The Earth-shattering news that Playboy will stop putting nudie pics in its magazine prompted this rather arch observation from the writer Helen Andrews.
And certainly, Playboy's decision can't be separated from the strange, stubborn cultural fact of the unprecedented availability of hardcore porn, which drove Playboy from shocking to shockingly tame. The ubiquity of pornography is also a cultural fact with as-yet unknowable and probably deeply profound consequences.
So given the hardcore, abundant, on-demand offerings of sites like YouPorn, it's no surprise that relatively few contemporary young men are turning to Playboy for arousal. And that — not the articles — was what Playboy was about.
Consider what my colleague James Poulos has dubbed the "pink police state," or the political-cultural regime that prevails when we as a society value interpersonal freedoms more than political freedoms. The pink police state, Poulos writes, polices the boundary between "clean/dirty" and "safe/dangerous," a boundary that Playboy unwittingly straddled with its mix of smut and faux-intellectual articles. We live in a world of hardcore porn (dirty) and airbrushed Victoria's Secret models who keep their underwear on (clean), and in between those two there's no room for airbrushed naked models in tame poses.
But there's another angle to this, too, one that's both more mundane and more important: simple taste.
Just look at Hugh Hefner's interchangeable girlfriends, all based on the same pneumatic Barbie mold, with the gravity-defying, perfectly spherical breasts. I confess that I could stare at many of the Playboy centerfolds from the 1960s or 1970s for hours, and not for entirely concupiscent reasons. But starting at some point in the 1980s, they all became the same. My eyes just glaze over. If you're going to give me smut, give me good smut! Smut that is, at least, aesthetically interesting. Most "artistic erotica," or whatever you want to call it, fails because it just ends up being some pornographer's idea of what fancy-pants art is supposed to look like. And it all looks the same.
It's also true about the articles, by the way. At the end of the day, Playboy really was just about the smut, and the articles were really just about the idea of having smart articles there than about the actual articles. Playboy followed Esquire and GQ down the same "lad mag" slope of some celebrity profile written in faux New Journalism style and lots of shopping lists and called it a day.
I really can imagine myself reading a magazine that has some beautiful erotic photos and some interesting, well-written articles. It just happens not to exist, simply because Hugh Hefner, or whoever runs Playboy day to day, has poor taste.
Or a poor view of his audience. Which, for a pornographer, shouldn't be surprising.