I was thinking WTF? He was sitting in his easy chair reading the newspaper.
“Right,” Cousin Ray waved the paper at me. “Playboy is giving them up!”
The New York Times had broken a story that sounded a least a decade and maybe half a century late, that Playboy will no longer publish pictures of naked women. “Pornographic magazines,” the Gray Lady asserted, have lost their “shock value, their commercial value and their cultural relevance.”
What’s funny about the Times piece is the assumption that Playboy was ever pornography. Cousin Ray reminded me that it was prosecuted for being pornographic.
Well, yes. As late as 1990, the SCOTUS was addressing whether the government could sue a cable provider for carrying The Playboy Channel. We don’t remember prosecutions of really tame stuff.
We remember prosecution of Fanny Hill and Tropic of Cancer even if the idea of pornography without pictures is quaint in our time, but we forget The Decameron, Ulysses, and The Canterbury Tales.
Cousin Ray looked puzzled. “Ulysses? Didn’t his wife wait for him?”
“Not that Ulysses. That’s The Odyssey. Homer’s poem.”
“I didn’t know Homer Simpson wrote poetry.”
He was pulling my leg, but I’ve learned to play straight man.
“James Joyce. Specifically, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy.”
Cousin Ray was skeptical about The Canterbury Tales as well, but I read him the Wife of Bath’s Tale until his ears turned red and he piped down.
We remember Deep Throat being prosecuted but we forget Carnal Knowledge. That last movie reminds me of when Justice William O. Douglas spoke at my law school. He mentioned Carnal Knowledge as a movie he had heard good things about but had never seen because he would not see any movie or read any book coming before the SCOTUS for obscenity. He was afraid of being offended and therefore tempted to let the content of the book or movie intrude into his consideration of the case.
Justice Douglas was a First Amendment absolutist, believing that when the Founders wrote, “Congress shall make no law…” they meant no law.
Never mind obscenity law and never mind the Internet making it all moot; Playboy was never obscene unless you think naked people are obscene.
There’s another criticism of Playboy that the Playboy lifestyle represents rampant consumerism, addiction to expensive toys. So it did and so it does.
Consumers drive the U.S. economy. China is trying to accomplish the same kind of economy, where most of the money is in knowledge and the GDP is tied to consumer demand. I’m not sure we can blame Playboy for either the basis of our economy or for the fact that sex sells. Did you think GoDaddy.com started that? Neither did Playboy.
Playboy did use sex to sell. The first nude centerfold was Marilyn Monroe, and she hit the newsstands in late 1953. Famously, there was no date on the cover because publisher Hugh Hefner was not sure there would be a second issue.
Three months later, Hefner serialized Ray Bradbury’s novel, Fahrenheit 451, about a dystopian future when the job of “firemen” is to burn books because all books have been outlawed. (Paper burns at 451 F.) Hefner may have chosen that book coming out of the chute because he wanted to stake out a position against censorship in anticipation of being censored.
Hefner chose well. Not only was Bradbury the first of many brilliant writers to publish in Playboy, Fahrenheit 451 became one of the great ironies of publishing history when, unbeknownst to Bradbury, his publisher expurgated naughty words and a reference to a drunken character and sold a censored version of a novel about censorship between 1967 and 1980.
Playboy is so tame these days that it’s hard to explain 1953 to people who were not there, as I had to do when talking to college students about laws dealing with sex. In those days, my lecture went, every sex act was unlawful except vaginal intercourse between married persons in the missionary position with the lights off not more than once a week. That’s only a slight exaggeration.
So printing pictures of naked ladies was a big deal and Hefner made it a bigger deal when he started writing essays taking the position that is now the law: a free country has no role for bedroom police.
Another criticism of Playboy has been that it set standards of feminine attractiveness that the average woman could not meet. The average Playmate (as the magazine came to call the centerfold woman) could not either, because Playboy used the airbrush early and often to create feminine fantasies.
