Are We Not Men?

Down the ladder from Playboy to Maxim

Jae Hong / AP

In a 1963 account of his visit to the Chicago Playboy mansion, Nelson Algren wrote, “However paradoxical it may appear, the young male who assumes early that physical relationships with women are part of life is more likely to develop respect toward women than is the young male who abstains from such relationships.” He meant it as no compliment to his host, adding that Playboy “does not sell sex. It sells a way out of sex.” I take his point now, but I hadn’t heard of, much less read, Nelson Algren when I was a young male, and it was precisely my dad’s Playboy magazines that helped me early on do a lot of assuming about my physical relationships with women.

Algren deserves credit for being perhaps the first person to walk right into the woo grotto and—figuratively, at least—yank down Hef’s pajama bottoms. His criticisms were the more damning for coming from just the sort of worldly tomcat Playboy sought to publish (and did), and the more bold for coming at a time when Hugh Hefner was a much tougher figure to take lightly than he is now. With the golden anniversary, in 2003, of Playboy’s founding, and with Hefner having just turned eighty (surrounded by a platoon of bottle-blonde girlfriends whose combined age, depending on troop strength, may or may not exceed his own), a lot of ink has recently been spilled on the man, the magazine, and the myth. Not much of it very flattering. Everyone from The Washington Post to The Weekly Standard has gotten in punches or, at best, backhanded praise. There’s been the predictable fun (Slate’s David Plotz hilariously referred to Hefner as “the human bellbottom,” a walking bit of retro kitsch for the nouveau swinger set), and also the obvious criticism that the Playboy lifestyle was a marketing sham, and the even more obvious observation that the magazine’s centerfolds have hardly represented la femme moyenne. In a New Yorker review of The Playmate Book: Six Decades of Centerfolds, Joan Acocella wrote that “there is one basic model. On top is the face of Shirley Temple; below is the body of Jayne Mansfield.” Which is a wonderful line, and also as cute and exaggerated as Acocella claims the women in question are. It’s the sort of remark that’s only true enough to satisfy those who need no convincing, proving that The New Yorker, too, knows how to meet reader expectation with a shrewd blend of verity and pretense.

But was there ever a time—at least in a long time—when we didn’t already know all this about Playboy? Even at thirteen I was aware that I was in the presence of the purest fantasy. (Having locked myself in a bathroom, I could hardly pretend otherwise.) Then again, I also fantasized about becoming a wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings, understanding full well that that was never going to happen, but that there would soon enough come a time when I’d have relationships with women, and that until that day, I could do worse than read Playboy. And yes, even then I read the magazine—a little. Specifically, the Playboy Advisor. I admit I was lured in only by the dirty talk, and skipped all the letters on stereophonics and the proper care and storage of leather loafers. But over time these exchanges left me with the distinct impression that love—or even just good sex—was often quite complicated, requiring of its participants an almost unnerving degree of trust and vulnerability, patience and negotiation, all of which could lead to unimaginable thrills or horrible disappointment. Or anything in between. It was here, in the Advisor, where Playboy willfully undercut the silken ease and bachelor suavity it projected elsewhere in the magazine. It was here where bodily matters went unairbrushed, where seduction proved beyond one’s skillful way with imported vodka, where men would not infrequently be scolded for treating their girlfriends or wives shabbily. (The cynical reading of this phenomenon has been that Playboy very astutely sows the seeds of male anxiety, the better to sell itself and its glossier fare as a necessary diversion—if not the solution. Which is true only to the extent that every magazine, from Martha Stewart Living to The New York Review of Books to the one you’re holding now, survives by suggesting that you need what it offers. Again, it’s true enough to convince those who need no convincing.)

From the archives:

"The Return of the Pig" (March 2001)
The revival of blatant sexism in American culture has many progressive thinkers flummoxed. By David Brooks

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.

(This last exchange can be found in Dear Playboy Advisor, a recent collection of zesty give-and-take from the column’s past ten years.)

