Something is afoot at Playboy.
The men’s magazine relaunched its main website, Playboy.com, a few weeks ago, promising in a release to go beyond nude pics and provide “highly sharable content” designed for a general audience. The goal, the company’s senior Vice President for digital content Cory Jones explained to ThinkProgress, is to have “everything from the fun humor piece to pieces by Harvard researchers and everything in between. And I think that might be what makes this a little bit different. We’re working just as hard on the high-level, high-end content as the fun stuff.”
That experiment is so far yielding interesting results.
Two pieces of content from Playboy.com have been noticed by the feminist blogosphere over the last week, garnering praise from an otherwise skeptical audience. One is an article about leaked nude photos of celebrities, entitled, “Jennifer Lawrence Is Not A Thing To Be Passed Around.” The other is a flowchart demonstrating when it is acceptable for a man to cat-call a woman. (The answer: never, unless you have her consent. Wrote Holly Kearl, founder of the group Stop Street Harassment, “I am glad to see an outlet that I NEVER would have expected to talk about street harassment in this way do so.”)
But Jones says the publication didn’t mean to rebrand with a feminist bent. “I never even saw that as a feminist flowchart, I saw that as a human decency flowchart,” he said in a phone interview. “Like, guys, don’t be jerks. Stop yelling at women on the street. It’s kind of depressing that that’s the state of feminism, that we say don’t yell at women on the street and that’s considered feminism.”
The intersection of feminism and smutty magazines seems like a slippery one. Sexual empowerment is a product of sexy magazines, sure, but so is rampant female objectification. Feminists are wary of an institutional player that has long traded in photos where women are meant to fit male definitions of what’s sexy. Isn’t a company dealing in photos of women (or “girls” in Playboy lingo) the worst possible feminist ally?
Or are they one of the best? Rape culture is defined as the systemic problems that place responsibility on women to prevent rape instead of on men to stop raping. With its platform, Playboy is uniquely positioned to shift some of that responsibility toward men — telling men they’re the ones who need to ask for consent actively, for example — as it did in the two pieces that are now getting noticed.
Rebecca Nagle, co-director of the anti-rape group FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture, recognized this power last year when she and her group made a dummy website set up to look like Playboy that gave college boys a guide to how to ask for sexual consent. She and her organization believe that pop culture is a key way to make progress when it comes to preventing rape and changing norms, especially in a country where what people don’t learn in sex education they instead get from media and pornography. Nagle was pleased to see that Playboy is now filling a space that FORCE essentially carved out for it, and hopes that the company will stick with it.
“When you look at these male publications — take Maxim. What a maxim is is, ‘do this.’ It’s a command,” Nagle told ThinkProgress in a phone interview. “It’s not a coincidence that it’s one of the most popular male magazines. All those publications are like, ‘This is how to be a man. Act this way, Act this way.’ Playboy has a lot of power in that because they can produce the catcall poster and then it’s no longer cool to catcall people. So I think there’s a lot of potential in that.”
For his part, Jones agrees. “I think Playboy is also about being a gentleman. Just be a gentleman and things will work out much better for everyone.” he said. “We have an authority to talk about a lot of different things that other people don’t, and when we do talk about everything from catcalling to the celebrity nude scandal, when it comes from us people listen a little bit more.”
Jones argues that there is historical precedent for Playboy acting as a publication of women’s empowerment. He cited work that’s appeared in the publication from writers including Betty Friedan and Margaret Atwood, and said that “Playboy has always been very inclusive and there’s been a ton of female writers that have always written in its history.” Feminists have praised the company for being one of the first places that really put women’s sexuality on display, and a place that actually employed women.
But there’s historical — and current — skepticism over whether Playboy can successfully bridge the barrier between sexualizing women and empowering them, and it’s still really unclear whether Playboy.com can become a site that overcomes the jokes about being read ‘for the articles’ and actually be, well, read for the articles. Nagle thinks that one thing that would help is if the magazine continued on its current trajectory and really embraced women’s empowerment — not just how it’s defined by men.
“Hugh Hefner [the founder of Playboy] prides himself on being anti-censorship and about sexual liberation — and a lot of things that sex-positive feminists are like, ‘yes! this is great!’ — but then can be very objectifying,” Nagle said. “So instead of liberation being about me, a woman sleeping with who I want to and expressing my sexuality the way I want to, it got co-opted into being about me wearing a push-up bra and shaving my legs and dying my hair, and now instead of sexuality being about my personal pleasure it’s become about the way I look and how desirable I am to men. I think Playboy scores points in both categories.
“There are ways that Playboy’s idea of sexual liberation is headed in the right direction,” she added, “and then it stops short of what I think we would call full empowerment.”
Cory Jones has only been at Playboy three months, so he can’t say what exactly will happen to the publication or whether the latest Playboy.com relaunch will be different from previous ones that flopped. And he isn’t involved in the more public-facing side of the company that could have more sway. The Playboy magazine is actually run separately from the website; though magazine content runs on the site, that entity’s editorial process is totally separate.
The company has no plans to get rid of its nude shots of women, either. “There’s a girls section and it’s always going to be part of who we are, it’s part of the brand’s DNA,” Jones said, “same way that humor is and celebrity, entertainment, style, and nightlife.”
In the interest of continuing to pursue equality, shouldn’t there be a boys section, too? “No not yet. I don’t think that’s going to be happening anytime soon,” Jones said. “But I appreciate you asking.”