When describing their just-released 60th anniversary issue, editors at Playboy talk about celebrating “60 years of beautiful women, discerning taste, sexual emancipation, groundbreaking fiction, and world-changing journalism.” To that end, they put supermodel Kate Moss on the cover and dressed her up in traditional playmate garb: bunny ears and tail and the French cuffs of a cater-waiter. Inside, she’s on all fours.
Exactly whose sexual emancipation are we talking about here?
Feminists have long rallied against Playboy as the ultimate manifestation of female objectification, and indeed, editorial director Jimmy Jellinek has said of even Playboy’s recent years, “The magazine used to have this aesthetic of unattainable perfection” that prompted “unhealthy competition” among women. But all that was changing, he said, as the magazine sought to make efforts to attract a greater number of female readers with a “more healthy, naturalistic look.” CEO Scott Flanders has echoed this sentiment, saying: “We’ve got to be female-friendly.”
By the looks of things, it seems not much has changed over recent years, or the past 60 — unless bunny ears, a bunny tail and a submissive pose count as healthy and naturalistic or symbols of progress. Sure, the anniversary issue contains a panel of feminists speaking about the “best and worst of sexual liberation in modern America,” featuring participants who are at the top of their field: Erica Jong, Jane Pratt, Dr. Ruth — something one might never have seen in Hugh Hefner’s 1950s–era Playboy. And yet, of the nearly 20 names listed on the new cover advertising the notables featured inside, just two women make the cut.
And then there’s the cover photo. The same people who argue that porn empowers women might argue that Playboy simply celebrates the unique physical beauty of woman — and that Moss is but the latest playmate to assert her power over Playboy’s legions of male reader-slaves. But depicting “a global icon and the most important supermodel of the last 25 years,” in Jellinek’s own words, as a man’s fantasy at the ready — lips parted, bunny tail raised — isn’t empowering, or at all acknowledging of the progress women, and men, have made in the past half a century. It’s belittling, and dismissive, and plainly outdated. It is no longer every man’s fantasy to dominate a woman dressed as a furry woodland creature. It is no longer every woman’s fantasy to oblige.
It’s arguable that the Playboy of old, before all that sexual emancipation and, you know, women’s lib, was more refined and respectful. And at least back then, there was innovation. Celebrity nudity simply isn’t shocking anymore and, in most months, Playboy isn’t even uniquely offensive. Even the most “literary” of men’s magazines, including Esquire and GQ, routinely persuade actresses to strip down to their underwear and tell jokes for the purpose of entertaining men. Show me a women’s magazine that does the same — or, for that matter, a male celebrity who would go along with it under the guise of “empowerment.”