Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Playgirls "always came first." Feminism didn't.

by Jordan Bubin

The Times recently ran an article about the collapse of Playgirl. The magazine, which “was started 35 years ago as a feminist response to Playboy and Penthouse,” will no longer be published in print format, though it will continue to run on-line. The editor-in-chief, Pamela Caldwell, called the magazine’s collapse a “real blow for feminism.”

She’s wrong. For a couple of reasons.

First, Ms. Caldwell bemoans the fact that “[Playgirl was] the only magazine that offered naked men to women.” If one is coming from the view that porn objectifies or degrades women, then making porn which objectifies the opposite sex seems like fighting fire with fire—it makes for great rhetoric, but in the end, firefighters use water to put a fire out, not more of the same. On the other hand, if you think that porn doesn’t inherently objectify women, but only that some kinds of pornography are degrading, then Playgirl still seems like a failure.

Now, I must confess that I am not an avid reader of Playgirl, and never picked up a copy of it at the local gas station. I always had the understanding that Playgirl was a magazine for gay men, and the article says as much, pointing out that the graphic content is now geared more towards gay men. That said, consider the website for a second. It’s a bunch of stacked guys masturbating (not together, although I didn’t check out the entire site, I’ll admit). If feminist editors were trying to make porn that wasn’t the kind which objectified people, then why not have models which exhibited more than one body type? Models that weren’t uniformly well-muscled, and tanned? Heterosexual porn for men tends to be plastic, augmented women; why should porn for women ignore the basic problem that pornography portrays a facsimile of real people? Even if the website is “geared more towards gay men,” I hope that Ms. Caldwell wasn’t producing similar porn for women and calling it a feminist response to Playboy.

Perhaps she wasn’t. Judging from the article, Playgirl seems to have belittled women in a different way, by assuming that their sexual fantasies are less than, well, sexual. The Times states that a common Playgirl theme was “a naked man doing chores for the fully dressed lady of the house.” I can see how this might be sort of funny, in a hey-let’s-forward-this-to-my-friends kind of way, but if women exploring their sexual desires means naked housework, then I’m a bit disappointed. One of my friends found a book called “Porn for Women,” featuring the same sort of thing—well-built guys mopping and doing the dishes in their underwear. It wasn’t sold behind the counter; it was a joke. It seems sort of insulting to think that female sexual fantasies don’t involve some sort of sex; last I checked, my female friends have actual libidos.

Ms. Caldwell claimed that she and the Playgirl editors were selling a kind of porn that “was about what women wanted”; I think the fact that Playgirl failed would sort of disprove that. If women are interested in porn, then presumably, they’d like some porn, thank you very much. And while Playgirl may have been the only magazine which offered naked men to women, the internet seems more than up to the task.

Second, whatever the bulk of the photo shoots were, Playgirl was porn. According to the Times, “the editors strove to publish articles that were saucy but relevant.” Why? What exactly is that doing to feminize porn? I’ve heard more than one old man (and a few creepy high school classmates of mine) claim they read Penthouse for the articles. Usually, it was a joke. And the times that it wasn’t didn’t seem to warrant a response. If I think of good journalistic reporting, I don’t typically think of a porno mag. Nor do I think there is much reason to try to mix good journalistic reporting with naked photos.

At bottom, if I want to read something decent, I’ll read something decent. Porn seems more suited to telling me about how Bunny gratefully thanked the man who fixed her car. If porn were full of intelligent articles, would we want it left on coffee tables to stimulate discussion, or would we still want to keep it on the top shelf? I can see how someone could argue that we shouldn’t be ashamed of our bodies, and that perhaps Playgirl’s blend of stories by Joyce Carol Oates with photos of erect penises was a way to legitimize the latter, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If I think bodies are nothing to be ashamed of, you’re preaching to the choir—in a way that barely makes sense—and if I think pornography is disgusting and bodies something to be ashamed of, then I will go buy Oates’ book, and you can keep your porn.

Finally, I have to turn to the whole underlying idea of porn being capable of providing any kind of feminist response to degrading porn. It won’t, and it can’t. Even if you think that fire can be fought with fire, you missed the point. Providing more feminine porn, at most, will allow anyone who wants to see such porn to get it, but it won’t change anyone’s attitudes.

