Playboy has long been at the forefront of the women's liberation movement… According to Playboy, anyway. Hugh Hefner himself famously claimed to have been a pioneer in our movement, saying, "I was a feminist before there was such a thing as feminism." Good to know! I mean, think of the time and energy women could have saved had they simply pulled their husbands', brothers', or fathers' porn collection out of the garage, instead of instituting sexual harassment laws, setting up rape crisis shelters, or fighting wage discrimination.
While second wave feminists were too smart to fall for the America's Sweetheart of porn rag's claims that women's objectification was in fact their liberation, the neoliberal third wave toed the line enthusiastically. "Women Now Empowered by Everything a Woman Does" was a jokey headline in The Onion, but seemed to be the literal mantra spouted by modern liberal feminists. Playboy ceased to be a focus for feminist ire as discourse moved towards accepting and celebrating women's "choices," no matter the context and no matter what those choices were. Indeed, if a woman chose to pose nude (and was paid to do so - I mean, what could possibly be more revolutionary than profit?), she was simply exercising her "agency." The idea that women's objectification harmed women's status and played right into patriarchal stereotypes about women's worth fell out of favour and Playboy finally achieved exactly what it claimed to have had from the get-go: feminist cred.
The "safe-for-work" site, launched in 2014, began publishing what they called "feminist" content. Much of that content was written by men and much of it supported Hef's libertarian ethos that connected women's sexualised bodies to a free society. But apparently Playboy's work was already done. Hefner's vision achieved, porn had become so mainstream that Playboy no longer served the purpose it once did. The following year, the magazine announced they would no longer be publishing nudes. The "battle has been fought and won," announced Scott Flanders, the company's then-chief executive. It was no longer necessary to offer men photos of women's pornified bodies because they were everywhere. Freedom reigns.
What to make, then, of Playboy's recent change of heart? On Monday, Hef's son and the company's chief creative officer, Cooper Hefner, announced, in impeccable third wave parlance, "We're taking our identity back and reclaiming who we are." Removing nudity had been a mistake, he said. "Nudity was never the problem because nudity isn't a problem."
While the party line is dripping in contemporary liberal feminist buzzwords, clearly intending to convey a radical message of sex-positive acceptance, it's possible that the only thing behind this reversal is Playboy's bottom line. The magazine made its fortune and built its audience on the backs of naked women, and it was too late to change course. While, yes, men can access porn in an instant these days, thanks to the internet, there is no reason to think that men wouldn't want to continue seeing naked women in their Playboys.
Of course, the magazine would still have to do something different in order to convince men to choose Playboy over something more graphic. What separates the magazine from the kind of pornography men seek out online is that the nudity featured in Playboy has been deemed classy. And believe it or not, in the age of gonzo porn, that still sells. Playboy isn't something a Good Guy need feel ashamed to have on his coffee table. Hey, there's a profile of political commentator Van Jones in the new issue.
Cooper Hefner has done exactly what he needed to do to get America's progressive, hip men and women celebrating this return to sexy: he politicised objectification, connecting it to "civil liberties and freedom of expression," and he hipsterised the nudes.
Cool beardos of today don't want fake breasts and porny stilettos. That stuff is cheesy and embarrassing. The snobbish hipsters that make up my local bar scene and social circles want their objectification packaged in a way that looks all natural - carefree girls wearing vintage paper thin rock shirts, tube socks, and no pants. They know it's ok to like photos of topless moto chicks on Instagram, but not those featuring heavily made-up, plastic-surgeried porn stars. It's less desperate and more anti-establishment - this is gentrified dive bar porn culture: You talk about the Big Mistake the Dems made in failing to big up Bernie with your bros while a braless 20-year-old in cutoffs and thigh tattoos hangs off your arm.
The cover of Playboy's March/April 2017 features a brunette in barely there makeup, bathed a vintage sunny glow. In a video featured on Playboy.com, cover girl Elizabeth Elam explains that one of her turn-ons is "smoking weed". Other turn-ons include tube socks, Jonah Hill, Trekkies ("embrace your inner nerd"), and male feminists ("the biggest turn on"). She thinks 50 Shades Darker was "awful" and was never into Taylor Swift. Elam really is like the girls who hang out at my local bar. And this is exactly what Playboy has always sold: the girl next door. She's not a supermodel, not perfect, not snobbish - she is accessible and approachable.
Today, though, Cooper Hefner has taken that image one important step further. He figured out that smart liberal dudes who read glossy articles about American politics imagine themselves as feminists who like cool girls who would rather eat pizza and watch Twin Peaks than be seen in a fancy car. These girls are projections of today's hipster male fantasy: anti-establishment, into nerd culture, and would go to Wrestle Mania (for ironic effect) but not a UFC fight. The new Playboy centrefold hates mainstream culture and feels liberated by "natural" nudity. She is also very thin, very young, and likes to be spanked. She is the dream girl of the near-40 man who thinks he wants a feminist girlfriend who he can talk politics with, but also doesn't want to feel challenged in any way (a conundrum for the ages!). He loves funny, smart, driven, middle-aged women like Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Pamela Adlon, but exclusively dates 25-year-olds who pose naked in the woods year-round (#FreeTheNipple).
I have to give young Hefner credit: he's nailed it. Playboy's #NakedIsNormal relaunch offers progressive men a misogyny to suit their lifestyle.
Meghan Murphy is a writer in Vancouver, B.C. Her website is Feminist Current.
Text Megan Murphy