Yes, however paradoxical it may appear, I developed a respect toward women in part by reading Playboy as a young male. What’s more, I developed an interest in women that went beyond the sum of their anatomical parts, and did so at first out of sheer boyish faith in that supposedly bogus Playboy lifestyle. During my countless sequestrations with the magazine, I took in not only the powdered limbs and bedroom eyes but also the general atmosphere of adult men engaging with adult women. There they’d be, nicely—if, in hindsight, absurdly—dressed men and women, together at a housewarming or a holiday party or a favored night spot. (Picture, on the guys, Dingo boots, LeRoy Neiman–hued vest suits, and a glimpse of woolly chest hair that hinted at unabashed back shrubbery. And on the women, strategic cuts of every unnatural fiber known to man, all of it somehow unnaturally fetching.) Or maybe a lone couple would be smoking Viceroys and picking out some unfinished furniture, or tickling the ivories during a relaxing evening for two. Or groups of couples would be skiing or having a clambake. (In a scene of homely domesticity, there’s even an October 1970 pictorial featuring the hirsute Elliott Gould—wearing nothing but a big black watchband—laughing, nuzzling, and smoking with Paula Prentiss in a dingy bubble bath, while an equally hairy Saint Bernard looks on.) Call me naive, even romantic, but I was quite moved by the notion that someday I would—or should—enjoy trading tales of whimsy around the fondue pot with female acquaintances as much as I was currently enjoying riding my bike and grab-assing with my buddies.

The typical Playboy guy—arm candy, sports car, Canadian Club, pinkie ring—may or may not have been an exponent of marriage (I knew some who were), and certainly his getup wasn’t complete without a cool splash of patriarchalism, but it’s just as certain that girlfriend didn’t threaten him. So 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. She and I would get dressed up (in ensembles no less silly in hindsight) and go to classy restaurants. Or we’d cook in and watch a movie, and drink wine and grown-up cocktails. We went to clubs on Sunset, hit the slopes in northern Arizona, caught a striptease act in the French Quarter with another couple, and spent a night among friends hot-tubbing and sipping daiquiris in the Santa Cruz Mountains after a day of crabbing near Half Moon Bay. This was, it seemed to me, exactly what Playboy had espoused: finding a nifty chick and sharing the good life with her. Not that it was all good, of course (the Advisor had prepared me for that, too). We had our fights, fretted about school and work, nursed each other with less and less sympathy through various hangovers, moved into separate places, lived together again, got furious, got bored, and after five-plus years and a long, cold decline, gave it up. At the age of twenty-five, I felt like I’d been divorced but never married.

All in all, not a bad start.

Looking back, I realize it’s not only the clothes that make me laugh. The restaurants we went to were “classy” at best. And none of us particularly enjoyed those New Orleans strippers (one looked like a rheumy sharecropper’s daughter). But there was, in all of it, a deliberate effort at contemporary maturity, an effort that was encouraged by Playboy magazine. Maturity was the key to that great Playboy Club of life—your all-access pass to the jumping realm of adult pleasures and preoccupations. We may have come of age clumsily, but no one doubted that it was the thing to do.

Where did those days go?

Several new men’s magazines—led by the laddie triumvirate of Maxim, Stuff, and FHM—have been eating into Playboy’s readership for a decade now, and what they primarily encourage is a lot of boyish grab-assing. (A recent headline from FHM: “Stooge Luge! Now people can ride something dumber than your sis.” And one from Maxim: “Man Punks Nature: Yes, Mother Earth, we are the boss of you.” Stuff, for its part, has offered such puntastic fare as the Yo, Bitchuary! and the Bro-file.) Incidentally, all three magazines are also great advocates of the sort of lite lesbianism that the aforementioned Playboy Advisor discouraged. Even still, they do bear a faint resemblance to Playboy. There’s hardly a trace of the old journalism, and no fiction, but there are the numerous girlie pictorials, in this case teasingly non-nude; the gadgetry and the spiffy autos; the obligatory fashion spreads. However, where the sexes are concerned in lad land, it’s almost completely separate but equal, which is to say equally puerile. These mags are full of bravado (not limited to the guys) about hooking up, but otherwise, basically, the twain never meet: you might score with the opposite sex, but you hang out with your own—which perfectly captures a sensibility people my age (fortyish) tended to ditch before they left their teens, and which indicates that the average lad finds girlfriend scary.

