Playboy's abandonment of nudity reveals our anxiety about shifting notions of the erotic.

Playboy’s Abandonment of Nudity Is Not Really Going to Change Playboy at All

Playboy’s Abandonment of Nudity Is Not Really Going to Change Playboy at All

Brow Beat has moved! You can find new stories here.
Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 15 2015 9:13 AM

Playboy’s Abandonment of Nudity Is Not Really Going to Change Playboy at All

The November 2015 issue of Playboy magazine.

Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

You will have heard the news that Playboy magazine plans to eliminate nudity from its glossy pages. You may have read commentary—quotes from the magazine’s staff, analysis elsewhere in the press—explaining that the Playboy pictorial just wasn’t made for these times. You probably realize that the discussion around this turn of events constitutes the magazine’s greatest moment of cultural impact in at least 30 years, which is remarkable, all the more so for inspiring the engagement of people who you know have not looked at Playboy since they were sophomores at Yale and a “Girls of the Ivy League” issue hit newsstands. This is a chance to examine popular fantasies about what the magazine was or is.

Me, I want to read a lyrical essay about how this development subtly alters the way a fellow handles the magazine when he picks it up while waiting to get his hair cut. Historically, there’s been a choreography—the open posture, the digital dexterity, the disinterested resting face—to signal, to any women on the premises or omniscient beings in the universe, that one is just here for the album reviews and the Joyce Carol Oates story.


Meanwhile, perusing all the essays about the magazine’s abandonment of nudity, I feel that I am reading obituaries for someone who has simply announced that he has scheduled a date for surgery. Minor surgery, at that. For on the one hand, the lack of nakedness is no obstacle to packaging images of women as objects of desire, as any veteran of lingerie-catalog onanism would tell you, were it not awkward to tell you, embarrassment being an organizing social force. And on the other hand, isn’t there still a campaign afoot that employs the rhetoric of social justice for the purpose of “freeing the nipple”? We’re supposed to be too sophisticated to be bothered by boobies. The disappearance of nudity from Playboy says more about the persistence of ticklish attitudes about nudity than it does about Playboy.

Insofar as Hugh Hefner was somewhat correct to view himself as an agent of sexual liberation, this development resembles a kind of planned obsolescence. The Playboy nude was a stage to be passed through, like puberty or, in Marx’s theory of history, capitalism. Part of Hefner’s point was to shatter certain orthodoxies governing sex and shame. In Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Gay Talese wrote of Hef’s desire to depict within the centerfold “the new 1950s woman, wholesome in appearance but sexually unpredictable.” That woman was, perhaps, your grandma. The magazine debuted in the year that Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, stuck around to see Laura Linney earn an Oscar nomination for playing Kinsey’s wife, and had a role in making possible a world in which Fifty Shades of Grey earned half a billion dollars at the worldwide box office. This was the only way things could have gone, and part of the energy of the current discussion about Playboy stems from the discussants’ collective anxiety about our own relevance as old touchstones erode and new arrangement of erotics emerge. Within the questions asked about changes to the magazine is perhaps a fretful inquiry into one’s self: Does this cultural landscape make me look hot?

Troy Patterson is Slate’s writer at large and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.