A little over a year ago, I got into my head a very strange idea. I decided to buy an issue of Playboy.
The precise reason for this decision is a little fuzzy, but I believe it had something to do with viewing it as a rite of passage. At 21 years old I had never flipped through a Playboy in my life, and it seemed that I was missing out on a big aspect of popular culture.
The weeks spent waiting for it to arrive in the mail were characterized by strange emotion. I went out to check the mailbox every day — not because I was dying with anticipation, but rather because I didn’t want my roommate to bring it in first. I felt like I was carrying around a weird dark secret, or that I had crossed some sort of unforgivable divide into a world of perversion. But then one day it arrived, and it is hard to say what my reaction was. It wasn’t excitement, nor was it disappointment; it was a neutral, calculating sense of “So this is Playboy. Huh.”
I can distinctly remember one of my first thoughts was, “Wow, this really is just like a normal magazine.” It had advertisements, advice columns, whatever. But as I looked a bit more closely, I discovered something much more shocking. I discovered that it had more literary merit than most of what I could find on the magazine racks.
Don’t believe me? That’s fine. But let me ask you this: who was the most talked-about woman in Playboy last year? While you might not have a specific answer, chances are you are forming a vague mental impression. I can guarantee you are not thinking of the 89-year-old former dean of the White House Press Corps Helen Thomas, who was the subject of a Playboy interview last April and ignited spectacular controversy with her anti-Zionist comments. But that, in fact, is the correct answer.
The time-honoured Playboy interview has, over the years, dealt with many notable figures, including Bill Cosby, Robert De Niro, Barbra Streisand, George Carlin, Anne Rice, John Lennon, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Betty Friedan, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and Fidel Castro (twice). Even vitriolic conservatives Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh have deigned to be interviewed.
On top of that, I’ve read articles on the Arab Spring, asteroid mining, shark attacks, the making of Scarface, and the meth empire created by actor Tom Arnold’s sister. Their journalists not only produce great content, but they also track down intriguing stories that are not picked up anywhere else. So the question is: why does it still come delivered in a blacked-out plastic bag?
Criticism seems to come from two sources. One is an old, conservative generation who feel the need to stamp out boobs wherever they arise, but who are still content to let the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition fly off newsstands across the continent. The other criticism is from a younger generation that finds buying Playboy to be the most ridiculous thing in the world when it’s so easy to find pictures of naked women online. And this group elucidates my point perfectly: Playboy lost its “dirty pictures” niche a long time ago, and it keeps going simply because of its strength as a publication.
I am not defending Playboy against any and all criticism. There is plenty you could write about “bunny culture” and its effect on women (though I do not feel competent to weigh in here). I am concerned primarily with the magazine, and the magazine is certainly no more damaging to women than the plethora of publications specifically directed at them.
I find myself staring at a Cosmopolitan cover every time I get my haircut, and frankly, it embarrasses me. They all run together in my memory, but I can recall tags like, “10 Things Guys Crave in Bed,” “9 Times You Won’t Burn in Hell for Being Bitchy,” “‘My Gyno Talked to my Vagina’ and Other Doc Shockers,” countless hard-hitting “Sex Surveys,” and of course none sticks more prominently in my memory than “The Butt Facial.” Any woman could read that in public without attracting a sideways glance, yet I would be a pervert for reading an interview with Jon Hamm, just because of a partially obscured title printed across the top of the cover.
None of this will change, obviously. I will still furtively ferry my magazine back to my apartment when no one else is around, and I will still peruse deep and thought-provoking articles about solar energy or North Korea while kitschy nude cartoons smile from the opposite page.
I make the following confession: I read Playboy for the articles. Judge me as you will.
Photo: Matthew Stefanson/The Sheaf