The question graces the magazine's 1960s advertisements, with a young bachelor standing astride a younger blonde, by the hi-fi stereo, cradling a martini. Below are the answers that even in its early years readers had come to associate with the brand: sophisticated, intelligent, advanced yet classic, irresistible to women. The man who has it all.
That's the version of Hefner's enterprise in obituaries this week after the Playboy founder and publisher was found dead at 91 in his trademark mansion. How accurate that portrait was of Playboy’s readership, though, is up for debate.
I submit to you Exhibit A: the only guy I knew who actually subscribed to Playboy, who also took pleasure in buying large gaudy faux-crystal dragons from the Franklin Mint catalog. After his job bagging groceries, he sat on the stained carpet of his living room and played first-person shooter video games while drinking Chambord. He eventually acquired a Russian girlfriend who made Borscht every night and who batted her eyelashes at his inanities in hopes she'd marry him for citizenship. He took pride in “living the American Dream,” as he said, by lying to his roommates about the total rent for the house for which he held the lease, and charging them the entire amount, leaving him rent-free.
Cheap, fake luxury. Vicarious violence as entertainment. Fancy liquers. Screwing people over for financial gain. Finding a subservient woman. A mediocre white guy with delusions of grandeur. Sounds about right: That sort of man reads Playboy.
This is embarrassing, but whatever: a month before I started dating my wife, I found a cheesy 1970s book called How To Pick Up Girls! at a thrift store for 50¢. I bought it as a joke, but we all know how those joke purchases are; there's a little bit of truth in them. I was single, living alone, drinking too much gin, watching old movies and eating steak alone every night with my cat in my downtown apartment. I was lonely, craving companionship beyond the kind I could find when last call sounded at the Round Robin.
Long story short, the book was sexist as hell but at least put a valuable idea in my brain: that maybe I should stop moping around the apartment and get out and talk to people. It reminded me that I had a job, and a place, that I was relatively sane with no skeletons in my closet. Most importantly, it assured me that women get lonely too. That all the dumb insecurities I felt, they also felt. There was an odd equality to it.
Coincidentally, a few weeks later I found myself walking along the beach with a beautiful girl I'm still in love with 18 years later. We sometimes point to the book on our shelf, and laugh about it. Of course it was trash, but it got the job done.
All of this is to say that I understand schlubs sometimes need encouragement. But Playboy’s go-get-'em seduction for generations of American men took an opposite tack. It said to them, You are king. You are smart, wealthy, and fascinating. It said virtually nothing three-dimensional about the women; they nearly always liked reading and cooking, and could not resist a man like you, who reads Playboy.
Playboy’s bill of sale to the average john was so prevalent that the very word still evokes this mindset. It is corrosive and, if you ask me, utterly boring. People say that compared to Penthouse and Hustler, Playboy’s version of pornography was vanilla and uninventive. I say the entire enterprise was uninventive. In America – in 1953, or in 2017, pick a year – there's nothing more banal than selling a man a dream that he's better than a woman and can do with her what he pleases.
The thing is, it really did have some great articles. (My first thought when I heard the news was of Frank Sinatra's 1963 interview in the magazine, a brave and thorough takedown of organized Christianity coupled with a one-two punch to the era's genteel racism and its adherents.) You already know the big names from the magazine's bylines: Norman Mailer, Ray Bradbury, Haruki Murakami, Kurt Vonnegut. Others. Mostly men.
But the women and how they were treated will be the magazine's legacy. There are hundreds of stories; two instances stick out. Amidst the internet porn boom of the mid-aughts, when any and all fetish became accessible by a click, the reality show Girls Next Door briefly brought the fading Playboy brand back to mainstream relevance. My wife watched it – just as eagerly, I remember, as she read aloud passages from co-star and former Playboy bunny Holly Madison's memoir, Down the Rabbit Hole, about the slavery-like conditions kept by Hefner for his “girlfriends” who were made to perform as a group very detailed, particular sex acts upon his wrinkled, aged body twice a week.
More gut-wrenching still is the case of Dorothy Stratten, the playmate embraced as a new star by Hefner who moved to L.A. and left her husband, Paul Snider, for a new life at the mansion. Snider was a mediocre white guy who'd been sold a dream that he was better than women and could do with them as he pleased, and when she spurned him, he shot her in the face with a 12-gauge shotgun.
I have no issue with pornography generally; of course it is trash, but gets the job done. But a tacit justification of female ownership has always been at the heart of Playboy’s broader lifestyle brand. That message is no clearer than in Hefner's purchase of the mausoleum plot next to Marilyn Monroe's (whose nude photos Hefner published without her approval, or compensation), to lay beside her for all eternity — the ultimate “Are you alone, mind if I sit here?” violation of a woman unable to consent. If it were legal, it's a safe bet Hefner would've bought space inside Marilyn Monroe's casket and asked to be positioned on top of her.
What sort of man reads Playboy? A man that, even in death, can't help but insert himself into a woman's business; a man who's been told his whole life that he can.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.