In a world where naked photos of a presidential candidate’s wife are easily found on the Internet, who needs nudes in Playboy?
Yes, Donald Trump’s third gorgeous wife, Melania, once posed nude for British GQ magazine and, like everything else that is rule-breaking about Trump, this has not hurt him with his loyal fans. So it is somewhat ironic that, in a month that could see Trump seal the deal in his quest for the Republican presidential nomination, Playboy will be publishing its first issue without photographs of naked women. Oh, there will still be provocative pictures, but nothing that is not safe for viewing at work. Nothing, in other words, to inhibit the Playboy brand from making a big play for male readers in their 20s and 30s who have grown up with easy access to naughty pictures of all kinds. For this new generation, Playboy’s carefully staged portraits of glamorously bare young women have become an anachronism.
It wasn’t always so, of course. When Hugh Hefner published Playboy’s first issue in 1953 featuring Marilyn Monroe in her birthday suit, it was a revolutionary act. He got away with printing the erotic photographs because he surrounded them with pages of good writing by top journalists and authors and with lifestyle features about jazz, cool cars, high-end liquor and new gadgets, plus a steady dose of libertarian attitudes about sex.
Playboy was a magazine for the "Mad Men" era. Through the initial decade or two, the women featured in the magazine’s legendary centerfold generally looked as if they had been recruited from a Madison Avenue secretarial pool. It’s easy to imagine Don Draper admiring Hefner’s marketing savvy while reading Norman Mailer’s prose, checking out new stereo equipment, picking up mixology tips and unfurling the month’s daring center-page layout.
By the time I got access to Playboy — beyond a quick peek at a drugstore magazine rack — the Playmates of the month had evolved from the gals in the office to the girls next door. They were most often presented as sweet kids taking a stab at a Hollywood career who really just wanted to meet a guy, move back home to Lubbock and have kids. This was the 1970s — Playboy’s glory years of big circulation numbers. The girl-next-door goddesses clearly had an allure for millions of baby boomer males, including the ridiculously wholesome young man I was back then. As far as erotic interest, Playboy went as far as I needed to go.
In a few notable ways, the centerfold images did evolve over the years. The ’70s and ’80s brought displays of pubic hair that got the magazine banned from easily accessed store shelves. Then, marking a dramatic shift in the personal grooming habits of American women, the September 2001 issue was the first to feature a model who had gone all the way with Brazilian wax. More notable than the changes, though, is how Playboy’s sexy pictures stayed so much the same. Through six decades, centerfolds struck teasing-but-demure poses reminiscent of mid-20th century pinups, resisting the raw, gynecological fixations of contemporary porn.
By the standards of 2016, the most shocking thing about the February edition’s final nude centerfold is the lit cigarette that the model is holding. Otherwise, the image is so tame that, with a slight adjustment to cover a single errant nipple, the photograph could comfortably be used to sell shoes or perfume or jewelry in Vanity Fair. Coincidentally, the last Playboy nude is draped across a blanket of fur, exactly like Melania Trump in one of her photos.
The world has not only caught up with Playboy, it has passed it by. This is not necessarily good news for feminists who have always objected to Playboy’s objectification of women, or for social conservatives who decry the nation’s skewed moral compass. Both now have much worse things to worry about than Hefner’s magazine.