In 2014 Playboy decided to remove nude images from its magazine; This paper explores how that removal demonstrates changing masculinities in contemporary postfeminist media culture and the implications for gender politics in the digital age.
A catchy article title, “Is the Alpha Male Going Extinct?”, was posted on the homepage of Playboy.com, ingeniously juxtaposed with a photo of a young woman whose shirt was pulled halfway up over her breasts. This is the new Playboy.com. A site where visitors will no longer find fully nude photos of this (or any) woman.
In 2014, Playboy launched its new safe-for-work (SFW, as opposed to its counterpart, NSFW) website, which lacked nudity yet brought a huge upsurge in visitor traffic. In wake of the relaunch of Playboy.com, the website’s user traffic reportedly ballooned from four million to 16 million unique users per month, while the average user’s age decreased from 47 to 30.5 years (Somaiya, 2015). By removing nude images, Playboy.com launched itself into SFW digital visibility and stumbled into the demographic holy grail of readership: millennials. Following the website's success, the notorious brand made another significant resolution. Shock, confusion, and even uproar were some of the varied responses to the 2015 announcement of the decision by Playboy, the ubiquitous gentleman’s lifestyle magazine, to remove nude photographs from the long-running print publication.
Since its conception more than 60 years ago, Playboy has been synonymous with nude women. Because of, or perhaps in spite of, the soft-core pornographic nature of the magazine’s content, it has become one of the most recognizable brands in the world with products sold in over 180 countries (Little, 2016). Despite this vast brand dissemination and the success of the company, readership of the magazine itself drastically decreased since its prime era of the 1970s and 1980s. The New York Post reported that the magazine was recently losing about $3 million per year and subsisting wholly on the company’s licensing wing (Kelly, 2015), which comes as little surprise among a trending decline of print publications and the rise in digitalization.
After the success of the website’s makeover, Playboy executives opted to do a re-haul of the magazine too, citing reasons including a lack of need for nude images in magazines with the volume of available internet pornography; to appeal to a younger, internet-savvy millennial demographic; and to increase brand visibility on the internet, thereby becoming more accessible to a wider audience (Kelly, 2015; Little, 2016; Somaiya, 2015). This is not to say that nude photos are now entirely retired from the Playboy empire. Playboy’s website offers a ‘Playboy Plus’ section, where users can buy a subscription to see pornographic content. Further, the call for models and Playmates on the Playboy websites still requires the submission of nude photographs for consideration, though it is possible that these conditions are still in the process of being updated after the relatively new nude-removal decision.
Hefner became the poster child for his own brand, living proof that such a thing as a Playboy really did exist.
In practice, the move has already seen some effects. In the first six months, Playboy reported losing subscriptions from long-time readers who may have been disappointed by the nudity removal, which was expected, but the magazine also reported 100,000 new subscriptions and a noticeable increase in individual issue buying (Kelly, 2016). Further, in October 2016, Playboy announced that the new style of magazine will be available on applications for mobile devices, a move that both appeals to a younger generation and greatly improves possibilities for visibility. This seems to have been a purely business-based move by the company, a continuation of the executives' attempt to appeal to millennial readership. So far, the move has proven to be relatively successful.
Beyond the business endeavor, however, it bears significance to unpack contemporary media culture in search of clues as to why a nude-less magazine appeals more to millennial-aged men, how to interpret the intersection of Playboy and pornography, and how a digital age full of porn affected Playboy’s half-century reign.
In this paper, I look at the sociocultural atmosphere that incited Playboy to remove nude images from its print magazine and most of its online platforms. This came as a surprise to many people, as nude photos have been held at the crux of Playboy’s success and controversy for its 63-year circulation. To investigate this notion, I call upon theories regarding the aspect of the mid-20th century that prompted the conception of Playboy itself and the possible historical implications of the magazine throughout the years of its successful distribution.
Furthermore, I analyze the notions surrounding the magazine’s decline in the last 30 years, which is attributed to a changing sociocultural climate. I will do this by exploring the ideas of Rosalind Gill (2007a; 2007b) on postfeminism as a sensibility through which contemporary media culture can be viewed. Most postfeminist literature has been focused on the depictions of women in contemporary media, however, little has been discovered about contemporary depictions of masculinity or gender politics. For this reason, I combine Gill’s postfeminism with research done by Eric Anderson (2009), who hypothesized that a societal decline in homophobia has led to acceptance and inclusion of more broad definitions of masculinity in Western heterosexual men. Through these notions, I aim to discover what the removal of nude images from Playboy demonstrates about changing masculinities in contemporary, postfeminist media culture and what implications this might have for gender politics in the digital age.
