Playboy magazine has never exactly been a feminist publication, regardless of what the Hefners — founder Hugh, and now his 25-year-old son Cooper — would have us believe. Though it’s been home to some literary talent and compelling journalism, the magazine was most well-known for its naked pictures of women until 2015, when Playboy announced it would no longer publish nudes, a decision it reneged on (sort of) this year. To say the magazine in its current form has been marred by volatility would be an understatement, leading us to today, and the publication of Cooper Hefner’s second installment of The Playboy Philosophy... this one focuses on feminism.
Hefner, who is now the chief creative officer of his father’s empire, writes that Playboy has historically occupied an “overlapping space” in the debate on feminism, championing the “curiosities of sex,” “the rights of the individual,” and “celebrating pleasure,” which is… good for women (???), even if feminists didn’t always agree. It became, he writes, “common practice in many feminist circles to equate Playboy with the regressive male gatekeepers of the United States who insisted that women weren’t entitled to subjectivity — or, for that matter, their own sexual objectivity.” Hefner mentions the landmark 1963 Gloria Steinem essay, “A Bunny’s Tale,” in which the writer recounts working as a Playboy Bunny at one of the famed Playboy clubs, as evidence of the magazine’s complicated relationship with feminism. But he glosses over the main points of Steinem’s piece: that bunnies made far less than the advertised salary for grueling, demeaning work, and that the women were in a constant state of surveillance, with investigators posing as customers to make sure they followed the rules.
Hefner also neglects to mention that many of Playboy’s most famous cover and centerfold stars didn’t consent to their photographs being published in the magazine. Uma Thurman, Marilyn Monroe, Madonna, Vanna White, Jessica Alba, Charlize Theron: All of these women had their photos published in the pages and on the covers of Playboy without their prior knowledge or permission. Madonna’s photos were published simultaneously by Playboy and Penthouse in 1985, just as she was rising to fame. She said later that the experience made her “feel like her skin got ripped off.” The magazine published topless paparazzi photos of Thurman in 1996. And with Monroe, Madonna, White, and Theron, Playboy bought nude photos the women had posed for before they were famous, doing nude modelling for cash on the side. Legally, what Playboy did — buy photos from a photographer — was fine. But in publishing the photos, the magazine was fairly transparently and deliberately fomenting scandal — “Nude photos from before these women were famous!” — to sell its product. Theron unsuccessfully sued Playboy for publishing old photos of her without her consent in 1999. (The magazine is no stranger to lawsuits.) But since publishing the photos was not illegal, the women were left with no recourse. One could argue, in fact, that the womens’ lack of consent was part of the appeal of the photos: The actresses were left without a defense, embarrassed, and forced to explain why they posed nude so long ago. Playboy, for its part, cravenly defended its publishing strategy by saying there was no need to feel shame about nudity, even if an image of your nude body is printed without your permission.
Hefner neglects to mention that many of Playboy’s most famous cover stars didn’t consent to their photographs being published in the magazine.
Hefner’s “big point” in his treatise is his new, personal definition of feminism for the here and now: “It’s the right for one to freely choose the life she wants to live.” Whether he believes that encompasses the right for women to “freely choose” whether or not to be nude in Playboy has gone unasked and unanswered, probably for the obvious reasons: Playboy needs to sell sex.
Being sex-positive is not the same thing as selling sex, and though there are plenty of ways for women in sex-adjacent industries to have agency, to own their choices and to be feminists in the process, Playboy isn’t there yet. As a magazine, it can’t even make up its mind about whether or not to feature the nude female form, simply because it’s still grappling with the concept of feminism on very basic terms. Is the female body good? Or is it shameful? The answer seems to depend partly on what sells easiest in any given era.
And in the process of his essay, Hefner reduces feminism to “how we interpret sex today,” suggesting that Steinem’s argument in 1963 was that women were “more than just sex objects.” But she wasn’t actually arguing that at all; she was assuming everyone on Earth already knew that, and pointing out that the Playboy universe chose to present women as objects. She was writing about specific ills of the U.S. as a workplace and a home to women. And Hefner seems unwilling or unable to grapple with the basic facts and asks of feminism on any level.
Being sex-positive is not the same thing as selling sex.
Hefner’s attempt to sell a new “woke” Playboy to readers is fairly transparent. He’s not making an argument to women, he’s making an argument to the armies of young men out there who have come to believe that Playboy isn’t cool. It’s not politically correct. It’s not relevant. Hefner’s essay on feminism is just another attempt by a man to mansplain away the very real and problematic core of the Playboy universe: sex is great, but it’s often used as a weapon against women. And Hefner’s attempt to argue that the questions women like Steinem were posing have all been answered by the sexual revolution is a failure, in so much as he does not even ask, let alone answer a very basic question: does Playboy respect women?