Playboy is iconically famous for nude pictures of thin, busty, stereotypically attractive young women. It is not famous for feminism. Playboy, for many people, is synonymous with sexism.
So it’s not a surprise that since I began writing about feminist issues for Playboy.com I have been greeted with a certain amount of skepticism.
As a freelancer, I’m generally not selective about who I write for. Just about any venue I’ve ever published in has some stances I don’t agree with. I’m a socialist lefty who thinks we should have single-payer health care and a 100 percent estate tax, but I write for Reason on criminal justice and sex worker issues.
In the first place, you can’t make a living at the job if you’re too picky. And beyond that, I’m generally more interested in finding common ground where I can than in ideological purity. There’s not much point in talking to people who agree with you on everything already, after all. If the point of writing is, in part, to convince, then you need to have interlocutors who don’t start out on exactly the same page to begin with.
But if I’m hoping that others are open to letting me change their minds, it seems only fair to give them the option to convince me, too. And so I’ve tried to listen to folks who feel that Playboy is not a place you should write if you care about women’s issues.
Sociology professor and feminist Lisa Wade, for example, said she enjoyed one of my articles but was less taken when that article came complete with a pop-up ad urging readers to look at a “45-year old with an amazing booty.”
“Is this what change looks like?” she asked. “Is this what change looks like, specifically, when it comes from inside of an organization? A slow, stuttering shift from misogyny to feminism, replete with missteps and contradictions?”
The feminist activist and theorist Susan Brownmiller had some even more pointed questions. Interviewed in the documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel, Brownmiller characterized Hefner, Playboy’s founder and publisher, as “a very clever fellow and a very dangerous fellow.”
Brownmiller acknowledged Playboy’s long history of publishing important articles—the first serialization of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Alex Haley’s interview with Miles Davis, for example. But she sees that as compounding Playboy’s evil rather than as exculpating it.
“What always troubled me was that he was clever about getting male journalists to give their work to Playboy, which made the magazine a little tonier,” she said.
From Brownmiller’s perspective, when I write for Playboy, I’m complicit in an ideological cover-up. Feminism is the fig leaf that allows people to pretend they don’t see the misogyny.
“Playboy did not speak to women,” Brownmiller states flatly. “Women were used in Playboy for men’s masturbatory fantasies.”
If the magazine doesn’t speak to women, what can it mean to talk about feminism from its website?
What I’ve discovered in writing here, somewhat to my surprise, is that Playboy does speak to women. Or at least, when I have told women I want to interview them or cover them for an article for Playboy, the response has not in general been mistrust or alienation. On the contrary, the conversation almost always goes like this:
“Hey, could I talk to you for an article in Playboy?”
“For Playboy?! Hell, yes!”
Dianna E. Anderson, for example, was outright gleeful when I approached her for an interview to talk about her work on purity culture and Christian sexual ethics. Anderson’s book Damaged Goods is about the restrictive evangelical culture around sex and how that harms women.
Her mission, then, actually syncs rather well with Hugh Hefner’s long, contentious battle with anti-porn Christian conservatives like Ed Meese and Ronald Reagan.
“Playboy isn’t just Playboy anymore. It’s become this symbol of the sexual revolution and of sexualization for a lot of people. And that’s not entirely bad,” Anderson told me.
Plus, Anderson said, the fact that the interview appears in Playboy “is the sort of thing that’s going to tick off a whole bunch of evangelicals. I’m a bit of a troll sometimes.”
Romance novelist Maya Rodale was similarly pleased when I reviewed her book Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels Explained. Romance novels are in part stigmatized and denigrated because they often include explicit sex scenes. So it makes sense that Rodale, like Anderson, sees Playboy’s mission as a feature rather than a bug.
It’s true, Rodale told me, that Playboy, unlike romance novels, is focused on a male perspective. In romance novels, the focus is on “the female’s experience of her own sexual pleasure,” while in Playboy and most other media, “female sexuality is…a performance for men.”
But nonetheless, Rodale argues, “I…think ignoring and stigmatizing sex, desire and lust is the worst thing we can do. And Playboy has made us as a culture talk about and think about female sexuality. It has sparked conversation, and that is tremendously important.”
Brownmiller might see Rodale and Anderson as misguided, or as downplaying the problems with Playboy. But again, Rodale readily acknowledges that Playboy’s male perspective on sexuality isn’t particularly interested in women’s sexual pleasure.
Similarly, sociologist and critic Katherine Cross was happy enough to be interviewed for an article on the website, even as she pointed out that Playboy’s ideal body type is very restrictive and ends up creating “impossible standards” for women.
Anderson, Rodale and Cross aren’t saying that Playboy’s legacy is all good, then. Instead, they’re saying that that legacy is mixed. Hefner has campaigned in the past for women’s access to birth control, for abortion rights, against sodomy laws, and, vigorously, for black civil rights.
He’s also created a restrictive vision of what beauty is as well as a template for female objectification.
You can see the commitment to women’s rights, still, in Shea Strauss’ anti-catcalling flow chart, a viral hit that helped relaunch Playboy.com as a broader culture site in 2014. And you can see the restrictive view of beauty, still, in this video, which is built around the erroneous and insulting assumption that men can’t possibly be attracted to trans women.
The editor of the Sex & Culture section of Playboy.com, Joe Donatelli, told me that Playboy’s website is not necessarily intended to be feminist. But he did say that, “There is an incredibly interesting conversation about feminism occurring, and any website that covers sex and culture should be part of that conversation.”
Playboy’s been central to cultural discussions of sex, gender, feminism, and women’s issues for decades. Its participation hasn’t always, in every way, been positive, but it hasn’t all been negative either, by any means.
For that matter, the fact that Playboy has had a contentious relationship with feminism can itself be a reason for feminists to engage with the magazine. Ariel Wolf, community organizer at the sex work advocacy group the Red Umbrella Project, told me that, to her, Playboy seemed like “the best possible place” to talk about feminism and feminist issues.
“It’s seen as this very patriarchal provocation, and it has this idea of creating what femininity is and what sexuality is,” she said. People who read Playboy, to her mind, “really need to have their ideas challenged and widened, and I think that audience really needs to see multiple perspectives, especially on sex-worker friendly feminism.”
Which is more or less where I started off. Writing for Playboy seems worthwhile in part precisely because I don’t agree with every part of its history and legacy. If Sara Benincasa can explain on the Playboy website why there are some nudes you shouldn’t look at — that’s a good thing overall. I respect that there are women like Brownmiller and Lisa Wade who see little of value in Playboy. But it seems clear that there are lots of other women and feminists who see the magazine, not as perfect, but as a tradition and a symbol they’d like to use, and be a part of — 45-year-old-booty pop-ups notwithstanding.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.