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PLAYBOY Isn’t Woke.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

What in the world is going on with PLAYBOY? In August 2019, the magazine decided to undertake a new direction, pushing for “inclusive” ideals such as sex and body positivity, along with LGBTQ+, racial, and gender equality. This rebrand is part of a long series of attempts to revive the publication: in 2016 nudity was removed from the magazine, only to be restored following the death of founder Hugh Hefner in 2017. Later, the tagline was also adapted from “Entertainment for Men” to “Entertainment for All.”  Now, PLAYBOY is attempting to call back to its history of social justice advocacy, and “shed the shadow of Hefner.” However, nearly one year after these intentions were outlined, the brand has yet to adhere to any of its grand proclamations. Seemingly, the “new” PLAYBOY  is talking a good game, while playing a different one.

Perhaps, the problem lies in PLAYBOY’s history of progressive illusion: from its founding in 1953, Hugh Hefner’s bold publication choices quickly garnered public favour for the magazine. He published articles from James Baldwin, Kurt Vonnegut and other political voices, and showcased pieces that argued for access to birth control, gay rights, civil rights, abortion rights, literature, female empowerment, and sex positivity. Unfortunately, while Hefner was praised for raising radical views, few of these ideals were truly enacted for progressive reasons. Rather, as author Andi Zeisler described to The Associated Press, “I think it’s safe to say that anything progressive that Hugh Hefner was for, he was for because it also benefited white men.” Upon his death in 2017, Vice wrote that Hefner “supported [legal abortion and birth control] because it meant there were less excuses for women who said no to men wanting condomless sex – they couldn’t use risk of pregnancy as a reason to reject men.” Hefner, in a 2010 CNN interview, argued this himself, saying “I was never enamored of prophylactics [condoms], so The Pill permitted the sexual act to be more natural and more loving.” 

“I think it’s safe to say that anything progressive that Hugh Hefner was for, he was for because it also benefited white men.”

Very little regarding intercouse with Hefner was “loving” or “natural”. Hefner created a predatory environment for PLAYBOY sex workers, requiring, in addition to other edicts, that those who lived in the Playboy Mansion with him engage in unprotected group sex twice per week. A former girlfriend of Hefner, Holly Madison, touched on life inside the mansion in her book Down the Rabbit Hole: Curious Adventures and Cautionary Tales of a Former Playboy Bunny, explaining that, “when it came to humiliating his girlfriends, the larger the audience, the better.” Among other things, Madison also briefly discusses the lack of consent: living in the mansion meant that having sex was “expected.” 

Madison’s experience is not just one slip up, and Hefner’s contributions to birth control and abortion rights as a selfish cause cannot be pushed aside. Hefner not only dehumanized sex workers, lacked consent, created purposeful power imbalances, and had a disregard for the safety of women around him, but he also maintained loathsome amounts of misogyny and condescension. 

To top it off, Hefner published an anthology of pieces called “The Playboy Philosophy” in which he argues that if women could break away any puritanism and prudishness, the world would become a better, sexier place. Though if his other practices prove anything, Hefner meant it would make his world a better, sexier place. 

Considering that PLAYBOY’s contributions to social justice weren’t practiced and didn’t apply to their founder throughout the late 20th century, now their stance seems even more important at a time when the rights of all people are under question. PLAYBOY should, at the least, decide if they will take a stand or not. 

As a publication with an iconography that is, according to their statistics, recognized by 97% of all people, PLAYBOY’s choices are important. Choosing to push for a “woke-er” ideology has the potential to influence millions. 

The effort started strong. Then-CEO Shane Singh pushed the “woke” rebrand and introduced a few changes which, for once, held PLAYBOY to the standards it was writing about. Models were diversified in skin, ethnicity, size, disability, and sexuality. Photographers were phased in to ensure only women would be shooting the models, and full-on nudity was no longer the goal. This change allowed for the models to be less subject to power dynamics along the lines of sex, and to bring a sense of agency to the models and equality to the shoot. Singh rebranded the pictorials as “art,” changing the purpose of the shoot from heterosexual ideas of the body as a means to an end for sex. Thus, breathing a new life into the pictorials. 

However, Singh explained to The New York Times that, “We talk a lot about when something is objectification versus when it is consensual objectification versus when it is art […] I think objectification removes the agency of the subject. Consensual objectification is the idea of someone feeling good about themselves and wanting someone to look at them. Art means, O.K., we can hang this on a wall. And if it’s both, for us, that’s the major win.”  What Singh fails to mention is that objectification relegates the model to an object representing heteronormative standards of male arousal. Calling it consensual does not remove the objectification, whereas using women photographers brings a non sex-biased perspective to the Playmates they shoot, which can give the Playmates agency in their portrayal, fixing the power imbalance that comes with objectification; consensual objectification, as Singh called it, never will. 

