In December 2019, Playboy Magazine hosted their first-ever Equality Issue, which featured a series of retired Playmates aged from 32 to 77 years old. The women of mixed ethnicities were photographed by artistic visionary Nadia Lee Cohen. The Equality Issue received considerable attention not only for its classically cinematic photos but the editorial concept behind it. The Playboy motto “Once a Playmate, always a Playmate” came to life in photo form, as Playboy veterans posed topless alongside one another. It intended to show that women’s bodies of all ages are worthy of reverence. Overall, the issue sought to mark Playboy’s reinvention as an inclusive publication with the mission “to create a culture where all people can pursue pleasure”.
As a Feminist, the concept sounded compelling. Although I have always opposed Playboy as a publication, I was enthused to hear that Playboy was finally moving away from their one-size-fits-all approach to sexuality and the female body. In a typical academic manner, I decided to write an article (“Once a woman, always a woman”) about the positive social and political implications of the Equality Issue, arguing that although we should accredit Playboy for taking a step in the right direction, there was still a mountain of work to overcome. Years of objectifying women couldn’t be reversed overnight.
A year on, it is safe to say that my cynicism was well-founded. Although Playboy has seemingly made efforts to become more inclusive by featuring more ‘diverse’ models; and by diverse I mean a few more women of colour and women with small breasts, they haven’t ventured too far away from their origins. Selling bunny merchandise with the rainbow flag epitomises the extent of Playboy’s inclusive efforts. It seems that more time and money has been invested into virtue signalling, rather than action.
If we strip back these improvements to consider the reasoning behind why Playboy has chosen to shed its notoriously sexist image, it becomes questionable how ‘genuinely good willed’ these efforts are. For this article, I will apply Kantian Ethics to explain why Playboy’s newfound, inclusive rebranding doesn’t deserve our praise.
‘Kantian ethics’ refers to the strand of the deontological ethical theory developed by German Philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant attempted to prove that every rational being could decipher between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, without religion being present in their lives. In doing so, he argued that it was possible to establish a consistent moral system by using reason alone. ‘Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals’; written in 1785, is where Kant first explores these ideas in writing. Besides introducing the ‘Categorical Imperative’, he also defines what he believes to be classed as ‘morally good’ within a secular, rational context.
Kant believed that morals come from within us, which is why they are so personal. He states that: “It is impossible to conceive anything in the world, or even out of it, which can be taken as good without limitation, save only a good will”. In simpler terms, acting from good will is the only way to be ‘moral’. A good action is only ‘genuinely good’ if the intentions behind it were wholesome. An action motivated by the desire for personal or corporate gain, cannot be considered a ‘good’ action. In other words, moral actions require us to treat people as ‘ends’ in themselves and never as ‘means to an end’.
If we take the example of the Equality Issue, at first glance it seems good that Playboy was pushing an inclusive narrative by proudly embracing ageing female bodies. When we apply the Kantian approach, however, it becomes questionable whether Playboy should be praised for releasing an Equality Issue, especially when considering the intentions behind their decision. Since the release of the Equality Issue, no further efforts have been made and ageism persists as an issue for the publication. Playboy seems to have used the veteran Playmates in the Equality Issue as means to an end, rather than ends in themselves. It is without surprise, that the Equality Issue wasn’t the result of good will alone. This was clearly a publicity stunt driven to evoke Playboy’s relevance through discussion.
Applying Kantian ethics to Playboy’s other ‘inclusive efforts’, we are faced with a similar issue. Taking a closer look at the rise and fall of Playboy helps us to identify precisely why this marketing u-turn emerged – it seems like more of financial ploy than a laudable act of inclusivism.
The Rise and Fall of Playboy
The first-ever Playboy Issue, featuring Marilyn Monroe, was released in December 1953. It was a phenomenal success, selling out of all copies priced at 50 cents each. By the end of the 1950s, the publication was selling 1 million copies per month.
As Playboy’s popularity grew, the franchise began expanding. In 1960, the first of the Playboy clubs opened in Chicago. The clubs were pivotal in shaping the brand’s glamorous image, much of that owing to the waitress bunnies. In 1972, Playboy hit its peak topping 7.1 million sales of the November Issue. According to Business Insider, that year alone Playboy made a staggering $12 million profit, which would equate to $75 million today. It was a global name on everybody’s lips and aspiring models began associating posing for Playboy as a stepping stone to stardom. Meanwhile, the collapse of Hugh Hefner’s empire was imminent.
The 1980s were the most testing years for Playboy as the impact of social movements and the introduction of new technologies left the brand not only under scrutiny but with large marketing challenges. After multiple complaints about sexual harassment, the glitz and glamour of the Playboy clubs began to fade and by 1986 all three clubs had shut down. Although the internet may not have been so ubiquitous in the 1980s, it was steadily transforming the world of porn forever. Playboy’s inability to recognise and move with trends ultimately led to its decline in the 1990s.
Fast forward to the 2000s and after many desperate attempts to revive the Playboy brand, through selling merchandise and signing up for reality TV, Hefner’s empire was close to ruins. When Hefner passed away in 2017, the figures spoke for themselves. According to Statista, between 2016 to 2018 alone, circulation dropped from 0.7 to 0.21 million.
Year on year, the Playboy investors were losing millions. Such grave losses coupled with the growing support for the #MeToo movement eventually cornered Playboy into completely redrafting its strategy and image. The slogan ‘Entertainment for Men’ was replaced with ‘Entertainment for All’. In 2018, it reduced its print publishing from monthly to quarterly. Last year, Playboy finally decided to say goodbye to their print edition altogether and operate online only, aiming to lure a younger audience.
Playboy as a Pioneer of Feminism?
The most troubling aspect of Playboy’s rebranding is how it has framed itself as a pioneer of Feminism. It can be argued, to some degree, that it played a role in the sexual liberation of women during the 1950/60s. None-the-less, it also did a great deal at binding women to the limitations of the male gaze. Women were encouraged to take their clothes off but only for the benefit of men.
Studies have shown the vast impact that Playboy alone had on promoting cosmetic surgery amongst women. Even up until the 2000s, Playmates measurements were listed alongside their pictorials. On multiple occasions, Playboy was outed for lying about models having 21-inch waists whilst boasting of ‘DD’ cups. Alongside excessive airbrushing, they continually set impossible beauty standards that created a breeding ground for insecurities and a society where women were told that their worth was skin deep. If Playboy had any role in the Feminist movement, it was as the source of problems, not as pioneers.
Female liberation is not restricted to sexual liberation alone. Whilst bodily autonomy is a prominent aspect of Feminist theory, it doesn’t mean that it should be used to justify objectifying women. The Playboy paradox encapsulates exactly that. If Playboy intends to genuinely reinvent itself, it must first admit to its negative impact on women instead of portraying itself as the saviour.
So here we find ourselves with a reinvented Playboy, that embraces queers, ethnic minorities, models with disabilities and even small breasts. It is completely understandable from a marketing perspective that rebranding was necessary to avoid extinction, but that doesn’t mean that their efforts deserve our praise. Kantian ethics act as a strong reminder that we shouldn’t be dazzled with virtue signalling alone, and that we ought to consider the motivations behind actions to assess how ‘morally good’ they are.
The models on Playboy’s website may now come in a slightly wider scope of shapes and ethnicities, but it doesn’t change the fact that these are pornographic images, presented through the male gaze. Playboy might have ousted their slogan ‘Entertainment for Men’, but in reality, that is still really all it offers. As the expression goes: “You can’t polish a turd”.