The historian Elizabeth Fraterrigo asks us to accept a somewhat unlikely premise, which is this: A titty magazine that has been culturally irrelevant since the late 1970s was at the forefront of many of this nation’s most important social upheavals and reconfigurations. It is to her book’s credit—and, it must be said, to Playboy’s—that one closes her book largely convinced that she is right.
The collapse of the U.S. Postal System’s de facto censorship apparatus? Playboy had a hand in that. Changing attitudes about sex outside of marriage? Playboy was part of this, too. The specious notion that a high-earning, free-spending bachelor is some kind of epicurean rebel? Playboy yet again. The feminist movement? Playboy “was partly responsible” for it, as Gloria Steinem once admitted. The now common glossy-magazine practice of advertising luxuries that readers cannot possibly afford? Thank you, Playboy. The idea that a man could have fine clothes, a sweet smell, an uncorked Bordeaux, and remain masculine? Yes, believe it or not, Playboy paved the way for metrosexuality, too.
Never a great magazine, though often a very good one, Playboy was and remains iconic, and there is probably a wonderful narrative history to be written about it. This is not that book, and Fraterrigo’s tone is frequently dry enough to make you worry that her effort will spontaneously combust from the heat of a reading lamp. What she has written is a careful, wide-ranging account as much about American postwar urban culture as about Playboy itself. There is a long and interesting chapter on Helen Gurley Brown and the rise of the Single Girl, for instance, perceptive citations from Organization Man lit like Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, and some truly fascinating stuff about Hugh Hefner himself.
The early Playboy sought the eyes and minds of what Fraterrigo calls “the young, affluent, urban bachelor,” and the first issue was pitched by Hefner as “a little diversion from the anxieties of the Atomic Age.” These anxieties were not only about being barbequed by Soviet nukes; for the American male, they included having to marry the first woman you had sex with, living with your parents (thanks to a dire postwar housing shortage), and feeling emasculated by the new nature of American work, no longer artisanal or rugged or self-determining but managerial and inchoate and soul-stranglingly indoor. This was, in fact, the young Hefner’s life, and he loathed it. In 1953, he was a struggling cartoonist with a wife and child; the Chicago Daily News profiled him in a lifestyles piece as a model of suburban bonhomie. A year later, Playboy was launched. Soon enough Hefner was a millionaire bachelor with an estranged daughter, Christie. (They would not reconnect until after she graduated from college, and she would eventually run the Playboy empire.)
In terminating a certain kind of life for himself, Hefner also terminated it for a generation of American men--if not in fact then at least as the ideal. While his current existence--with its carousel of Viagra, twentysomething blonds, and fresh pajama bottoms--seems a rather nightmarish gauntlet for an eighty-year-old to run, Hefner has avoided the fate suffered by so many American public figures: he is utterly free of phoniness. Unfortunately, this has come at the cost of seeming utterly ridiculous, though he does not seem to mind.
More than anything else, Fraterrigo reminds us that those who grew up in a pre-Playboy world had a psychic Grand Canyon separating them from the dwellers of the post-Playboy landscape. In the pre-Playboy world, naked women were the purlieu of pale loners and rain coated perverts. Post-Playboy, naked women were merely adult entertainment, so calm down already. Pre-Playboy, a young woman who undressed for money before a camera was essentially infecting herself with social measles. Post-Playboy, that same young woman could be the embodiment of pillowy American goodness. (Today, of course, we would call it entrepreneurial nudity.)
It was Hefner’s great insight that girly pictures divorced from any kind of human individuality could not be anything except dirty. And so his Playmates had names, jobs, personalities, and fact sheets, however illusory these often were. In some crucial way, then, Playboy gave what was previously considered pornography a kind of dignity. It was a deeply limiting, dingbat dignity, to be sure, but to allow the mid-century American woman any identity beyond that of mother, virgin, or whore increased her available social options by 25 percent. Women would naturally revolt against this, and no one could blame them, but the fact remains that Playboy helped liberate female sexuality from a Bastille of iniquitous morality, in the long run surely doing more to help women than harm them.
This is not to suggest that Playboy has always been on the side of the angels. Fraterrigo unsparingly recounts some of Playboy’s 1950s-era forays into gender politics, much of it written by a nasty piece of intellectual work named Philip Wylie, who relentlessly attacked what he called “momism” (a term with the apparent sticking power of tap shoes) and poured gallons of rhetorical pitch over a society he viewed as being increasingly dominated by “masculinized” women. Hefner, meanwhile, was telling interviewers that the problem with America was “wives who are not feminine enough and husbands not truly male,” whatever that meant. And yet it did mean something to a certain generation of American men, and it scared them silly. As he must have sensed, the forces of sexual liberation Hefner and his battery of writers were channeling were not precisely controllable, and what began as a party for urban men with wandering eyes was soon crashed by everyone.
This was embodied by Hefner’s ambitious national launch of the Playboy Club. Hefner was adamant that any man, black or white, rich or poor, be allowed to join his local Playboy Club for a twenty-five-dollar lifetime membership fee (Hefner even bought back the franchises of a few southern Playboy Clubs that refused black members in order to integrate them himself), but he forbade the Bunnies who worked the clubs from any fraternization with clientele. In short, the sexual mores Hefner helped change doomed his business model: What guy in his right mind would career a Playboy Club when his local singles bar at least held out the possibility of taking someone home after last call? Similarly paradoxical forces eventually laid waste to the coffers of his magazine: attacked from the right by anti-porn crusaders, condemned from the left by newly emboldened feminists, and kneed in the groin by raunchier magazines like Penthouse and Hustler, Playboy, by the mid-1970s, no longer had any obvious reason to exist.
But it always had something with which to justify itself, which was the quality of its articles, stories, and interviews--and, as Fraterrigo argues (though does not much explore), it was this that ensured, even from Playboy’s foes, a certain amount of grudging respect. The problem with Playboy was that its editorial content has never been strong enough for it to be only a magazine. It also had to be a lifestyle. And here is where Playboy’s legacy is more ambiguous. The best part of Fraterrigo’s book concerns the unthinking--indeed, almost innocently utopian--manner in which Hefner sexualized the acquisitionist ethos of the American middle class. Playboy was the first men’s magazine to use the crueler tricks of wish fulfillment previously relegated to women’s magazines. Before Playboy, as Fraterrigo observes, the typical men’s magazine trafficked in rustic stories about bear wrestling: vicarious was all you wanted the stories to be. Playboy sold a lot of things, but it also sold soft young bodies, and it suggested that if its readers purchased its things, and lived by its code, those bodies might be touched and caressed. Playboy pushed, issue after issue, decade after decade, ways of thinking about desire that were neither emotionally realistic nor experientially viable. Meanwhile it epitomized and, indeed, calcified mainstream ideas of beauty to such an extent that Hefner could reasonably demand a commission on every breast augmentation performed since 1965.
Fraterrigo has given us the most laudably sober and analytically rigorous book ever written about an adult magazine. While her prose strays into occasional thesisese, her research is phenomenally thorough and her conclusions are bold enough to be interesting and modest enough to be feasible. Thanks, in part, to Playboy, modern America is what it is. Of this fact, Fraterrigo fills the reader with equal parts gratitude and despair—which, come to think of it, is pretty much exactly the feeling a man has when he beholds a Playboy centerfold.
Tom Bissell is the author of four books. His new book, Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, will be published in June.