If the airbrush made the Playmates less real, other decisions were more grounded. Playmates were African-Americans, Hispanics, and even a couple of Indians. I think Sacheen Littlefeather got the gig for playing Marlon Brando at the Academy Awards. After the way that audience treated her, she deserved a break.
Ethnicity was not the only barrier Playboy destroyed. There were photo shoots of Farah Fawcett at 50 and Nancy Sinatra at 54.
I don’t know what to say to people incapable of understanding the Playmates as fantasies. For an Indian kid from Oklahoma, those Italian sports cars you might see in the magazine from time to time were also fantasies.
U.S. mullahs claimed the fantasies were bad because the pictures of naked ladies would drive impressionable teenagers to rape and those same kids would be robbing banks to buy a Lamborghini.
None of the parade of horribles showed up, just as they did not when Denmark legalized real pornography or when the Internet made laws against it unenforceable.
As mainstream culture lurched ever closer to porn, Playboy quit leading the parade. It was not first to pubic hair or to full-frontal nudity. Copycats Penthouse and Hustler made Playboy look stodgy to anyone buying for the centerfolds.
“I buy it for the articles” was a standing joke, but the truth is that I used to subscribe in middle age and often never even looked at the centerfolds. That was not true when I was younger, but by middle age my fantasy life was richer and I learned that Playboy was the Promised Land for aspiring writers. They paid top dollar, reported in a reasonable time, and treated writers with respect elusive for the average freelancer.
Bradbury was an early catch, but Playboy went on to publish a who’s who of 20th century letters: Nadine Gordimer, Kurt Vonnegut, Bernard Malamud, Joyce Carol Oates, Saul Bellow, John Irving, Doris Lessing…and in 1969, Playboy published an article by an Indian guy named Vine Deloria, Jr.
Custer Died For Your Sins first saw print in article form and the book came out later the same year. I was blown away. Deloria was fearless. He had a sense of humor. He knew the dominant culture better than many people who thought it was the only culture.
Yes, there were those goofy cartoons. The Playboy take on the first Thanksgiving involved a Pilgrim and a Pocahottie getting it on. One of my editors claims that a Playboy licensee makes Pocahottie outfits today.
Balancing Pocahottie and giving Vine Deloria, Jr. a platform is the kind of thing various women’s rights organizations struggled with when the Playboy empire was rolling in dough. Hefner favored the Equal Rights Amendment and was willing to put his money where his mouth was…but often could not get women’s organizations to accept.
Let us not forget the interviews, from MLK to George Lincoln Rockwell of the American Nazi Party. The John Lennon and Yoko Ono interview chanced to be on newsstands when he was murdered. Jimmy Carter admitted the sin of lust.
A classic interview for Indians was Marion Mitchell Morrison AKA John Wayne, who admitted in a Playboy interview that he believed in white supremacy. After supporting that belief with some remarks about blacks, he went on about Indians, this hyper-patriot who sat out WWII but killed many Indians on the silver screen:
I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them, if that’s what you’re asking. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.
Hearing that, Cousin Ray bestirred himself: “Now, that’s pornography!”
From this time forward, Playboy will have to survive on its wits rather than on the looks of the Playmates, and I suppose those of who think it always did will be shown right or wrong. As our mullahs were shown to be wrong when they thought Hugh Hefner would destroy civilization.
The same year Playboy gives up nudes, Iran’s Parliament has passed a law establishing the death penalty for producing pornography. This law is from a government that struggles to persuade its citizens that a woman’s uncovered face is prurient.
To have pornography laws, some patriotic souls must be willing to examine material suspected of being pornographic. “I guess,” Cousin Ray snickered, “their mullahs are just like our mullahs—they know it when they see it.” The sight of naked women will destroy everybody except the noble mullahs willing to look at all those pictures in the public interest.
I expect the Iranian mullahs will eventually learn something Chaucer wrote along with the Wife of Bath’s Tale:
When something’s difficult, or can’t be had,
We crave and cry for it all day like mad.