Pondering Playboy: Berfrois Interviews Carrie Pitzulo
by Russell Bennetts
Carrie Pitzulo is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of West Georgia. Her current book, Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy provides a social history of the magazine.
How radical was Playboy for postwar America?
I’m not sure I would use the word “radical.” I would say that in the 1950s, Playboy was subversive in various ways: It celebrated free sexuality amongst single, “nice” girls, which was contrary to so much of postwar popular culture. Mainstream culture in those years acknowledged women’s sexuality, but insisted that marriage was its only appropriate outlet. But Playboy, whatever the motivation, selfish or otherwise, sent a message that good girls like sex, too. The magazine even subtly championed tolerance for homosexuality in the mid-1950s.
In the 1960s, Playboy became explicitly political and maintained a liberal stance on the various issues of that decade; civil rights, Vietnam, women’s rights (including abortion and access to contraception) as well as speaking out strongly in favor of gay rights, which at that point in time was a potentially radical stance.
However, what keeps me away from that word in a broader sense, concerning the whole of the magazine, was its intense consumer emphasis. That was right in the mainstream of American culture in the prosperous postwar years. Even as the culture moved toward the left in the 1960s, and critiques of capitalism grew more prominent than they had been in decades, Playboy defended consumption. It’s only tweak of consumer ideology was to say, in the face of criticism, that Americans should consume wisely (with consideration for the environment, etc.), but Playboy continued to promote consumer capitalism as a worthy goal.
Also, Hugh Hefner never actually wanted to be radical. He wanted to create a sophisticated, sexy magazine for middle-class men. His goal was to create a lifestyle guide, and to make it one in which straight men’s interests in beautiful women could co-exist with their other, non-sexual interests. The only way to create that “classy” men’s magazine, as many people have called it, was to avoid radicalism.
Could this combination of promiscuity and consumerism then be seen as a response to that era’s “crisis” of masculinity? The highly-sexed American cold warrior versus the Soviet man of little purchasing power.
Absolutely, although for mainstream culture the idealized cold warrior wouldn’t have been termed “highly sexed”. He would have been conceived as virile and heterosexual, but been pressured to channel that sexuality into marriage.
This is where my history of Playboy begins, with the supposed crisis of masculinity in the 1950s. America was rapidly changing; less men working in heavy industry, manufacturing or agriculture and more working at desk jobs. Women were increasingly leaving the home and exercising power, particularly economic, in the public sphere. And while men seemed to lose a hold on traditional power at home, the Cold War created a cultural need for a strong, virile American masculinity.
These competing pressures led to what many historians, as well as people at the time, termed a crisis of masculinity: What does it mean to be a man in this changing world? Playboy answered this question by telling American men that they need not live up to the pressures of the day, which were to get married, become a father, and work to provide for your family. Playboy said that men could stay single, as there was nothing wrong with self-centered bachelorhood. This is where the term “highly sexed” would have entered into the conversation. But the magazine shielded its ideal man from the tensions of the early Cold War. The inaugural issue told its readers that its goal was to get men to lighten up and have fun, to forget about the stresses of the day; both domestically, in terms of the pressures of marriage and family, and globally, in terms of the existential threat of the nuclear age.
Quite literally, in its early years Playboy responded to the era’s masculine crisis by disparaging marriage and womanhood, by saying that men were victims of a marriage-obsessed culture and of castrating women who were taking over the country. But that attitude was pervasive in America in the 1950s, not at all unique to Playboy, and the magazine generally abandoned that hostility in the 1960s.
Playboy covers, clockwise from top left: September 1959, April 1959, October 1971, May 1958
What was responsible for this shift in the magazine’s attitudes? The hiring of Auguste Comte Spectorsky? Or did Hefner have a change of heart himself?
The hiring of Spectorsky in the late 1950s was significant. He was from the New York literary scene and insisted on raising the level of sophistication in the magazine. After that, Playboy really began to take itself more seriously. By the start of the 1960s, the magazine had reached a million subscribers per month and was blossoming into a cultural empire: Book publishing, consumer items, resorts, clubs and the like. America itself was becoming politicized with the civil rights movement and very soon the various student movements. The Playboy editors and staff were generally liberal or even radical, in terms of their individual politics. All of this converged to make Playboy a leading liberal publication in the ’60s.
Hefner, while engaged at every level of production of Playboy, wasn’t significantly politicized – or so the story goes – until he got whacked in the rear-end by the cops during the Chicago convention riots in 1968. But realistically, even before that, Hefner was editorializing in a very political manner. He wrote a series of rambling editorials (over two years’ worth) in the early 1960s, known as The Playboy Philosophy. In the Philosophy, Hefner discussed all manner of issues he considered relevant to contemporary society, such as topics of sexuality, censorship, and the Cold War.
Hugh Hefner at his mansion, 1959, Burt Glinn
Indeed, that literary/journalistic reputation increased in the 1960s, especially when they began the celebrated interviews. But the attempts, literary and otherwise, to make the magazine “classy” were there from the start. This was how Hefner hoped to make commercial sexuality classy. He felt that (straight) men’s interests need not be separate; that men are interested in various things, including beautiful women. But Hefner thought that conservative American culture denigrated sexuality and an interest in it; that men were forced to indulge those interests in separate places, and hide their interest in sex. He wanted to bring all those things – sex, jazz, fine dining, and so on, together in one respectable place. So good literature and beautiful naked women were put side-by-side.