What made Playboy novel in the beginning wasn’t only the newsstand nudity; it was that a men’s magazine would bring the proceedings indoors, in urban (and urbane) settings, and include women in the action as well, as critical players in the social (which is not just to say “sexual”) mix. Many have had an easy laugh at Hefner’s claim that he and his ilk liked “inviting in a female for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.” One can imagine that after “Nietzsche who?” and “Never mind,” a lot of jazzy sex ensued, and that the Continental touches were a mere “Let me show you my etchings” come-on. But Hefner wasn’t the only American editor partying hearty to the Euro beat. Read Gay Talese’s 1960 essay “Looking for Hemingway,” on George Plimpton and the Paris Review crowd. This sort of multicultural dilettantism was like catnip in those early days of the UN—and, of course, still is in some circles.

When Playboy was establishing itself, most men’s magazines, as revealed in The History of Men’s Magazines, Vol. 2, were still heavy with adventure (war, gunfights, outlawry, cannibalism, man-versus-beast encounters, lots of Nazis). Women, if present, tended to be either damsels in distress (rescue fantasies loom large) or vamps—or else they were mere cheesecake intermissions, like Helen Petroff in the July 1956 Man’s Life, situated as she and her bikini and her stuffed tiger are between “Attacked by a Giant Boa” and “25 Best Fishing Spots.” This class of magazine advertised everything from rifles, knives, fishing tackle, trusses, accordions, and high-paying jobs in meat cutting to Charles Atlas body-building regimens and careers in accounting and real-estate brokering (the March 1958 See even has an article on how to ask for a raise), all of which suggests a readership that ranged from Sam the butcher to Walter Mitty.

Playboy, exhibiting little interest in “Jim Bowie’s Big Knife” (Argosy, August 1956), instead gathered the ladies and set a tone of cheerfully mixed company and sleek cosmopolitanism. The April 1962 issue, for example, has a classic photo essay showing handsome couples out and about in Paris, part of which is reproduced in The Playboy Book: Fifty Years, a gorgeous sampling of illustrations, covers, candids, travel photos, and concept photography as well as the requisite figure studies. It’s an intoxicating collection—provoking no small amount of loopy nostalgia. But that’s all part of its charm. There may be poignancy in Hefner’s bourgeois midwestern dream of the luxe life; witness the stilted grooviness of the old Playboy’s Penthouse TV show, now available on DVD under the blanket title Playboy After Dark, in which Hef, a polite young man turned psychology major, does his best impression of a tuxedoed hipster-host. But is this any more quaintly touching than Plimpton and company’s Ivy-abroad, shabby-chic attempt to relive the Lost Generation? At least Hefner, against all odds (many, many odds), seems to be held in high regard by just about every woman who ever knew him, including ex-wives and ex-girlfriends and all manner of coworker. The Playmate Book has an air of lighthearted reunion, only so much of which can be manufactured. Many of the former centerfolds have submitted biographical updates and family photos, and over the years have returned to the mansion on occasion to see old acquaintances and even pose for reunion pictorials—sometimes decades after their initial appearance, and looking better than ever. (This bonhomie is borne out in testimonial after testimonial in the documentary Hugh Hefner: American Playboy. Yes, it’s an obvious brief for the defense. But still, no one’s forcing first wife, Mildred, or ex-girlfriend Barbi Benton to recall fondly the man who cheated on them prodigiously.) Compare all that with what Patsy Matthiessen, the ex-wife of one of the Paris Review founders, said to Talese about that milieu:

The whole life seemed after a while to be utterly meaningless … And there was something very manqué about them—this going to West Africa, and getting thrown in jail, and getting in the ring with Archie Moore … And I was a Stepin Fetchit in that crowd, getting them tea at four, and sandwiches at ten.

One might argue that the average Playboy belle isn’t sophisticated enough to register such pique, but that would seem only to make Matthiessen’s treatment the worse.

Who would ever have thought that where rude male self-indulgence is concerned, Hefner could be outdone by a bunch of patricians? Apparently so as not to suffer the same emasculating fate in their day, the laddies at Maxim, Stuff, and FHM take every opportunity to nudge readers, with eyebrows dancing, and ask (actually shout), “Aren’t we just so naughty?!” Which can only be answered, “Not really.” To open these magazines is to walk into a teenage boy’s room: the air scented with dirty socks and the contents of wadded-up Kleenex; the walls decorated with pictures of swimsuit models and he-man athletes and sports cars; the desk barely visible under piles of video-game cartridges, action figures, and forgotten junk food; and all of it colored by the boy’s glee in knowing it exasperates Mom. In fact, that phantom mom (or equivalent mother figure) is just about the only palpable female presence in these magazines.