Postfeminist media culture and masculinity
In 1908, there was a proliferation of new men’s lifestyle magazines, which were aimed primarily at heterosexual, middle class, mostly white men. Gill (2007a) argued that this grew from a feminist call for a new type of masculinity to match the changing social arena, where traditional gender roles had been called into question and were over time being replaced by a more egalitarian model. The trouble with the conception of men’s lifestyle magazines was, according to Gill, the means of marketing to this audience. This was a particular issue in terms of the perceived tone of the content, as women’s lifestyle magazines, for the sum of their longstanding prior existence, appealed to readers “as friends, with a familiar, intimate tone, but this was seen by people within the industry as potentially threatening to heterosexual men because of its homosexual undertones” (Gill, 2007a, p. 204). Eric Anderson (2009) would argue that this notion falls under the term ‘homohysteria,’ which is constituted by “a culture of homophobia, femphobia, and compulsory heterosexuality,” and implies a masculinity that lies markedly on the fear of “being homosexualized” (p. 7).
In Barbara Ehrenreich’s 1983 book, she hypothesized that Playboy had already found a solution to the threatening homohysteria in its first issue, which was released in 1953, 30 years prior to the aforementioned expansion of the men’s lifestyle magazine market. Ehrenreich argued that this homosexual fear was addressed and combated in Playboy by the inclusion of nude photographs of women alongside articles relating to the type of lifestyle that was beginning to be encouraged for middle class heterosexual white men. The primary theme of the Playboy lifestyle was bachelorhood, a stark contrast to the 1950s era’s overarching motif of the middle class husband as emblematic of true masculinity. At the time, however, men were just starting to be the targets of consumerism and advertising, which “opened up a space of libidinous fun and lascivious consumption” (Gill, 2007a, p. 206). Ehrenreich, while discussing the 1953 launch of Playboy, said:
“When, in the first issue, [creator and editor in chief Hugh] Hefner talked about staying in his apartment, listening to music and discussing Picasso, there was the Marilyn Monroe centerfold to let you know there was nothing queer about these urbane and indoor pleasures. And when the articles railed against the responsibilities of marriage, there were the nude torsos to reassure you that the alternative was still within the bounds of heterosexuality” (1983, p. 51).
Nude photos have been held at the crux of Playboy’s success and controversy for its 63-year circulation.
Ehrenreich's comment is a reminder that Playboy “encouraged the sense of membership in a fraternity of male rebels” (p. 43), while Gill (2007a) continued to say that Playboy, giving voice to a new view of masculinity, was “premised on troublingly sexualized and objectified representations of women” (p. 206). The start of Playboy grew in conjuncture with a bachelor-style heteromasculinity deeply connected to the overt display of women as sexual objects, and with the growth of Playboy, so too grew the life of Hefner. ‘Hef’ touted his magazine as a route to sexual liberation and social change, which he took on himself with his Playboy lifestyle. Hefner became the poster child for his own brand, living proof that such a thing as a Playboy really did exist. He promoted the idea that if men tried hard enough, they too could be surrounded by beautiful women, money, parties, sex, and, of course the finer cultural aspects like Picasso.
Later, the 1990s saw a huge upswing in ‘lad mags,’ which some people understood as a counterargument to feminism, and presented the ‘new lad’ as “refreshingly uncomplicated in his unreserved appreciation of women’s bodies and heterosexual sex” (Gill, 2007a, p. 210). There has been much debate regarding the impact of lad mags, especially because the content of lad mags was steeped in irony on all subjects including (but not limited to) women, sex, films, porn, and even self-hygiene. Lads were very concerned with asserting their masculinity, though most men in studies reported buying the magazines when they felt bored, or for a laugh (Gill, 2007a). This phenomenon provided supporting evidence to a budding discourse on a shift to postfeminism.
There are many interpretations of what postfeminism constitutes, with much of the existing literature concentrated on the changing representations of women in entertainment, culture, media, and more recently, on social-networking platforms. Gill (2007a) explained that the conceptual nature of postfeminism has received three primary claims: “as an epistemological shift, as a historical transformation, and as a backlash against feminism” (p. 249). In this paper, however, I call upon a fourth option of Gill’s own design, which is to view postfeminism as a sensibility with the cultural object of research being postfeminist media culture. This avenue allows postfeminism to be viewed alongside ideas of both neoliberalism and feminism, rather than as a separate entity itself, and to consider postfeminism in distinct relation to previous waves of feminism (Gill, 2007b, p. 163).
