This Is What a Feminist (Playboy) Looks Like? A Review

Playboy March 2016 by Theo Wenner

Playboy has stopped publishing pictures of naked women. How does this relate to the magazine’s touted goals of keeping current with porn’s changing landscape—and of staying relevant, particularly in the way it treats women at a time when feminism is suddenly cool? Here’s my feminist lens play-by-play of the highlights. 

Page 6, contributors: Two feminists! Two cool feminists! Erin Gloria Ryan, former managing editor of Jezebel, and new Playboy Advisor Rachel Rabbit White (whose nomenclature indicates her destiny). Does Bret Easton Ellis’s appearance here cancel one of them out? TBD.

Page 16, “How to Pick Up Your Bartender”: Eye-rolling headline aside, this piece is pretty good, addressing questions of awkwardness and consent (“Ask me if you can buy me a drink. Key word here: ask. I may not want one”) without being preachy or P.C.-bro. Couple that with the cocktail on the previous page (tequila, vermouth and Bénédictine), and things look promising.

Page 17, cigarette ad: I didn’t realize those are still legal! Wait—it’s for fucking menthols?

Page 36, “20 Questions”: Broad City! Did Ilana Glaser and Abbi Jacobson think landing in Playboy was a coup, or did they know it was the other way around? That is, there are no better spokeswomen for what Playboy—feminist but not preachy, hip without being hipster, sexy without being crass—is aiming for than this duo.

This is the closest Hemingway fans can come to jerking off to The Old Man and the Sea without getting, like, gay about it.

Page 43, another tobacco ad: Is this the only magazine taking them now? Does that explain why one for “moist snuff” appears in the middle of a profile spread on page 28?

Page 53, “God Bless Birth Control”: Erin Gloria Ryan’s ode to the IUD is a solid read, and I’m pleased to see the article, as I’m a longtime fan of the writer. But running a piece about women’s reproductive health isn’t as revolutionary as it may seem; Hugh Hefner always claimed to be proto-feminist because he advocated for the pill back in the day. Agitating for reproductive rights is indeed feminist! Reducing women to their bodies is not. While I don’t think Hef is a demon, let’s not pretend this isn’t a mighty convenient area of feminism for him. Assign Ryan an article about universal child care for the next issue, and then I’ll be impressed.

Page 58, Playboy Interview: Rachel Maddow, long-form—it’s great, you should read it, it’s far more interesting than anything I could say about it.

Page 66, cover model interview: It’s hilarious how hard Playboy aims for the cool girl thing. Snapchat star Sarah McDaniel (see her cover, above) is “supercasual” and “unapologetic,” her Instagram handle references crotches, she’s “more genuine than any of the actresses,” and—wait for it!—she isn’t afraid to “[go] to town on a Chipotle burrito.” It’s Gone Girl’s Cool Girl to a laughable tee. (She’s hot, of course. You got that part, right?) As for the photos, she’s not wearing makeup and is shot “supercasual” social media–style, in case the cover didn’t tip you off. She lounges on a hotel bed, heavy-lidded; you peer at her in the shower, a rabbit head traced in the condensation; it looks as though she’s wearing a baseball tee in another shot. It’s the girlfriend experience, which is cute and probably effective, but I sorta miss the hyperstylized pics of the old Playboy. Where’s Daryl Hannah on roller skates?

I hadn’t noticed McDaniel’s eyes are two different colors on the cover, but it’s hard to miss here. Did they up the contrast in retouching? The old Playboy was so heavily airbrushed, it was practically wrapped in Band-Aids, but this whole “authenticity” thing seems to cry for less of that. Of course, it’s retouched—everything is retouched in magazines—but if this became evident, Playboy would lose the illusion of organic sexuality it’s now aiming for, which, in a way, is a return to what Hef originally intended the magazine to provide.

Page 76, the second meaty feature: Artist Javier Valadez’s story of deportation is important, politically effective and well executed, but even if you’re here for the articles, you’re certainly not here-here for my critiques of feature journalism, so let’s move on.

Courtesy Playboy/Angelo Pennetta
Dree Hemingway (Courtesy Playboy/Angelo Pennetta)

Page 84, Playmate: It’s Ernest Hemingway’s great-granddaughter, Dree! This is the closest Hemingway fans can come to jerking off to The Old Man and the Sea without getting, like, gay about it. But surely the lass is more than her surname? Why, yes: She’s a model-actress who is glad the pictorial showcases “all of me—the sexy Dree, the childlike Dree….” Ewww. Her lovely photos look straight out of a fashion magazine, including the Centerfold, which sees her stretched out on an American Southwest rug in a poet shirt and bikini underwear. It’s all very honeyed, and she is related to Ernest Hemingway.

Page 98, Bret Easton Ellis essay: A touchstone for the first non-nude Playboy? The novelist laments the loss of investment that technology affords us regarding porn and sexuality overall, and we’re supposed to translate that back into the issue itself. By buying into Playboy’s new, subtler approach, we are making an investment, I suppose. But the accompanying picture of an old porn mag makes me miss that artificial sexuality, which admitted its artifice instead of hiding under a veneer of authenticity.

Page 108, another pictorial: The word feminist appears in the dek and the pull quote! I’m supposed to give points here, doubly so because the model is a size 10, but I’m still exhausted from the preceding excerpt of Karl Ove Knausgård’s memoirs, so I can’t really care.

After this, there’s okay fiction and fun illustrations and a retro picture of Hef, a welcome replacement for such old stalwarts as the jokes page and party pics. And…finis!

Playboy has refashioned itself into a genuinely good read regardless of the presence of women you may or may not want to gaze upon. It’s actually a re-refashioning: Hef always liked to brag about how many women enjoyed the magazine, though this incarnation hits the mark more successfully.

But really, the rearrival makes me mourn the fact that Playboy has never had, and will never have, a sister. I love that this issue gives us Maddow and Broad City; I love that the new Advisor is a smart lady; I love that a note of earnestness runs throughout, because the company is taking a risk, and I hope it pays off. But Glazer sums it up in her interview: “There’s this belief with no merit that media with women at the center applies only to women, but media with men at the center applies to everyone.” She’s speaking about how Broad City showcases “ride-or-die friendships,” male or female; indeed, the show does distinctly female-driven comedy that men happen to enjoy in great numbers, without veering into “Just one of the dudes!” territory. But Glazer could also have been talking about Playboy itself, or Esquire or other “men’s” magazines with strong female readerships.

I skimmed the stuff that didn’t interest me in this issue—car talk, video games—and while plenty of women like these things, they’re still seen as the domain of men. But I have trouble picturing a 20-something straight dude thumbing through the pages of Elle, for example, poring over beauty write-ups. It’s not up to Playboy to fix this divide, yet with its sister remaining a mirage, Playboy can be only so progressive. It’s a magazine to be read “for the articles” (genuinely) while still providing the sensuality that landed it on our cultural map. But its resurrection is a symptom, not a cause, of a gender rift that means there’s always going to be a woman left somewhere in the rabbit hutch.

Autumn Whitefield-Madrano is author of the book Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives, forthcoming from Simon & Schuster in June.

Feature photo: Courtesy of Playboy/Theo Wenner