Sure, there’s the cheesecake, all of it daintily low-cal. And it’s intriguing, if unconvincing, to learn that many of these lasses are part-time sapphists (which is meant, I suppose, to suggest a sort of compound interest). It’s equally intriguing—again—to discover that the theme of juvenile swinishness that pervades these magazines is celebrated without regard to gender. In the September 2006 FHM, a toothsome female wrestler informs readers of her signature move: “The Stink Face,” which involves her rubbing her butt in the face of a cornered opponent. In the February 2006 Maxim, in the Free Upgrades feature (“Dump Your Girlfriend for Me!”), one of the selling points of said upgrade is that “She’s Raunchy!” “It’s totally cool to burp,” says our next girlfriend.

Assuming this is what fires the loins of today’s young men, it’s worth mentioning as an aside that whereas Playboy suggested affecting Euro-sophistication as a way of landing women, these guys share somewhat the taste of a famous mid-century Euro-sophisticate whose truest sexual fancy was a crass American tween. In the words of Humbert Humbert himself:

On especially tropical afternoons, in the sticky closeness of the siesta, I liked the cool feel of armchair leather against my massive nakedness as I held her in my lap. There she would be, a typical kid picking her nose while engrossed in the lighter sections of a newspaper, as indifferent to my ecstasy as if it were something she had sat upon, a shoe, a doll, the handle of a tennis racket, and was too indolent to remove.

Elsewhere Humbert cursed his powerlessness against Lolita’s mixture of “charm and vulgarity” and her “diffused clowning which she thought was tough in a boyish hoodlum way.”

It’s just such boyishness in the females of lad land that’s most striking (or, rather, it’s that the lads seem to desire it so much). Aside from the C-list starlets, who come off like well-bred dames in this context, the majority of laddie girls profess exactly the interests of the lads themselves: roughhousing, football, beer chugging, NASCAR, girl-on-girl, muscle cars and motorcycles, pro wrestling, video games, burping, and being as dumb as humanly possible. In short, these women are but lads with tits, making all the leering that presumably goes on among readers of these mags curiously akin to looking across the table at your poker buddy, imagining him as a woman, and wanting to get nice.

If this represents a barreling return from the fringes of feminization, I think it’s safe to say we missed our exit a few miles back. It’s one thing not to want to attend coed baby showers (or even penthouse parties in formal wear, with all that snooty conversation); it’s another to frolic in a musky frat pad of our own making, where men are men and girls are boys. No wonder feminists haven’t bothered much with challenging this new chauvinism. What woman really cares that an awful lot of guys seem to love being segregated yahoos? (Maybe just the one looking for a decent date.)

Take Richard Roeper (the C-list Siskel), who urges FHM readers to “Stay Single!” His sermonette to the boys’ choir, which captures perfectly the laddies’ acute fear of girlfriend, was about the closest thing to the Playboy Advisor I could find in the lad mags—not counting columns in which Ted Lange (Isaac from The Love Boat) and Heidi Fleiss (the Hollywood Madam) answer delicate questions as only they can. And for comparison’s sake with the Advisor, here’s Roeper’s tongue-flaccidly-in-cheek list of the advantages of single life:

Never having to pay alimony.

Pizza for breakfast. And nobody to give you a hard time about it.

You know those baseball hats, video games and autographed sports stuff guys store in the garage when they get married? I have it all on display in my guest bedroom. If I was married, that room would be a nursery.

You don’t have to pretend to be interested in Desperate Housewives.

Vegas. Guilt-free.

Softball on Mondays, poker on Thursdays, boys’ night on Fridays, football all weekend. And never having to check with anyone to see if that’s OK.

Women. Plural.

What sort of man reads FHM? Apparently the sort who fetishizes his own headgear and hasn’t charm or confidence enough to negotiate the tricky ritual of breakfast for two; the sort who gets a licentious thrill from not having to ask permission to stare at his TV all weekend. In short, a weird little nebbish.