In postfeminist media culture, feminism is simultaneously acknowledged and discounted, “articulated and repudiated” (Gill, 2007b, 163). There is an underlying sense that feminism is no longer needed; however Rachel O’Neill (2015) further intuited, “Postfeminism represents an especially pernicious form of antifeminism wherein the ‘taken into accountness’ of feminism allows for a more thorough dismantling of feminist politics, at the same time that gender inequalities are renewed and patriarchal norms reinstated” (p. 102).
Beyond the imperative interaction with feminism, postfeminist discourse is host to several other characteristics, which Gill defended extensively in her 2007 article; I provide merely a summary of her research. First, she explained that femininity is a bodily property, “rather than a social, structural or psychological one” (2007b, p. 149). Women hold power in their femininity through the constant vigilance of maintaining their bodies to appear young, fit, and sexy, especially through indulgence in consumer products (i.e., ‘age-defying’ face creams). Self-surveillance is key in maintaining the femininity of a sexy body, as well as overall discipline of the self (e.g., being a good friend or girlfriend, appearing happy, etc.). And if something is ‘wrong’, it should be fixed. Makeovers are the new norm for self-improvement, and each aspect of the self, either physical or mental, comes under constant scrutiny. Makeover television shows, for example, boast ‘experts’ to give the shamed participants advice on how to dress, talk, act, and look better than they used to. Postfeminist discourse has also centered around ideas of natural differences between the sexes, ideas that “were nourished both by the growing interest in evolutionary psychology, and developments in genetic science” (Gill, 2007b, p. 158).
The start of Playboy grew in conjuncture with a bachelor-style heteromasculinity deeply connected to the overt display of women as sexual objects.
Gill further described a notable shift from the consideration of women as sexual objects, being viewed by men in a straightforwardly sexual manner, to portrayal as a sexual subject who chooses on her own accord to present herself in a sexualized manner—or not. The significance of this idea does not go unnoticed to Gill, who noted that subjectification may represent a “deeper form of exploitation than objectification—one in which the objectifying male gaze is internalized to form a new disciplinary regime” (2007b, p. 152). Furthermore, Gill argued that there is a pervasive discussion regarding sex in nearly all media and an expansive sexualization of culture including the public presentation of bodies (mostly female) in society.
Finally, these notions all provide evidence to the noticeable concentration on female individualism and subjectivity in postfeminist media culture, where each person, situation, and choice is viewed as a completely unique event based on autonomy and the ‘self.’ While this empowerment provides individuals with the illusion that they are their own agents of choice, it also negates all responsibility of social, cultural, or political influence and injustice. This is perhaps the most significant manner in which postfeminism dismisses the notion that feminism could still be relevant: the idea that if women are free-thinking individuals who make autonomous choices, then there necessarily must be relatively complete gender equality. Gill concludes that “these themes coexist with, and are structured by, stark continuing inequalities and exclusions that relate to ‘race’ and ethnicity, class, age, sexuality, and disability as well as gender” (2007b, p. 149).
Akin to this idea, in his 2009 book, Eric Anderson claimed that contemporary masculinity bears so little recognition to traditional masculinity norms, that there must be a new theory on which to base present-day analysis. For this purpose, Anderson studied university-aged men and theorized that they were ascribing to a broader societal shift toward increased inclusion of homosexuals and perceived homosexual behavior in contemporary masculinity. In other words, to remember Anderson’s concept of ‘homohysteria,’ contemporary masculinity has shifted away from the necessity of denying homosexuality, and thus society as a whole is in the process of building tolerance of homosexual people. As such, younger generations of middle-class, young, white men cannot be discussed in terms of traditional constructs of masculinity (or "hegemonic masculinity"). Anderson’s 2009 book offers inclusive-masculinity theory as a framework for viewing current societal trends on the notion that homophobia is being rejected in favor of a more inclusive ideology.
His book reads as a hopeful victory for mankind, indeed. It describes almost literally that: a victory among men. What Anderson neglects to invest significant depth to is discussion on the interplay between theory of inclusive masculinity and contemporary gender politics. Rachel O’Neill (2015) found the same problematic notions in Anderson’s examination. She said, “Although Anderson discusses hegemonic masculinity as it pertains to understand power relations between men, the concept was formulated as a means to theorize power dynamics among men and between men and women” (O’Neill, 2015, p.110). O’Neill further surmised possible routes of study which could utilize the concept of a more inclusive masculinity to discuss contemporary notions of gender politics in relation to a postfeminist sensibility. It is from this point that I base the current research. Primarily, I am concerned with how changing ideas of femininity and masculinity interact through cultural objects in media, namely, Playboy.
