Is Vintage Playboy More Progressive Than Modern Esquire?

In a truly amazing expression of honesty, Alex Bilmes, who edits Esquire UK, used the opportunity he was given as a speaker at a conference to explain how low his estimation of his readers are:

“The women we feature in the magazine are ornamental,” he said, speaking on a panel at the Advertising Week Europe conference in London on Tuesday. “I could lie to you if you want and say we are interested in their brains as well. We are not. They are objectified.” Bilmes, speaking on a panel hosted by Cosmopolitan editor Louise Court about feminism in the media and advertising, added that men “see women in 3D” in many different roles in life “but at certain times we like to see them sexy”. “[Esquire] provide pictures of girls in the same way we provide pictures of cool cars,” he said. “It is ornamental. Women’s magazines do the same thing.”

That’s a pretty sad set of ambitions for a magazine that published Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold.” And it’s a reminder for all that magazines like Esquire and GQ purport to serve sophisticated men, they’ve been pulled down by the lad-mag market rather than rising above it.

Whenever a contemporary men’s magazine, or someone employed by one, does something particularly stupid, I’m always reminded of this terrific piece Jon Zobenica wrote for The Atlantic in 2007 called “Are We Not Men?” which is all about the decline of the form. In it, he particularly cites the Playboy Advisor as an example of the kind of real talk that made that magazine refreshing — in fact, Zobenica argues, “I developed a respect toward women in part by reading Playboy as a young male.” He wrote:

In the October 1973 Advisor, a man on the verge of marrying a small-breasted woman wonders if he can honestly go ahead with the nuptials, given his fears of desiring more-ample women. To which he gets, in part, this response:

It’s not a question of honesty; it’s a matter of maturity — yours, not hers. A marriage is more than the sum of its anatomical parts; success depends on qualities of love, respect and compatibility.

In the February 1976 Advisor, a woman writes in that her boyfriend, who’s miffed that he can’t bring her to orgasm (though he claims he’s successfully done so with every other lover), has tried to pressure her into a threesome with another woman as a remedy. The response reads in total:

Your partner has come up with a rather novel excuse for experimenting with a third party (necessity is the pimp of invention or the mother of deviation), but we doubt that a ménage à trois would be the answer to your problem. While a triangle might show him by direct comparison that all women are different, it might also double his failure rather than his fun. Since you are more familiar with your response than he is, do what you can to increase your pleasure. Patience is not something that can be measured or corrected with a stop watch: By making orgasm the goal of your lovemaking, you may have changed the event into an endurance contest with no winners. Love for the moment, not the finish. Sex is a mystery, but when it works, it reminds us of what Raymond Chandler said: The ideal mystery is one you would read if the end was missing.

Thirty years on, in March 2006, Playboy was still at it, offering this response to a writer who defended (on grounds of “intimacy or commitment issues”) another man’s reluctance to label his partner a girlfriend:

You may be correct about his issues, but he should work them out on his own time rather than wasting hers. Labels may be confining, but after three months “girlfriend” threatens no man.

Now, he’s writing about the content rather than the pictures. But the fantasy, Zobenica argued, was in part about what you got to do with that pretty girl, and it didn’t involve driving her like a car. “When, at nineteen, and living in my very first apartment, I cleared out half my medicine cabinet and half my closet, and gave them over to the California blonde who’d just moved in with me, it felt as true to the life I’d seen and imagined as my red Camaro and my Brutini Le Sport shoes. This was no capitulation; this was part and parcel of the dream,” he wrote. “This was, it seemed to me, exactly what Playboy had espoused: finding a nifty chick and sharing the good life with her.”


We can debate the relative merits of cheesecake, and whether it actually counts as some sort of feminist appreciation for female forms. But I’m not going to assign Blimes credit for featuring women in their forties, or women of different races in his pictorials — and yes, that’s something he actually asked for. Claiming you’re able to make a broad range of women into fetish objects is decidedly less ambitious than aiming to make your readers see the full potential of a woman, and of themselves in a relationship with her.