In recent months, Playboy has begun producing some surprisingly feminist content, including an impassioned plea to readers not to click on stolen pictures of naked celebrities and a “Should you Catcall Her?” flow-chart (Punch line: Only if you’ve “consensually agreed to should sexually suggestive comments to each other in public.” Or if she’s an actual cat.)
Vox points out that the content could be designed to broaden the appeal of the brand. In an age of online porn, the company clearly needs an approach that goes beyond “here are some pictures of naked women.” But Playboy‘s interest in identifying, at least somewhat, with feminism isn’t a new thing. In the Journal of the History of Sexuality in 2008, Carrie Pitzulo traces the ways that the Playboy brand latched on to some aspects of feminism while picking fights with feminists in other areas.
Pitzulo notes that the Playboy vision of consumer-culture bachelorhood depends on assuming women have a certain level of sexual autonomy.
“Ideologically, the hedonism central to the Playboy lifestyle would not have been possible without women free to live and love as they liked,” she writes. “In earlier generations middle-class men had patronized prostitutes and working-class women and thus ‘protected the purity of women of their own class.’ But according to the Playboy philosophy, the bachelor lifestyle depended upon the man’s sexual desirability to women of his own social and economic rank.”
Playboy also considered itself a serious, progressive magazine, taking on subjects like civil rights and the war in Vietnam, and ignoring the feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s would have hurt that image. Advocacy for birth control and abortion access easily fused hedonism and social advocacy.
But that’s not to say that the magazine was, by any means, a mouthpiece for women’s rights activism. Pitzulo writes that, particularly in the 1950s and early ’60s, it ran blatantly misogynistic content, including articles by Philip Wylie attacking “momism,” the idea of a “supposedly pervasive brand of domineering womanhood that crushed male strength and autonomy.”
Hugh Hefner himself was “fixated” on worries about a breakdown of gender distinctions, Pitzulo writes. “He wanted women to look like women (according to the Playmate standard) and he wanted men to continue to have the traditional thrill of the sexual chase.”
While feminists across the political spectrum criticized the objectification of Playboy centerfolds, Hefner tried to position the magazine as opposing only the most radical feminists. In 1970, he wrote that Playboy opposed sexual double-standards and supported women’s right to pursue careers but also rejected the “highly, irrational, kookie trend” of discounting roles “that men and women play in our society.”
Hefner is now 88, but that sentiment isn’t far from the “new” image Playboy is projecting; That cat-calling flow chart? It was decorated with silhouettes of sexy ladies.