A few years ago, the Kinsey Institute culled their library of some of its lesser pornography. A friend of mine stopped by their clearance sale, although perhaps “sale” is not quite the right word. He said they’d set out many tables and crates full of pornography and encouraged anyone who stopped by to take as much as they could carry. He picked up a stack of Playboy for himself and a slender volume of sex mythology for me.
His newfound collection of Playboys included a smattering from each decade, chosen seemingly at random except for his birth month (Feb 1986) and the issue featuring “Lena,” the standard Matlab test image (Nov 1972), shown here. (Her face contains zero intracellular transport vesicles — I know, because I wrote an algorithm to check.)
The old Playboys — the ones from the sixties and seventies — were actually pretty good magazines. They had fiction from serious writers like Nabokov and Updike, fescennine illustrated poetry from Shel Silverstein, long interviews from activists like Joan Baez, Jesse Jackson, Muhammad Ali, Jean Paul Sartre, and photo spreads directed by Salvador Dali.
And the editorial content was rife with predictions that, for instance, marijuana legalization was right around the corner. “Within five years…” they claimed. Well, things didn’t turn out quite how they expected. Even now, harmless people languish in prison in Colorado, doing time for marijuana possession.
Yes, Playboy was a pornographic magazine. There were photographs of naked women. But not as many as I’d expected based on what I’d heard growing up. The vast bulk of every issue was plain text. And, importantly, the naked women in those photographs were generally woman-shaped, with all the trappings of post-pubescence, as opposed to hairless too-thin figurines like autopsy-table aliens.
(Although, no offense intended to those of you who are naturally shaped that way. I, too, am jut-boned rib-count thin, although my body is also hairy like a hobbit, hirsute foot-tops and all. Still, you, too, dear slender reader, deserve to be loved, and I hope whomever you find gradually adapts until his or her ideal matches your image.
My contention is just that aesthetic taste is not inborn, and amongst a population need not be monolithic. Left to their own devices, most humans would show a preference for symmetry and for people who resemble others who’ve been nice to them in the past. Whereas modern advertising culture is designed to imprint the same desires on the majority of adolescent minds.
Certainly people who are shaped like the modern pornographic ideal — which seems vaguely reminiscent of X-Files Greys except with porcelain skin, long blonde hair, and the top-heaviness starting some 18 inches lower than for a species selected for massive brains — should also be considered beautiful by those whom they treat kindly. But given the infrequency with which that physique occurs naturally, it seems unhelpful for entire generations of males to be pre-programmed to seek that form.)
There were problems with the magazine, sure. It was good that the naked women in their photographs looked like human adults, which seems like a good minimum standard for pornographic magazines to live up to, but early Playboy still propagated a very narrow ideal of beauty. Many of their photospreads, especially in their barely-distinct-from-paid-advertising fashion sections, juxtaposed near-naked women with fully-clothed men, conveying unsettling ideas about power dynamics between the genders. Which was made worse by some of the cartoons: workplace sexual harassment was a common theme and was always presented as either harmless fun or, worse, a side benefit of women’s entrance into the workforce.
But Playboys from the sixties and seventies were a far sight better than more recent offerings. By the nineties, the articles were worse, content the magazine’s “readers” would probably skip over, and far more of the pages were taken up by naked photographs. By the nineties, most of the women shown were underfed, with surgically-modified balloon breasts, airbrushed smooth skin, and prepubescent hairlessness.
And yet, while I was reading Mark Leibovich’s recent New York Times article (“Donald Trump Is Not Going Anywhere”), I came across this line:
Trump motioned to the gallery of magazine covers on the wall next to him, which included an issue of Playboy from 1990 (“And that’s when it was really Playboy”)
By 1990, the readable magazine that paired pornography with serious content was dead. So it’s unclear what Trump would mean by claiming that it was “really Playboy” then.
Maybe you think it’s silly that I’d expect any of Trump’s claims to have a logical basis. But I think there’s a very real chance that the man will win the U.S. presidency. He’s boorish, racist, misogynistic, jingoistic, narcissistic. He has extremely crass taste judging by the gaudy buildings he’s emblazoned with his name (not to mention all the other low-quality overpriced products). He’s obsessed with celebrity and celebrities in the worst way (also from Leibovich’s article — why would anyone be impressed that Bobby Knight support him? Knight is also a knuckleheaded bully who reaped a fortune creating nothing of value). His only credentials are his ability to arrest attention on television and his financial prowess, although the repeated bankruptcies and clear cronyism cast a pall over the latter.
All of which means he seems perfect for America. He embodies the national id of large swaths of our population so well, the United States as represented by grocery-store-checkout-aisle magazines. Plus, whatever else there is to say about the man, he does have a semblance of integrity. When he spouts off asinine trash, it doesn’t seem as though he’s regurgitating a prepackaged focus-grouped speech penned by a marketing team. Given what we’re used to from politicians, that impresses a lot of people. It impresses me, and I think he’s a horrible human being.
His ideas are stupid — Playboy from 1990? — but he came up with those stupid ideas himself.
And, right, getting back to when I think the magazine was really Playboy, I was surprised that my favorite feature, flipping through them, were the advertisements. It’s interesting to see the difference in aspirations and expectations for young people between the 1970s and now.
There’s not really a contemporary magazine that’s a cultural equivalent to what Playboy was then, but I’d say Rolling Stone comes closest. Each issue of Rolling Stone has a huge amount of fluff, but their one or two real news articles are often quite good. And, the millennial-targeted advertisements in Rolling Stone? They’re for video games, sneakers, TV shows, vaporizers. Far cheaper than the house and car and incipient family intimated by ads from Playboy in the 1970s. Is that lifestyle still within reach of the majority of today’s young magazine readers?
Flipping through an issue, there were also advertisements for guns, cars, cameras, wine… (Paul Masson is telling me that his wine tastes good, but should I trust those eyes?).
…and my personal favorite: cigarettes. Here’s a choice cigarette advertisement for you. “Golden Lights. You really know you’re smoking.”
Um, sure. That man probably knows he’s smoking. But he looks miserable! Does he want to really know he’s smoking?
That sort of advertisement is probably strongly correlated with when Playboy “was really Playboy.” There were warnings on cigarette ads, but the big companies were still trying to maintain the whole “They’re not that addictive! They’re not going to kill you!” charade. And yet their advertisements could depict the sheer misery of smoking.
You don’t get that anymore. Now vaping ads are all cool graphics and happy people and it’s clear how easy gobbling your nicotine would be. Which I understand, from a seller’s perspective. You want your product to seem desirable. But for me, someone who is interested in the magazine as a cultural artifact, it’s more fun to see cigarette ads that show their models suffering.
POSTSCRIPT: In the time between when I wrote this and when it was posted, Playboy made an announcement about their incipient editorial changes. Soon their photographs of naked women will not depict nipples or genitalia — to my mind, a fairly minor change, but other people have different opinions about which parts of the human body should be shown.
Still, the announcement was made after Trump’s declaration that 1990 was when Playboy was really Playboy. So, unless the dude has insider information about contemporary pornographic publishing, that’s not what he was talking about.