Playboy has announced that it’s closing down its flagship magazine for the rest of 2020. It seems unlikely, given the wording of the announcement and the state of print magazine-making, that it will ever return. It’s not a surprise, exactly — its circulation and advertising drooped long ago, accelerating as the nudie pictures for which it was celebrated became available everywhere for free. Hugh Marston Hefner, its founder/editor/latter-day reality-show star/loungewear enthusiast, died in 2017, as his faded empire contracted around him, and one got the sense that the magazine was kept going partly because nobody wanted Hef to outlive it.
Hard to imagine it now, but Playboy once felt forward-thinking and modern. Founded in 1953, it was a significant force in the loosening of anti-obscenity laws regarding the press. By the early 1960s, it was a huge success, soon expanding to open its namesake clubs all over the world. It also moved into TV with Playboy’s Penthouse (later Playboy After Dark), a late-night talk show of sorts starring Hefner and an array of celebrity guests. The magazine peaked in the early 1970s at a circulation, breathtaking to see now, of 5.6 million copies a month. The magazine’s licensing operation since then has put the signature rabbit logo on cocktail glasses, clothes, car accessories, and far more. Plus, of course, online porn.
Of course, that was not its reason for being, and it’s hard to concoct a truly feminist case for Playboy.“The Playboy Philosophy,” a series of published musings by Hefner that broadly expressed his worldview, argued that the shaking-off of Puritan and Victorian prudishness was good for women, good for the world, and all-around great for our mental health. That his version of this liberation was mostly defined by men, highly objectifying, and fundamentally skewed in its power dynamics — the very epitome of the male gaze — well, Hef basically shrugged those thoughts off, saying that women should just step up and go toe-to-toe with men. Donald Trump, in 1990, smirked from its cover, featured in a story he of course loved. A generation later, a Playboy model, Karen McDougal, began an affair with him after a taping of The Apprentice that took place at the Playboy Mansion, and the cover-up of her payoffs semi-directly led to his impeachment. Playboy did, arguably, present women as desirous creatures, not just passive sexual objects, and it argued for legalized abortion and the destigmatization of sex work. But its cover, for 60 years, bore the words ENTERTAINMENT FOR MEN, and that’s mostly what it was.NYMag Playboy Magazine Is Closing Down, Probably for Good