Despite the strange idea of objectification as being integral to PLAYBOY, the changes Singh brought were mostly good, and mostly stayed. Unfortunately, in May 2020, less than one year after Singh said that pictorials would be shot by women, a man shot the pictorial for May Playmate Savannah Smith. Thus, PLAYBOY went back on its own word, on an internal matter – one that could easily have been avoided. 

If this was the only step back for PLAYBOY, it could be understood as a slip up – except it’s not. To look at the way minority groups have been addressed by PLAYBOY would require another article entirely. As would a discussion on the articles that PLAYBOY writes, and even the way their website is set up. All these parts of the brand and its relation to the rest of the world can’t be overlooked. It is easy to focus only on how the magazine has (and continues to) harm women, but it isn’t enough. 

Take, for example, the magazine’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Published on Facebook on June 1, 2020, the editors of PLAYBOY wrote in a statement, “We are working to develop a long-term plan to rally our resources to support the radical changes needed to dismantle centuries of racist policies and systems.” Such change at a publication with a history of supporting social justice movements should be simple, especially one that is pushing itself to be more “woke.” 

Instead, PLAYBOY spent its resources creating a new gaming app, redesigning their website, and changing their content to focus more on sex again. PLAYBOY had created a Black Lives Matter Hub for resources in conjunction with the release of their Action Plan on June 6, 2020, but it is difficult to find on the website. Worse, it hasn’t been updated since June 12, 2020, less than two weeks after their statement was released. 

Ironically, PLAYBOY published better articles before the murder of George Floyd. Articles such as “Is Your Dildo Racist?,” “Why We Need to Film Police” and “On Ariana Grande and the Politics of Ambiguity” which all address race as a crucial topic, seek to educate on nuances and culturally ingrained ideas, and push for an unlearning in many ways. These articles were treated by the magazine as important, and not to be glazed over. 

Change comes slowly sometimes, that is true, but to make a promise for continual support of social justice and progressive causes, only to continually break them, is two steps back no matter how you look at it. PLAYBOY’s Facebook and Instagram pages haven’t mentioned Black Lives Matter, or any issues of equality and justice in weeks. Talking about their progressive goals hasn’t surfaced in a while either. 

The brand continually heroizes Hefner as being a social justice legacy, and never acknowledges the harm he caused. Worse, the rest of Hefner’s legacy in the broader PLAYBOY brand, is equally as problematic. 

An easy way for PLAYBOY to make good on some of its promises could be by holding themselves and Hefner accountable for the harm inflicted over the magazine’s 66-year history. However, the brand continually heroizes Hefner as being a social justice legacy, and never acknowledges the harm he caused. Worse, the rest of Hefner’s legacy in the broader PLAYBOY brand, is equally as problematic. 

The wider world of PLAYBOY beyond the magazine includes, an archive site dedicated solely to photos of the Playmates, PLAYBOY Plus, a paywall-blocked site which includes pornographic videos, and PlaymateDancers, where women can be booked for events. None of these parts of PLAYBOY were subject to the “woke” rebrand, and still profit off of Hefner’s idea that “[women] are objects!” This legacy is what the magazine created back in 1953 and, enforced by the original tagline “Entertainment for Men,” it is as impossible to untangle objectification and the reduction of women from the identity of the brand as it is to separate Hefner from the magazine he “embodied.” Despite the good that was part of PLAYBOY’s history, HuffPost explained that, “even progressive political bona fides don’t give powerful men a get-out-of-being-a-member-of-the-patriarchy-free card.” Hefner remains a powerful man even in death, as his creation is one of harm – consistently forcing an imbalance between him and women, and performing activism for his own self-serving benefit.

Hefner’s name continually being held above the publication as Editor-In-Chief removes any chance of PLAYBOY committing to being completely progressive. Ironically, this also removes a chance for a woman to be the Editor-in-Chief for a publication that is focused on (mostly) women’s bodies. His name and position further reminds readers of the power dynamics that were once at play, reinforcing them and showing that even in 2020, a major publication is refusing to budge. He still represents misogyny, abuse, harmful objectification, and the ideas of progressivism as being beneficial to men under the guise of helping women. If PLAYBOY reconciled with, or even acknowledged their own problematic and harmful history instead of continually championing Hefner, they might have a chance to genuinely commit to being a progressive platform. That is, if a separation of Hefner from PLAYBOY is even possible.

Notorious brands like PLAYBOY must be held accountable for the change they promise to make, and criticized where they falter. PLAYBOY’s editors and executives need to understand that Hefner’s legacy is one of misogyny and abuse, and remove his name from the magazine. Until then, there doesn’t seem to be any hope for this cultural monolith – consistently promising one step forward, just to take two steps back, isn’t how our world will change. PLAYBOY needs to do better, a lot better.