Ashes to Ashes

Playboy magazine built an empire on the lust that readily burns in many men’s hearts.  When the magazine launched 62 years ago, pornography was in limited supply.  Playboy filled a want that couldn’t be met in many other ways.  Over time Playboy mainstreamed that niche using the questionable assertion that it fulfilled intellectual as well as baser interests.  Perhaps Playboy was the first to argue publicly that pornography did not have to be dirty, and in the process was pivotal in making pornography a topic of conversation.  We might want to argue that the conversation was mostly against Playboy, but the success of the brand tends to mitigate that argument.

But the niche that Playboy fulfilled no longer exists.  At least not as a niche.  Now pornography is the norm in our culture, available on your computers and phones rather than behind a convenience store check-out counter.   The stigma is gone because simultaneously it is more private – no need to embarrass yourself asking for a copy of a dirty magazine in 7-11 – and more public – the assumption is that everyone has dabbled and that this is healthy and natural.  A cultural expectation of self-control has given way to a cultural expectation of self-indulgence.  Sex is no longer the arena of marriage, it is open to everyone, and you don’t even need another person there with you to indulge.

In recognition of this, Playboy has once again struck a bold and counter-cultural stance – they’re no longer going to feature nude women in their magazines.  Mostly nude, probably.  But not fully.  Not now, when people have access to everything you can imagine – and much that you can’t and shouldn’t – with the click of a button.  Rather than compete with a virtually limitless supply of pornography, the magazine is shifting their content and format.

Will they be successful or not?  Only time will tell.  There are other storied companies that exist for some time on name-brand recognition alone.  But I think what their decision says about our culture is the most fascinating thing.  Competing in pornography – at least for a print publication – is no longer possible.  Showing more is no longer a going venture, as there isn’t much more that can be shown.  A self-imposed modesty is perhaps the direction our society is headed towards.  It’s just ironic that Playboy might be the first to recognize that – or lead the way towards it.

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