Playboy Just Learned That Old Sexism Doesn't Make Money Anymore

Playboy’s decision to do away with naked pictures has little to do with feminist wins and how far women have come, and everything to do with a failing business model: nude centerfolds in the age of Girls Gone Wild, Milfs and Two Girls One Cup seem as outworn and dusty as Hefner’s smoking jacket.

Old sexism doesn’t make money anymore, and the new sexism will keep right on trucking.

It’s been over 50 years since Gloria Steinem went undercover at one of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Clubs, donning a satin leotard and cottontail to expose a world where women were given “demerits” for wearing heels under 3 inches high, summoned with calls of “here, bunny, bunny” and expected to undergo a gynecological exam for a waitressing position. So Playboy’s announcement that the magazine will no longer publish nude pictures of women may feel like progress after decades of bunny-branded sexism. 

It’s a seductive illusion of progress - the world’s most famous nudie mag setting aside the nudie to focus on “the articles” - but an illusion nonetheless. When the website relaunched without naked women this year, the magazine said it was because the brand transcended nudity, that Playboy was “a cultural arbiter of beauty, taste, opinion, humor and style.” The announcement about the magazine, however, came with a bit more candor. Chief executive Scott Flanders told The New York Times: “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free.” 

Besides, nudity was never really the feminist problem with Playboy, because there’s nothing sexist in and of itself about images of naked women. The idea that men are entitled to those women, however – an idea that spans across pop culture regardless of pornified bonafides – is an issue.

After all, does it really make a difference if a woman is clothed or naked if every representation of her is sexualized regardless? When Steinem went to work for the Playboy club, the skimpy outfits that women had to wear seemed small potatoes compared to the meager pay and humiliating and discriminatory treatment, something that may have been worse at the Playboy club, but was still standard for women in the 1960s no matter where they worked. And though calling women “bunnies” and displaying their naked bodies may be objectifying, I’m more concerned with the real life way Hefner treated his girlfriends over the fantasy he attempted to create through the magazine and brand. 

Julie Burton, President of the Women’s Media Center, though, points out that the objectification is meaningful, as is the part of the announcement that says Playboy will continue to feature women posing and dressing provocatively. “Playboy is hardly alone on this front – there is an onslaught of sexualized images in media and advertising. But these images do have a negative impact”, Burton said. 

“The constant focus on sexualized images of women conveys that we should value women for how they look and not who they are: human beings who factor into almost every story” she added.

But Sara Benincasa, a comedian and author of the novel DC Trip who has written for Playboy on issues like beauty standards, GamerGate and catcalling, says while she understands the skepticism around the magazine: “I do think it’s a new day over there.”

“I never thought I would call myself a fan of the Playboy brand”, she told me. “You know what is a great feminist act? Paying a woman actual good money for actual good work; promoting smart thinking, critical thinking, and support for women’s rights.”

So maybe you can’t judge a magazine by its scantily-clad cover.

Yes, Playboy nixing the nudes probably won’t have much of an impact in the world of people who like to look at naked women nor will it move feminism forward. The move has more to do with business than progress and no matter what happens at Playboy, sexism will be still be around - not just in porn, but in life. And that’s a lot more worrying than a few less pairs of naked breasts on the drugstore shelf.

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