On Tuesday, Playboy got major press and for the first time in awhile, it wasn't because they were selling off parts of their company or moving their headquarters from Chicago to Los Angeles or going private, things that would all individually spell trouble for legacy organization, but when pushed together look downright worrisome. They got press – good press! – because their brand, which has become synonymous with doing things to women looked like it was focused on doing things for women.
A hacker (some are speculating FORCE, the group responsible for those fake anti-rape Victoria's Secret undergarments) made it look as though Playboy magazine did something different in packaging their annual party guide aimed towards college students this year: they emphasized that for many college students, partying is less fun and more fraught with rape:
Somewhere in the countless hours we spent tallying up co-eds and scoring beer pong, we lost track of the most essential element of the Playboy lifestyle: sexual pleasure. Rape is kryptonite to sexual pleasure. The two cannot co-exist. For our revised party guide to live up to our founder’s vision, we had to put a new criterion on top. Namely, consent.
In other words… A good college party is all about everyone having a good time. Consent is all about everyone having a good time. Rape is only a good time if you’re a rapist. And fuck those people.
The way whoever pretended to be Playboy has phrased this, it's as if this idea that the company has been ignoring rape has slowly dawned on them. But in actuality, sexual freedom, safe sex and enjoying sex have always been a part of their brand. As Hefner explains in this fake Q&A that was featured on the fake Playboy Company site, for people who don't know about his stance on sex, they should.
Whoever created this site did a phenomenal job in that none of it seemed bizarre. And that's the problem: if this was meant to be a big dig at Playboy's choice to represent party schools that have historically failed to deal with rape culture, it failed because it ended up emphasizing the magazine's history of promoting women. In the "interview", Hefner is quoted saying he's "had sex with thousands of women and they all still like me. That is because I never use coercion or force." (As far as I'm aware, this statement holds up and is half of something Hefner has said in the past: while Hefner's past girlfriends haven't always had amazing things to say about him, they haven't said anything about him raping them.) Fake Hefner reiterates his long-held belief that American society is too "puritanical", and argues that he was a feminist before that was even a word, all stuff that he has said many many times before:
Women have historically paid the highest price for our culture’s negative attitude towards sex. And, like with the sexual liberation movement, women stand to be the main beneficiaries of a radical culture change and a healthier attitude towards sex.
Though many feminists disagreed with Hefner's classification of himself as a feminist, and many still do, by the general definition, he is. He's just a different type of feminist than the women and men who disagree with him. Hefner has spent much of his time pumping out a publication that has displayed a particular aesthetic ideal of women that should exist, which has shifted as the decades have moved on and trends have changed. But that ideal has never involved a woman who wasn't sexually into the person she was having sex with. Hefner has actually faced intense criticism from both the Religious Right for advocating women be sexually available and from anti-porn feminists.
The thing is, Playboy would probably talk about consent in this way, albeit with fewer references to how they've been "promoting rape" previously. Revamping their college guide this way isn't out of the realm of possibility; it would align with their recent to build a stronger brand. On Monday, the Los Angeles Times published the latest in a round of features that have been slowly rolling out every few months about Playboy's attempts to be a viable cultural influence in the 21st century, one that's not only financially successful but taken seriously by its peers as well. The last was an extensive piece for the Wall Street Journal from February, which emphasized that the future of the company would eventually fall into the hands of Hefner's son Cooper.
A big part of Playboy's recent push is making women happy; as the company's Chief Executive Scott Flanders told the LA Times:
"What we heard repeatedly is, our audience is much more female than we thought," Playboy Chief Executive Scott Flanders says at a time when approximately 1.1 million of the magazine's 5.6 million monthly readers are now women. "[They] wanted us to move away from obvious artificiality."
You can see that through the company's social media; they ask women to submit pictures of themselves on #friskyfridays, and they choose their favorites to promote. The shots that they end up pushing are largely subtly sexy, not the Girls Next Door blonde porno types children who grew up with Playboy in the 1990s and 2000s are used to. That message on Twitter is the same you'll see on Facebook and Instagram, the latter of which made its way over to The Superficial for awhile on a weekly basis; they want the magazine to read "class" not "easily available trash that you should take advantage of." They've pushed that image through the magazine covers, booking supermodel Kate Moss for their upcoming January cover and, as the New York Times' T Magazine noted about a party they hosted by new Creative Director of Special Projects Neville Wakefield in May celebrating their Playmate of the Year, using different visuals:
“When you think about Playboy,” Cooper Hefner admitted, “it’s your parents’ company.” The event — and Wakefield’s new role with the company — represent a calculated attempt to recalibrate the brand for millennials as something bigger than a monthly collection of dead-tree nudie pictorials.
That doesn't mean Playboy is ever going to entirely rid itself of constantly emphasizing an ideal level of physical attractiveness for women that many feminists have long hated about the company. For instance, they've still got things like the recently launched Bunny Boot Camp, a workout program available in the UK that describes itself thusly:
From the 1960s Chicago Playboy Club – where the charm, charisma and character of the Bunnies first emerged – to the natural beauty, elegance and sheer sass embraced by Bunnies today, being God-given gorgeous has always been so much more than a flick of mascara.
On Bunny Boot Camp website, you can take a health test called the Bunny Measurement Index (BMI...get it?) much like the ones you'd fill out in a women's magazine; when I took mine, it told me I was a "blooming bunny" and recommended I pay closer attention to what I eat and to work out more.
Playboy has had and will always have a mixed legacy, and recently they've learned (just as many other less controversial companies have learned) that sometimes doing the right thing is marketable and profitable. What's interesting is how they've tried to figure out how to fold Hefner into marketing that mixed legacy; for a long time, he was viewed by people outside and inside the company as the thing that was holding them back. Now he seems integral to their representation of Playboy as a company that has always stood up for women, has always had great content and has always been sophisticated – even when there are years in there that prove otherwise.
In his fake Q&A, fake Hefner says that he worries that people don't like sex anymore:
I’ve noticed in our culture today that people, especially young people, treat sex like a transaction or a conquest. The mentality is the more sex you have, the more you are worth. As a person who has accumulated a lot of wealth, at this point in my life, it doesn’t matter where each individual dollar came from. Each dollar in the bank is the same as the next. As a person who has also had a lot of sex, looking back, it does matter where each encounter came from. The uniqueness of each sexual partner is important.
Whoever is behind this hack of Playboy seems to think the idea that Playboy would devote any amount of space to consent as hilarity. But that's disingenuous to their legacy and paints them as a far more evil company than they are; in March, their South African edition devoted its cover to rape, in a very Playboy-way. Is it the way all feminists or feminist publications would handle the topic? Definitely not and the company (and Hefner) is deserving of the criticism they have gotten and will continue to get over the years, if they manage to stay afloat. But quality was the original driving force of their often confusing message, and though they've lost it at times, it always has been.