The new Playboy
With the sum of the preceding research in mind, I found it particularly relevant to investigate the recent alterations to the content put forth by Playboy. It was once considered a rite of passage in a young man’s life to find his father’s collection of Playboy centerfolds. These days went by the wayside quite some time ago, as digitalization has shown its effects on print publications; however, from now on, this rite of passage is obsolete. I do not indulge in an entire content analysis of their print and online publications, which would be quite interesting in the future, as the passing of time will bring further magazine issues to contribute to this discussion. I do, however, call upon some early relevant themes from the first months of the new gentleman’s lifestyle magazine.
Social media and the revamped Playboy
The revamped magazine, website, and all social media accounts continue to feature women wearing little clothing in quite provocative and sexualized images, thus the removal of nude photographs may not instinctively suggest a radical change in content, readership, or positioning. Indeed, in and of itself, the minutia of covering nipples and vaginas is not revolutionary. Instead, attention should be focused on the causes, wide-ranging reactions, and implications of this cover-up.
To remember Erenreich’s assertion that Playboy’s nude images began as an assurance of heterosexuality within a men’s lifestyle magazine, it is correct to wonder why the removal of the nude photographs implies a shift to a younger audience of heterosexual millennial men. As is evident from Anderson’s 2009 research and accompanying theory of inclusive masculinity, this potential threat to heterosexual men may perhaps be significantly lessened in the 21st century, allowing for a broader market of men’s lifestyle magazines and more inclusive content. Younger men, who seemingly worry less about the stigma of being perceived as gay, can put less effort into asserting their heterosexuality, and thus, need less physical proof of it when discussing or exploring lifestyle media. Women are still a reigning aspect of the portrayed lifestyle of men, make no mistake. Provocative images remain in Playboy due to the widespread sexualization of culture, and likely acts as a slightly more implicit reminder of the readers’ heterosexuality.
It is no secret that the dominating platforms for digital media dissemination (i.e., Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) do not allow nudity or pornographic content. Young people are particularly active on these platforms, and thus, in order for Playboy to increase visibility within this demographic, their online content needed to match the terms set by the social media platforms. This seems to explicate the SFW social media accounts and the 2014 change in Playboy.com, however, it stands to reason that the magazine itself could continue on with the inclusion of nude photos, at least on a matter of historic principle. Alas, this is not the case, hereby indicating that something about millennial-aged men (again, typically white and middle-class) makes them more likely to engage with a high-profile brand that does not display completely nude photographs of women for the express purpose of masculine pleasure.
The postfeministic man
Though there is no definitive boundary, millennials were born somewhere between the mid-1980s and the early 2000s and, as such, were raised during a time dominated by postfeminist media. They likely have been justly influenced by such media, specifically the associated depictions of women. Men now seem accepting of these postfeminist media representations of women, as described in Gill’s postfeminist sensibility, including an increase in individuality, subjectivity, and personal choice. It can be argued that heterosexual men now desire such a postfeminist neoliberal woman.
Keep in mind, however, that these ideas of individuality and sexual subjectivity are in relation to femininity being a bodily property. Thus, heterosexual men are now engaged with a notion of an individualized femininity insofar as these women constantly self-surveil to maintain their bodies to be young, fit, and sexy. The removal of nude photos may be just enough of an acknowledgment of feminism to counteract the magazine’s longstanding renouncement of such ideas. Resulting from this is to and firmly nestle the magazine into the crux of postfeminist media culture and, with that, gain the attention of the next generation of heterosexual men.
Playboy is now releasing a magazine seeped in postfeminist ideologies in an effort to appeal to a postfeminist man.
While the sexualization of women is exceedingly common in postfeminist media culture, nudity specifically is not allowed on the mainstream media platforms. With the popularity of these nudity-free, SFW platforms among the millennial generation, it seems that there is a growing void between the sexualization of media and the overt pornographization of media. In other words, as more aspects of life are being digitized and consolidated onto various digital media platforms, these platforms become intended for specific material, and not specifically for pornography. There is a pushing of porn to its designated NSFW internet spaces, separating lifestyle and masturbation, but not lifestyle and sex; Instagram is for photos (sexy or otherwise), PornHub is for porn. Thus Playboy is now releasing a magazine seeped in postfeminist ideologies in an effort to appeal to a postfeminist man who, aligning with media culture, both acknowledges and disavows the existence of feminism and keeps this in a separate place than his pornography.
