Playboy has become an increasingly popular topic of conversation over the last year or two, and comment on our success has often included discussion and debate on our doctrine and our editorial point of view—in the popular press and various journals of opinion, as well as around the office water cooler, at fraternity bull sessions, at cocktail parties, club gatherings and wherever else urban men and women exchange ideas. Having heard so many others explain what Playboy is all about, we've decided it's time to speak out ourself on what we believe in, and what we feel Playboy represents in present-day society, permitting ourself a few personal asides on society itself along the way.
Last month we offered some opening observations on Playboy's critics and pointed out that negative comment on the magazine actually takes two very different forms: There are some who criticize Playboy for its content—certain specific features of which they do not approve; while others object to the publication's concept—the overall editorial viewpoint expressed in the magazine each month.
The critics of content are the easiest to answer. Few would quarrel with the overall excellence of the magazine's fiction and articles (a list of writers like the ones contributing to this issue speaks for itself) and Playboy has received more honors, awards and certificates of merit for its art, photography, printing and design, during the last half-dozen years, than almost any other magazine in America. The criticism of content is soon seen to be largely a matter of sex, and primarily pictorial sex, at that. For some few, a photograph of the female figure—no matter how attractively posed—is embarrassing, objectionable and even downright sinful. In fact, one sometimes gets the feeling that the more attractively posed—and therefore appealing—the female is, the more objectionable and sinful she becomes to the critical. In order to react in this way, of course, one must believe that sex itself is objectionable and sinful—especially as typified by a beautiful woman. Fortunately only a twisted few are able to fully accept such a negative view of God's handiwork, but the witch-burning Puritanism, which associated the Devil with all things of the flesh, and which formed a part of our early religious heritage in America, has left its mark on many more. And so the prude, the prig, the censor and the bluenose have a ready band of followers willing to bowdlerize the world's greatest literature; destroy the too-suggestive art and sculpture; clip, cut and mutilate the cinema; determine—not just for themselves, but for their neighbors as well—what can and cannot be shown on television, what magazines and newspapers can and cannot print, what plays the theater can and cannot present; burning, destroying, defacing, purging, purifying—all in the name of Him who was the Creator of all these things in the beginning. And if they could find some means or manner by which they might burn from the memory of man every sensual delight, every yearning of the flesh, every God-given pleasure of the body, we have no doubt that some would seize the opportunity with much zeal and joy. This, we suggest, is man at his most masochistic—man at his self-destructive ultimate. For here man tries to destroy not simply the body, but the very mind of all humankind. If a person can look at the picture of a beautiful woman and find ugliness there, and obscenity, then it can only be that he carries that ugliness and obscenity within himself. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is its opposite.
The Criticism of Concept
The critics of Playboy's editorial concept are not so easily answered. Sex plays a part in their attitudes, too, of course, but it is a more sophisticated and complex criticism, as when Harvey Cox, in writing Playboy's Doctrine of Male for the "Christian Journal of Opinion," Christianity and Crisis, describes Playboy as "basically antisexual." And the magazine's attitude toward the male-female relationship in our society is coupled with what some critics feel is Playboy's overemphasis on the superficial and material things of life.
According to John A. Crane, minister of a Unitarian Church in Santa Barbara, California, who devoted an entire sermon to "Philosophy and Phantasy in Playboy Magazine and What This Suggests About Us": Playboy presents "a new image of the ideal man.... [He] is, above all, a skilled consumer of the bountiful flow of goods and services produced by our economy of abundance. He is a man of discriminating taste, style and polish. He knows how to spend money with flair. He is a skilled and sophisticated lover, who knows how to avoid anything resembling a permanent attachment with his paramours.
"Not only does Playboy create a new image of the ideal man, it also creates a slick little universe all its own.... It is a universe for rather elegant and refined consumers, and girls are the grandest of all consumer goods. A girl is something, like a sports car or a bottle of scotch or an Ivy League suit, that is meant to be used and enjoyed by men. But always with flair, with polish. There need be no entangling, no stifling alliances or obligations. Girls are playthings, and once enjoyed will have to be set aside and replaced with others new and fresh."
On the same note, Harvey Cox describes women as a "Playboy accessory." "After all," he writes, "the most famous feature of the magazine is its monthly foldout photo of a playmate. She is the symbol par excellence of recreational sex. When playtime is over, the playmate's function ceases, so she must be made to understand the rules of the game. As the crewcut young man in a Playboy cartoon says to the rumpled and disarrayed girl he is passionately embracing, 'Why speak of love at a time like this?'"
And suggesting just how far apart the critics of Playboy's content and concept may sometimes be, Cox continues: "Moralistic criticisms of Playboy fail because its antimoralism is one of the few places in which Playboy is right.... Thus any theological critique of Playboy that focuses on its 'lewdness' will misfire completely. Playboy and its less successful imitators are not 'sex magazines' at all. They are basically antisexual. They dilute and dissipate authentic sexuality by reducing it to an accessory, by keeping it at a safe distance." Cox concludes with: "We must see in Playboy the latest and slickest episode in man's continuing refusal to be fully human."
