefner’s first editor’s letter, which sketches the demographic he envisioned: “If you’re a man between the ages of 18 and 80, Playboy is meant for you. … We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting in a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex. ...”

Playboy Man was, in short, a connoisseur of the upper-middlebrow au courant, at least enough to carry on an hour or so of really good cocktail party conversation. He liked to give cocktail parties, too, though they might have only one guest. His hi-fi system was the latest, his little black book crammed with the names of willing and attractive females. He was, we might note, the type of person who really doesn’t have a lot of spare time to spend looking at Playboy centerfolds.

This creature was a figure of fun even at its height. "Pillow Talk" in 1959, with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, is basically a parody of Playboy Man, and that’s the only real comedy in the movie. As his moment ended, Playboy Man has become a parody of himself, the best illustration of which is Hefner’s descent from edgy icon to comic figure, and through farce to tragedy. 

Who, after all, invites someone over to listen to records and chat about sex? And yet the women of my mother’s generation report that this was something that young men of the era actually did, in the apparent belief that this would break through the barriers of inhibition that were keeping Playboy Man from realizing his highest, truest self.

As the decades wore on, jawing about the Oldest Activity lost its daring, as did the activity itself. But in the meantime, Playboy Man provided a justification for both the articles and the centerfolds: He was urbane enough to want to read Nat Hentoff interviewing Eldridge Cleaver, and bold enough to flaunt his affection for pictures of naked women. Without Playboy Man to serve as translator, no other publication so successfully joined those two worlds together.

It’s interesting to contrast Playboy Man with the modern incarnation that has taken his place: the Pickup Artist. Both present versions of the same message: follow this code, and you’ll be successful with women. (For some values of the word “successful,” anyway.) But Playboy Man was supposed to achieve this through mastering a certain body of “cool” knowledge, through becoming the sort of person who might impress even those he does not intend to woo. The Playboy fantasy was of being the kind of gent who naturally attracts women because he’s so with it, while the Pickup Artist fantasy is more like a teenager playing a video game: You press the buttons in the right sequence and -- yes! -- your character unlocks the next level.

Sexual conquest has, in other words, moved down market, as pornography did, first with the introduction of raunchier Playboy competitors, and then in the move to the Internet, where sheer volume trumps production values. Playboy spoke to the moment between two sexual moralities: the age when sex was forbidden, and the age when sex became ubiquitous. In the moment between, the sight of men openly pursuing lots of sex had a sort of glamour, and a status, that it has now entirely lost. I don’t say that the pursuit has stopped. But the charmingly dangerous character of the “wolf” has now been supplanted by an assortment of derisive terms that I cannot repeat here in a family-friendly column. For an adult man to admit that he spends a lot of time thinking about how to score is as gauche now as it was in 1900, though for entirely different reasons.

Playboy itself probably had something to do with that transition. Its success means it is no longer edgy. What’s fascinating is that the brand has endured and retains the faint halo of its old connotations. It has passed from notorious to the mildest sort of naughtiness, to be sure. But it is still the logo of vice, not virtue -- even though most people in America no longer consider what it represented to be much of a vice.

Will that weak glamor still endure when the last vestiges of its vice have washed away? Will people still want the famous bunny when the bunny represents a really great article on yacht racing in the Azores, or Hugh Jackman’s punishing Wolverine workout? How many people will buy the magazine if it loses its centerfolds? How many readers can the magazine lose without losing its purpose enhancing the brand? Good questions all. Stay tuned.

We know already that we've seen the last generation of American men who will have to defend themselves by saying they read Playboy for the articles. What remains to be seen is whether future generations will respond to that claim with "duh" or "what's Playboy?"

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net