Pornography and postfeminist subjectification
Consistently, ‘pornography’ has been referred to in this paper, without being accompanied by a proper definition. Due to the possibility that a static definition may have complicated the discussion, I prevailed upon the notion that ‘you know porn when you see it.’ At this point, however, I borrow a definition from Margret Grebowicz’s 2013 book, Why Internet Porn Matters, which presented online pornography as “materials created specifically to aid in masturbation and circulated on the internet” (p. 7). While Playboy’s executives were correct in their assertions that men no longer ‘need’ nude images from a print magazine due to the internet’s ever-increasing catalog of pornographic material, Grebowicz argued that internet pornography holds an entirely new space of communication and norms. She argued that “in the phrase ‘Internet porn,’ the former word is at least as significant as the latter” (2013, p. 8).
Thus, with the removal of nude photographs from almost all of Playboy’s content (notwithstanding the paid ‘restricted’ section of their website), it can be said that perhaps the most notorious brand of female objectification has opted in favor of postfeminist subjectification. Playboy now bows to the dominance of the internet’s ability to spread information regarding sexual content. In this way, pornography and masturbation are now contextualized almost exclusively by online media in the Western world, opening up many possible inquiries into gender politics, sexual norms, and societal effects of this division. Grebowicz said, “In the age of Internet distribution, whatever questions we ask about pornography’s social effects and political significance cannot be answered without taking the mode of distribution into account” (2013, p.8), emphasizing that it is no small matter that Playboy removed its print distribution of pornographic images.
As subjectivity, individuality, and self-surveillance tend to be on display in representations of women in postfeminist media, men seemingly have accepted the individualization of femininity and have added their own individualized masculinities to the conversation, reflected in inclusive masculinity theory. In line with the trends of postfeminist media culture, there is a niche for an emerging postfeminist masculinity and the new version of Playboy demonstrates this. Boasting an article entitled, “How Do I Friend-Zone Her Without Being a Dick?” it is possible to see that women are portrayed as sexual subjects in the realm of the new Playboy. The published possibility of a man's refusal to engage in sexual intercourse with a woman and instead desiring platonic friendship caters to an individualistic, subjective approach to women rather than from an objectifying standpoint.
The new Playboy has also featured a cover model with pink hair and a large gap between her teeth, another model with different colored eyes (one blue, one hazel), heavily tattooed and pierced women, women who enjoy cos-play (costume play), ‘gamer-girls’ (women who enjoy playing video games), and even a Muslim woman, fully clothed wearing a hijab. Still, the women are young, beautiful, and discuss their personalities in addition to their bodies, constantly self-surveilling.
This paper was intended as a means of exploring changing perceptions of masculinity based on predominant theories of contemporary cultural studies, including postfeminism and inclusive masculinity theory. By using the recent changes to Playboy’s online and print content, it can be seen that the age of digitalization has far-reaching implications on the sociocultural atmosphere, in this case, the Western world.
Playboy’s removal of nude photographs was explained as a means of attracting younger readers and as a reaction to the abundance of pornographic content available online. I argue, however, that younger readers are no longer interested in the combination of pornographic and lifestyle content due to the emergence of a more inclusive masculinity, based less on homophobia and decreased homohysteria. I further argue that this inclusive masculinity is in relation to the dissemination of postfeminist media, which still offers an intense sexualization of women, though from a more subjective and individualistic approach. So, while there is still a very strong focus on women’s bodies in media, men may be moving toward greater acceptance of subjective and individualized femininities, providing that femininity ascribes to the prevalent notions of being young, fit, sexy, and postfeminist. Furthermore, millennial men may be supplanting these subjectivities on views of their own masculinity in conjuncture with inclusive masculinity theory.
Further opportunities for research along this vein are plentiful. Particularly, there is very little existing research on the interplay of postfeminist media culture in masculinities and gender politics. I indulged in a small section of this area, and thus there are abundantly more possibilities. Additionally, pornography is a topic of discussion and, as I pointed out, the re-done Playboy adds new fuel to existing debates about pornography in the digital age. The described theories relate mostly to Anglo-American, white, middle class men, so further studies should incorporate other demographics and regions. Finally, a future content analyses of Playboy’s renewed content could prove to assist or detract from the notions in this paper.
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