In the book you explain how, over some time, Betty Friedan developed almost a truce with Playboy. But do you still anticipate some feminists taking issue with you aligning the magazine as an ally for their cause?
Yes. Most people have been open to considering my argument, particularly when they acknowledge the vast evidence I’ve presented. A few people have been quite offended even by the premise, though. I’ve always identified with feminism, so I certainly understand some people’s difficulty with accepting my argument. I’m not saying that Hugh Hefner should be considered some kind of feminist icon. Rather, I’m saying that we already know the anti-feminist elements of the magazine. That story has already been told.
What I discovered in my research (to my great surprise) was that Playboy had a lot of pro-woman, even feminist messages in its pages than anyone has given it credit for. That part of the story hasn’t been told. I’m just arguing that if we want to understand Playboy as a historical phenomenon, we have to broaden our analysis of it to include both sides of the story.
This is not an expose about Hefner’s personal life, which many of my own critics have cited as anti-feminist, because his day to day life is not what affected millions of Americans’ minds every month; his magazine did. And that magazine was much more complicated than traditional assumptions have acknowledged.
Do you think his magazine continues to affect millions of minds every month? I.e. Does it remain relevant?
Playboy continues to have millions of readers each month, although nothing like its circulation rates at its peak in the early 1970s (down to about 2 million from 7 million). As far as its cultural relevance goes, I think it is primarily relevant as a brand and consumer experience, and that is primarily for young women. The E! television network’s hit show, “The Girls Next Door” is popular with many young women, and that has been a boon for the company. I recently asked some of my female undergrads what Playboy means to them. They said that their association is – because of that show – of girls going to parties, meeting celebrities and having lots of fun. And they wear pink all the time, and have fluffy pink bedrooms. Most of them did not admit to ever having seen the magazine, and the fact that the girls on the show apparently sleep with the octogenarian Hugh Hefner was irrelevant to them. I think he is not at all threatening to them (because he is so old), so that part doesn’t really matter. It’s the image of partying and fun. Although one girl eventually added something to the effect of, “We want to please boys, and apparently that is what boys like.”
Otherwise, the branding is a huge money-maker around the world, and the Playboy Clubs are re-opening after 25 years, most recently in London. I think at least part of that is the retro, throw-back appeal. Even the website for the London Club uses on its homepage a pic of Hefner and Bunny waitresses – from the 1960s! It remains relevant to our own time by reminding us of the past. As a historian, I find that strange and fascinating.
How did/does the magazine cope with the popularity of free, easy access internet porn?
It has had a hard time keeping up. The company, under Christie’s leadership, had ventured into soft-core video porn for straight couples in the 1980s. Playboy was one of the first major magazines to go online in the 1990s. Again under Christie’s leadership, the magazine tried to appeal to more women by including more profiles (even nude) of celebrity women. So these things, plus branding, were the ways Playboy tried to remain solvent and relevant in light of the shrinking market of the past 15 years or so. But Christie and her father finally gave in in the early 2000s and went into hardcore video porn. That was a line that Hefner resisted for a very long time.
What do you see as the future for Playboy?
Good question. Somehow, the Playboy mystique has had its ups and downs, but continues to be re-invented. When I interviewed Hefner in 2006 he expressed great satisfaction in the way Playboy has become relevant to young women. Carrie Bradshaw of “Sex & The City” wore a rabbit-logo charm for a season! Otherwise, at least for the time being, that retro quality seems to be its new path in terms of consumer/cultural experience, and that is directly attributable to “Mad Men”. It looks like the Clubs will continue to re-open for this reason, as well as for the fact that though younger people don’t know much about the old empire, they seem to associate Playboy with some kind of fun, sexy lifestyle, particularly associated with celebrity culture. The real question is what will happen to the whole thing when Hefner isn’t around anymore. My understanding is that he has strict parameters already laid out for that inevitability, and he has good longevity genes, so he’ll likely be around for a while more.
Janet Pilgrim as “Miss July, Playboy, July 1955. The caption in part read: “We found Miss July in our own circulation department, processing subscriptions, renewals, and back copy orders. Her name is Janet Pilgrim and she’s as efficient as she is good looking.”
Who is the preeminent Playmate?
My first thought would be Marilyn Monroe – the inaugural Playmate, although in those early days she was called the Sweetheart of the Month. Although, Marilyn Monroe never actually had anything to do with Playboy: Hefner bought from a photo company the rights to photographs Monroe had taken several years before her fame. He used them as his first centerfold and the magazine was a hit. After that, the first year or so of centerfolds were other images that came along in a package of rights with the Monroe photo. They were all standard “cheesecake” photos; no props, no setting, on a bearskin rug or something. Those were the first Playmates.
But there was a significant change with Janet Pilgrim, so she’s got to be the ultimate Playmate. She was plucked from Playboy’s own ranks in 1955 and was so popular she appeared as Playmate three times. She really represented the iconic Playboy formula – her first centerfold showed her in a recognizable setting (a bedroom), with the silhouette of a man in the background (Hefner). It was supposed to suggest that she was an average, accessible, real woman. That set the standard for all other Playmate centerfolds until today.
About the Author
Russell Bennetts founded Berfrois in 2009.