As in so many circumstances, we do right to consult a man who was, by some accounts, himself a weird little nebbish with women: George Orwell. Sixty-five years ago, in “The Art of Donald McGill,” Orwell turned his eye to a genre of postcard that specialized in vulgar humor, from marital to sexual to scatological. “They have an utter lowness of mental atmosphere,” Orwell wrote. “But,” he added, “at the same time the McGill post card … is not intended as pornography but, a subtler thing, as a skit on pornography.” Which nicely captures laddie fare, and the childlike tone of the mags in general. But rather than see malignancy in McGill’s work, Orwell felt that it was nothing but “a harmless rebellion against virtue,” and that such relatively timid rebellion in itself pointed up the sturdiness of the virtues being mocked. The postcards, with their ceaseless portrayals of browbeaten husbands, clapped-out wives, and despotic mothers-in-law, inadvertently demonstrated, according to Orwell, “a stable society in which marriage is indissoluble and family loyalty taken for granted.” In other words (and coming at it from a different direction), since men and women had by and large submitted, and committed, to the hard work of relationships, they’d earned the right to do a little bitching and belittling—and McGill’s postcards gave a safe outlet to these collective moods.

Of course, marriage these days is as soluble as cotton candy, and family loyalty has less opportunity to prove itself (or not) when so many people shy from starting families in the first place. But the lads aren’t really flouting that old convention. That was more Playboy’s beat, decades back. The laddie burlesque of male chauvinism is almost purely a reaction to feminism’s ascendancy, which people of both sexes have long taken for granted. And feminists are quite right to feel unthreatened by the lads’ rebellion. Because in fact, it isn’t a rebellion at all but, rather, a capitulation. It’s as if American masculinity has finally surrendered to decades of feminist criticism, criticism the lads have assimilated fully, because—unlike the Playboy men of yore—they’ve known no other world. One can wish that the lad shtick were subversive minstrelsy of a sort, an absurdist attack on unflattering male stereotypes, but more likely, and all pretend insensitivity aside, the laddies are sadly sincere in their embrace of buffoonery. They’re adopting—before the fact, and with the cold comfort of intent—the very characteristics that would most ensure further criticism, further rejection, which is essentially to take control of defeat by forfeiting the game rather than risk another losing effort. It is, in short, to take control by running away.

In this—paradoxically—the lads’ be­hav­ior is much more closely connected to that of the sensitive, New Age, pantywaist male than to that of the devil-may-care rogue of old. Along with most of their critics, the lads have preferred to think that they represent a male backlash, a testosterone-soaked atavism, a rude if somewhat ironic return to the pre–James Taylor days. But their fear of women is nothing but a rueful extension of Mr. New Age’s obsequiousness, their pantomime of sexism nothing but utter compliance with the harshest feminist critique—nothing but a dancing-bear routine in the feminist tent show. It’s enough to put a real man off his popcorn. The Playboy guy of old didn’t fear women; he surrounded himself with them. And where the battle of the sexes was concerned, he gave as good as he got, not by running from or validating the criticism directed at him but by refusing to let it define him, one way or the other. To borrow some New Age jargon, he knew who he was—he was comfortable in his skin—and if certain people found him abrasive at times, so be it. He made sure to have other qualities that recommended him, qualities that included a social seriousness that was reflected as well as cultivated in the pages of Playboy magazine.

This current state of affairs is a sorry one for all involved. Women understandably wanted to fend off, or reform, that lecherous Playboy man. And no matter how pointed their criticism may have been, implied in it all was a belief that men could, well, take it like men. The typical guy might have chosen to see it as a compliment, an endorsement of the competitive spirit, an invitation to some social and intellectual roughhousing, as it were. Yet if the man-children captured in the lad mags are any indication, the typical guy has chosen instead to fly off to a laddie Neverland where he amuses himself with boys (and maybe the occasional Tinkerbell) and refuses to grow up. Wendy Darling, Peter Pan’s girlfriend manqué and Neverland’s own ultimately exasperated make-believe mother, knew well this boy-on-boy dynamic, more than once exclaiming (albeit with a mother’s good humor), “I’m sure I sometimes think that spinsters are to be envied.”

You said it, Darling.

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