Does Playboy Know Who Its Readers Are?

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Playboy is apparently pivoting to slow journalism, according to a new profile in the New York Times.

The porn magazine relaunched earlier this year as an ad-free quarterly. It is also, supposedly, more woke. Everything about the new Playboy rollout, including the write-up in the Times, seems to designed to let you know that Playboy really cares about being the kind of magazine you might be proud to display on your coffee table. The new Playboy sounds well-made and beautifully designed, with a “thick-stock, matte-paper” look. It professes to have left the days of Hugh Hefner behind, in part by hiring two women and one gay man, all millennials, to run the magazine. But this may not be the radical rebirth that the magazine wants you to believe it is, partly because Playboy doesn’t seem to know who it is trying to appeal to. Rather, it’s trying to carve out a space for itself in a cultural landscape where pop feminism is now mainstream, and seems to be using every trick in the book to appeal to woke millennials.

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Among the things that Playboy has tried in order to prove it is “woke-er [and] more inclusive,” as the Times put it, is referring to Playboy bunnies as “brand ambassadors,” and paying playmates, the women who appear in nude centerfolds and represent Playboy at events, as freelancers and getting them health care benefits. (Congrats? The latter seems like pretty standard practice!) The magazine hired photographer Ryan Pfluger to shoot Ezra Miller and told him to “make it queer.” Playboy no longer wants to be known for “fuzzy dice and mud flaps,” according to the head of marketing, Rachel Webber; instead Playboy hopes to put its stamp on “cannabis, skin care, sex toys and sexual wellness” products.

Working at the new Playboy, with all its contradictions, is supposedly “a little like being in a gender studies class,” Webber told the Times. But more often than not, it just sounds like Playboy is trying to pander to an imagined, newly critical audience. Webber said:

“Look, I think the target audience is ‘Let’s be relevant,’” she said. “But I do think that to be relevant, we’ve got to take a stand on things and appeal equally across all genders.”

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This sort of blanket approach indicates that Playboy doesn’t really know what it would mean to cater to queer women, or non-binary people, or anyone who isn’t a straight, white, cis male. The executive editor, Shane Singh, also seems to fundamentally misunderstand what it means to give power over to women (emphasis mine, because WHEW):

“We talk a lot about when something is objectification versus when it is consensual objectification versus when it is art,” Mr. Singh said. “I think objectification removes the agency of the subject. Consensual objectification is the idea of someone feeling good about themselves and wanting someone to look at them. Art means, O.K., we can hang this on a wall. And if it’s both, for us, that’s the major win.”

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And while yes, Playboy says it does hire women photographers to shoot most scenes with nude women and brings intimacy coordinators onto the set, it sounds like the publication needs to figure out what it would look like not to put women on display for the consumption of its mostly male audience. (“The audience is three-quarters male,” the Times almost reluctantly includes towards the end of the piece.) Playboy banned nudity in its pages in 2015, and then brought it back, with the tagline “Naked is normal.”

Naked (women) is certainly normal for Playboy, because it was originally made to cater to the desires of straight men. The magazine may say that’s not the case anymore, but old habits die hard at legacy print publications. We’ll believe it when we see it.

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