It makes sense to me that advertising influences attitudes; when I walk through the checkout aisle in a store, I have two emotions. First, I’m jealous. Every woman’s magazine seems to feature at least one cover article on how to sexually please a man, and that makes me jealous, because guys are just out of luck in that regard. I’m of the opinion that girls are much complicated in that regard, and when you’re 15, there is nothing in the check-out aisle telling you what to do with your high school girlfriend. Second, I realize how overbearing it is—aside from the implication that women need to please their guy to keep him around (and had better read the magazine to learn how, rather than learn to communicate; which, after all, is about the only way most guys have a chance of figuring it out), the entire magazine seems devoted to explaining how to be aesthetically pleasing to men. The same goes for commercials, billboards, and everything else.

But here’s the fundamental difference between advertising and pornography. The former has the chance to affect your attitudes from, essentially, birth. You can’t choose to ignore it; it’s everywhere. The latter, on the other hand, must for the most part be sought out. The fact that gonzo porn, or gangbang porn, or bukkake, or other ridiculous stuff exists is not influencing people to objectify women more so than they already are. Think about it this way: If a man actually pays attention to what porn stars are in a given film, or if he is someone who is actually influenced by pornography advertising, then it seems a pretty safe bet to guess that he (a) already has a pretty sad view of women, (b) is probably not a fine specimen himself, and (c) is not at risk to have a worse view of women due to the pornography he is watching.

Consuming porn means googling your preferred sexual act. The failure of Playgirl ought to serve as proof that offering a “better” brand of porn isn’t going to change your sexual preferences, or your view of sex. Your sexual preferences might change when you get your driver’s permit and actually have it for the first time, and they’re certainly going to change over the course of your life. It seems sort of strange to think that the images you see on a screen are going to make you crave new things to do with your plumbing. And the way porn is advertised and marketed isn’t affecting those who are just entering the market for porn, either—14- and 15-year old kids are not checking out porn marketing, they’re still swiping their older brother’s friend’s old magazines. Or, to be more truthful, they’re googling sex in the family room late at night. The way that women and men are advertised in Tommy Hilfiger ads and portrayed in popular culture is going to influence people’s attitudes—the way women and men are advertised in porn is meeting something that’s already there. If I have to ask for something wrapped in brown paper behind the counter; if I have to go to the sketchy store on the outskirts of town; then it’s not influencing me until I’m already going to get it.

There’s perhaps a middle ground, that poses a problem—the ads for strip clubs which seem to be on top of every other taxicab, whether you’re in New York or Nashville. Those half-naked, fake breasted women are out in the middle of the day, and perhaps that is causing some Robbie George-esque degradation of the moral ecology, but they tend to seem far less risqué than the ads for perfume or cologne that are plastered all over the bus stop.

If you’re against porn, producing porn of really, any kind is not the way to go about it. Neither, of course, is banning it; if you believe that, we need to have a little chat about that whole War on Drugs thing. If you’re a feminist opposed to porn, the response ought to be aimed at changing the socially acceptable view of women, not producing more of the former.


At November 25, 2008 at 12:01 PM , Blogger Franki said...

You make some good points, but this post still has one of the problems that prompted Playgirl's closing; a man telling women what they are and are not allowed to do with their porn. The article expressly states that the editors grew tired of vapid-but-pretty men and tried to showcase a variety of men (and types of men) in a variety of situations - something that would appeal to many women I know. Instead, they were denied an advertising budget and their product was steered towards a completely different audience than originally intended. Playgirl was the only skin mag aimed at women and has been turned into one of many sources of pornography for gay men because the powers that be didn't want to invest in a female audience. In a male dominated industry, Playgirl was one of very few magazines that catered explicitly (no pun intended) to female needs, and for that reason I find it's closing upsetting and problematic.

At November 25, 2008 at 4:17 PM , Anonymous Jordan Bubin '09 said...


I'm not telling you what to do with your porn. I'm telling you what's not going to work.
And I can't speak to the variety of men that may have been in Playgirl before it became a magazine aimed at gay men, since I"ve never read it before. All I know is that the site now is pretty monotone.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home