Losing Bunny: The (Surprising) Identity Politics of Playboy

The demise of naked-ladies-in-the-magazine is not (really) about the availability of porn. It's about the mutability of masculinity.

Siu Chiu / Reuters
This summer, Buzzfeed announced its discovery of a new species of man: the “nouveau bro.” This new form of human dude is supposedly “more sophisticated than bros of the past,” its ranks including “some of the most desirable men in popular culture,” among them Calvin Harris, Ryan Gosling, and Michael B. Jordan.
Qualifications for/symptoms of Nouveau Bro-ness, according to Buzzfeed’s bullet-pointed anthropology, include:

Drinking Diet Coke
Being proud of being into rosé
Shopping at Uniqlo
Shopping at J. Crew
Wearing jeans that fit
Wearing colorful socks
Wearing Warby Parkers
Asking you if you watch Game of Thrones
Being surprised that you don’t watch Game of Thrones

Buzzfeed’s list plays out in the manner that all such lists will: Its qualifications are exclusive enough to be legitimately formulated as a list, but inclusive enough to allow for maximum anxiety among their readers. (Wait, am I a Nouveau Bro? What does it mean to be a Nouveau Bro?) The list is remarkable, however, in its general focus on the buyability of bro-iness. “Bro” here isn’t quite a commodity, but it’s something that is presented—in the manner of the “basic bitch”—as a largely commercial proposition. Whatever your age, whatever your location, whatever your race—whatever, indeed, your sex—you, too, can buy some select stuff on jcrew.com and thus, yourself, become a Nouveau Bro.
Which is also to say that the list is offering a version of masculinity—albeit a version that leans toward wealthy, often white masculinity—that is largely divorced from inconvenient facts of biology and culture. One’s identity, instead, is there for the purchase. The Nouveau Bro, it seems, is also the Buyable Bro.
I mention all this because of Playboy. News broke on Monday that the iconic naked-lady-and-also-news-and-literature mag will now, in the U.S., be simply a news-and-literature mag: Playboy Enterprises will cease to include images of fully nude women in its pages. Cue the “I read it for the articles” joke.
It’s undeniable that Playboy, in its capacity as a magazine that turned pornography into iconography, was largely disgusting and non-feminist and in fact anti-feminist in ways that are so obvious today that they hardly seem worth pointing out. (For an eloquent summary, though, I’d point you to the story that resulted when Gloria Steinem went undercover as a Bunny at New York’s Playboy Club to document how terribly the company treated its tail-and-ear-wearing women.) And yet. Today—in a world of Snapchat and YouPorn, a world in which images and videos that are often degrading and sometimes violent toward women are available to pretty much anyone with access to Google—Playboy seems, at this point, to evoke a softer, gentler attitude toward female nudity. Many of the write-ups of the news about Playboy’s decision have gone out of their way to call the magazine, as it exists in 2015, “quaint.” They are not wrong.
But with all that acknowledged, Playboy also emphasizes, in its way, the same thing Buzzfeed’s “Nouveau Bro” list does: the broad notion that sexuality (male heterosexuality, in this case) is a commercial—and thus choosable and buyable—aspect of one’s identity. Masculinity as sold in Playboy’s pages isn’t presented as a biological reality, immutable and therefore inevitable, but rather as a kind of lifestyle choice. Like the wearing of Warby Parkers, like the watching of Game of Thrones, the magazine has been something you buy in order to gain access to a very particular identity. Masculinity in Playboy’s conception isn’t about maleness so much as it’s about manliness. Which is also—per Playboy’s catchphrase—about gentlemanliness.
There are, again, many, many problems with that proposition: the heteronormativity, the blanket endorsement of male aggression and female acquiescence, the blithe assumption of privilege, the slippery slope of commercialized sexuality and of sexuality that involves “choice,” the general objectification of women, etc., etc. Hugh Hefner, a man who put fluffy tails on the rumps of females and generally treated those females as inconveniently human sex dolls, should by no means be celebrated. Nor, on the whole, should his magazine or any of the other brand extensions that function as fiefdoms in his worldwide empire. When Carrie Bradshaw sported a Playboy bunny necklace in the second season of Sex and the City, it was unfortunate both as a fashion statement and a political one.
