Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Demise Of Playboy

     Not everything can be successfully commercialized forever.

     Strong words for an early Saturday morning, eh? A bit of a departure from your humble Curmudgeon’s usual opening salvo. Perhaps just a wee bit too in-your-face? Well, you can always ask for your money back. (You can’t always get it, but you can ask.) But it’s what occurred to me as I pondered the death of Hugh Hefner and the steady decline of his Playboy empire.

     Playboy magazine and its satellite enterprises were founded on a curiously hybrid proposition. It was the same concept that gave rise to television shows such as Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous: the desire to “sell a taste,” to middle and working-class American men, of certain luxuries that only the richest among us could indulge in reality. Though that “taste” was confined to the glossy pages of a magazine, and perhaps a visit to a Playboy Club when the missus was out of town, for decades it propelled Hefner’s fortunes and kept Playboy on newsstands nationwide. The main attraction was, of course, the unclad beauties Playboy featured in its photo spreads.

     The full significance of Playboy — both its rise and its fall – can only be grasped when one looks at those passages in the context of the time of its rise, the other magazines that followed it into the market, and the legal, social, and technological developments of the subsequent decades.

     When Playboy arose, the leading magazines were such staid, wife-and-homemaker-oriented publications as Redbook, Good Housekeeping, and Ladies’ Home Journal. Men, for the most part, didn’t read magazines; “our” periodical was the newspaper. In contrast Playboy was openly aimed at male tastes, and not domestic ones. Moreover, it treaded on forbidden ground, in those early years, for a glossy-stock magazine to publish pictures of naked women. The idea shocked a lot of sensibilities.

     The shock value was the greater part of what propelled Playboy’s sales. Buying Playboy was daring. It marked you as “a man of the world,” unconfined by fusty old conventions or the stultifying opinions of the Grundies. And of course, if you were pressed on the matter by The Little Woman, you could always claim you bought it “for the articles.”

     But “daring” is a limitless frontier. Where Playboy’ photo spreads could be represented, not entirely uningenuously, as homages to female beauty, the competitors it engendered could take a coarser tack, reaching for cruder sensibilities...and they did.


     The Late Sixties and early Seventies brought chaos to the land via conflicts over the First Amendment’s guarantees of “freedom of expression” versus the need to “protect” Americans – especially (drum roll, please) the children — from “prurient” or “pornographic” materials. The time brought an explosion in sexually-oriented publications. Nearly all of them were far coarser than Playboy, almost entirely unconcerned with anything but sex, yet they competed with it for the very same market. The more conservative jurisdictions sought to curb such publications, at least to the extent of keeping them off the newsstands. When the case of Miller v. California reached the Supreme Court in 1973, so did the chaos.

     Without delving into how the Court resolved Miller and subsequent similar cases (usually lumped together as the Obscenity Cases), the outcome was one that had to emerge from a deeply divided judicial body straining to accommodate an even more deeply divided nation. In essence, the new “standard” for declaring material – books, movies, what have you – banned for publication and distribution was whether five Justices of the Supreme Court thought it should be banned. No more objective definition could command a majority. One of the consequences was that the Court had to schedule a “movie day” on which they would watch movies accused of being illegally obscene and rule on them individually. “I know it when I see it” – the Court’s de facto standard for obscenity – became a laugh line for observers of American jurisprudence.

     Then the Obscenity Cases extended their tentacles for Playboy.

     By then, Playboy had become a respected American institution, a component of the periodical Establishment. When a prosecutor in Albemarle County, Virginia attempted to prosecute stores that sold Playboy, using language from Chief Justice Warren Burger’s opinions in the Obscenity Cases as his rationale, Burger himself, the most anti-pornography member of the Court, intervened to prevent it.

     Burger’s majority (5 to 4) opinion proclaimed that sexually explicit material that “lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value” could be banned by state or local law. This “standard,” which came to be known as the SLAPS test, was so plainly subjective that there was no way it could be uniformly applied nor enforced. That subjectivism, when it reached for Playboy, brought the tottery legal edifice crashing down. Combined with the later Deep Throat case, in which Alan Dershowitz spoke in the defense of Herbert “Harry Reems” Streicher and other actors who had been convicted of distributing pornographic materials by appearing in the film, it rendered the prosecution of a publication as “obscene” effectively impossible.

     The courts could not permit relatively modest Playboy but ban its much cruder competitors. The competitors steadily encroached upon Playboy’s market. Hefner’s empire, now on the respectable end of the “sell it with sex” spectrum, could do nothing about it.


     It’s hard to charge a price for something that’s freely and copiously available to anyone with a decent Internet connection. Name a sexual practice, however outrĂ©, and with a little “Google Fu” you can find it on the World Wide Web. As the cost of producing and hosting digital pornography has fallen, ever more of it, at ever lower prices, has accumulated on Websites innumerable. Today most of it is free; the rest isn’t nearly as expensive, bulky, or hard to conceal as a copy of Playboy. That spells doom for sexually oriented publications in the non-digital world.

     Playboy’s demise can be traced first to the steady erosion of its market share by its “more daring” competitors, and second to the demise of the entire sexually-oriented periodical market under pressure from the Web. Whatever its intentions or pretensions, Playboy’s appeal to its readership was founded on its photo spreads and the other sexually-oriented features in its pages. And so it has gone down with the rest of the fleet of which it had once been the flagship.

     The commercialization of the sexual impulse has ceased to be viable. It no longer matters that large majorities in significant regions of the nation still disapprove, some quite strongly, of sexually explicit entertainment. Thus a magazine which once benefited from the disapproval of bluenoses has fallen, in part due to the success of the industry it germinated.

     If there’s a “new daring” ready to take the place of the old one, perhaps it’s monogamous domestic tranquility of an earlier style: returning from one’s day of labor to a home tended by one’s beloved, to play with the kids, watch an hour or two of television, and perhaps read the latest drivel here at Liberty’s Torch. Granted, it can be hard to shrug off the neighbors’ demands that you cease to violate community standards so blatantly, but you can do it. You’re a man of the world, aren’t you?

2 comments:

Joe Andruscavage said...

Ah yes the 'good old days' when sex was a curiosity. I spent my teenage years reading Playboy's articles and remember marveling at the fact that centerfolds by and large almost all enjoyed 'long walks on the beach and 'horseback riding'. Brings a yearning for the days of my youth now regulated to a few happy memories.

Scott said...

That last paragraph was the icing on the cake!