What is Playboy's answer to these critics of its concept? There would seem to be some truth in what they say, even if we do not agree with their conclusions. How is it possible to both agree and disagree with these critics—accepting some of their evidence, while rejecting their interpretation of it? Part of the answer lies in their incomplete understanding of what Playboy really represents and believes in. Another part of the answer is clearly rooted in a fundamental difference of opinion about life, and the world in which we live, that we would like to explore at some length. But the best way to begin, we think, is through an explanation of just how Playboy was initially conceived and why we feel it has enjoyed such success in a time when many other, older, well-established magazines have floundered and failed. And in fully understanding the Playboy phenomenon, one may also gain greater insight into this entire generation and how it has grown out of the social and economic revolution that has taken place in America over the last 60 years.
The Uncommon Man
Within the threescore years of this century, the American personality has undergone as drastic and dramatic a change as the country itself. The first 30 years of the 20th century were characterized by our unbounded faith in ourselves, both individually and as a nation. We were enjoying the results of the industrial revolution, and if the streets were not literally paved with gold, it was only a technicality. It was a time of confidence and enthusiasm; it was a crazy, romantic, wonderful time, when most men believed they could lift themselves by their own bootstraps, even if they didn't yet own a pair of boots. Boys hungrily consumed the books of Horatio Alger (he wrote 119, or, as one critic put it, "one book, rewritten 118 times," that sold an almost unbelievable 250 million copies) with titles like Sink or Swim, Strive and Succeed, Do or Dare, Fame and Fortune. They told a youngster that success, yes, and fame and fortune, too, could be his—no matter how humble his beginning—if he was industrious, honest and had faith in himself, his God and his country. Nothing was impossible. Any boy could grow up to be President of the U.S., or of U.S. Steel.
The United States was the golden land of opportunity and freedom—for its own people and for the rest of the world as well. America's promise was spelled out in the words inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
These were the years of the Uncommon Man—when uncommon ambition and deeds were the rule rather than the exception. These were the years of the great national heroes, both fictional and real. Before World War I, every young man's idol was Frank Merriwell, whose exploits in Frank Merriwell at Yale, Frank Merriwell's Dilemma and The Winning Last Quarter-Mile proved the importance of pluck, perseverance, honor and playing the game according to the rules. Merriwell was the ultimate in the Uncommon Man—he was, as his creator Burt L. Standish modestly informed us in adventure after adventure, the greatest student and athlete that Yale has ever known. The so-called Golden Era of Sports was actually less that than a period in which important sports figures (and, indeed, anyone who excelled at almost anything) were acclaimed national heroes. It was a time when an entire country could get as cockeyed excited as a kid over a young man's climbing into a single-motor airplane and flying across the Atlantic alone.
The era reached its apex in the decade now fondly remembered as the Roaring Twenties. After the Great War, a new sophistication and cynicism spread across the land, but the Twenties were a good deal more than Sheiks and Shebas, bathtub gin and the Charleston. It was a yeasty time, a time of innovation and adventure, when new notions and ideas were accepted almost as quickly as they were born—a period of important growth in science and the arts. It ended with the stock market crash late in 1929.
The Common Man
The ten years of bleak Depression that followed the Roaring Twenties came as a brutal and sustained shock to the national psyche. Some saw in it a terrible retribution for the years before—a sort of protracted hangover from an economic binge. It was nothing of the sort, of course, but the generation which came to mature during the Depression suffered just the same.
During the Thirties, worse things than hunger afflicted us. It is difficult—nay, almost impossible—to hold onto one's optimism, individuality and spirit of adventure when you cannot earn enough to support your family. Intellectual achievement and education lose much of their prestige and appeal when a diploma offers no assurance of a job after graduation, and when the great majority cannot afford higher education in any case. Nor is a man apt to feel particularly competitive in a society that offers him almost no opportunity to compete.
In place of individual initiative, an emphasis on accomplishment and educational attainment, a faith in self and in our economic system, a curiosity about the new and different, Americans became increasingly concerned with security, the safe and the sure, the certain and the known.
Instead of helping the people to sort out their ideas and ideals during this time of uncertainty and confusion, a great many newspapers, magazines and movies actually pandered to the public's already growing prejudices. If it was especially difficult to get ahead during the Depression, then the popular press was perfectly willing to persuade people that what they already had was plenty good enough. After all, why make a man quest after things he could probably never achieve? If his aspirations were much beyond his hopes of fulfilling them, he would only become frustrated and unhappy. So the newspapers, magazines, movies and radio, too, set about making Americans satisfied with their lot, complacent about the status quo. Some might argue that if you curbed the nation's initiative, it could cause incalculable damage, but that was an abstract philosophical idea and the problems of the time were the only reality.
This satisfied, complacent, relatively initiative-free social order was achieved in several ways: First, the mass media made the wealthy appear to be as shallow, ignorant, foolish and unappealing as possible. Admittedly, making wealth itself unattractive would really take some doing, but the press and films did a damned impressive job of the next best thing. The Sunday magazine section of the Hearst papers of the Thirties had a fine old time convincing us that most all of society (the socially prominent) and the financially well to do were either scoundrels or scandalous empty-headed nincompoops, or both.