And, again, yet. Playboy is, in addition to being retrograde, also surprisingly ahead of its time. The magazine—in its implied promise that sexuality, and masculinity, are things that can be bought and sold—understood many of the anxieties that inform the world of 2015. Anxieties about race and class and sex and gender that have stewed and mixed and finally culminated in what Wesley Morris has called “the year we obsessed over identity.”
Just as that obsession has led us, and forced us, to negotiate a new and more permissive understanding of identity itself, Playboy did something similar with sex. First, it treated pornography—its “quaint” version of it—as something that should not be shadowy and shame-filled, but rather something that should be celebrated. It took American puritanism and gave it bunny ears. It also, however, served as a kind of ongoing rite of passage—to adulthood, to women, to the notion that sex was both basely human and culturally transcendent. In asserting its own particular, and ridiculous, and self-consciously narrow, interpretation of male sexuality—bunny hops and bowties and perfectly shaken martinis—Playboy also suggested a relatively progressive idea: that gender and sexuality, left to their own devices, can exist on a continuum. That sexuality and its manifestations can form their own kind of marketplace. That there are, indeed, multiple ways to be a bro.
In The Atlantic a few years ago, Natasha Vargas-Cooper discussed the rise of online pornography and argued that porn exists the way it does because male sexuality is guided, on a kind of primal level, by violence. There is something both intransigent and dangerous, she argued, about the male drive when it is unfettered and left to its own devices, uncurbed by the softening forces of social constraint. And what is the Internet, she suggested, if not a kind of morally libertarian free-for-all?
Vargas-Cooper wrote with the kind of sad resignation that is the only logical tone for an argument that the male sex drive is both immutable and, for women, kind of terrible: We are animals, she suggested, and differing attitudes toward sex are a simple matter of biology that neither men nor women can escape.
Playboy contradicted that idea. It framed male sexuality not in the manner Vargas-Cooper did (which is also, really, the manner that so much of human culture has done)—as something animalistic and base and violent. Instead, the magazine treated sexuality itself—the identity aspect of sex—as something that, like food and cars and clothes and other commercial goods, can be bought. And also opted into and opted out of.
Which is another way of saying that Playboy was, in its way, an early adopter of the Buzzfeed listicle. It understood that what it was selling was not actually sex, but a sense of self. It took pornography—one of the longest-standing human art forms—out of the realm of the animalistic and into the realm of the aspirational. Andrew Derkrikorian, a 27-year-old former Playboy reader, told U.S. News and World Report that, as a teenager, he read Playboy—despite the ubiquity of naked women on pretty every other media platform—because, “besides just the nudity, there was a purpose behind every image.” And because, “compared to the girls in the photos today, that was art.”
It’s an idea that has carried on, in a much more banal if slightly less porny way, in the new breed of “gentlemen’s magazines.” They, too, sell both a promise of identity and a premise of subtle anxiety (the death of the patriarchy, the death of adulthood, the death of charm, the end of men). They, too, assure their readers that sex, like clothes and cars, is on top of everything else a commercial proposition. This week, Esquire (catchphrase: “Man at His Best”) announced the winner of its annual Sexiest Woman Alive contest. The lucky lady was, this time around, Game of Thrones’s Emilia Clarke. To celebrate her win, the magazine put her on its cover, her artfully airbrushed image surrounded by the words FOOD, SEX, and CARS. (There are, the magazine helpfully explains in tiny text, revolutions going on in each of those three things.) She poses, belly down and naked save for a rump-covering sheet, on a mattress. She looks directly at the camera. She looks both close and distant, both accessible and very much not. She looks very much like a Playboy Bunny.