[See URL for embedded links.]
by Tracy Clark-Flory
Nov. 17, 2008
I hadn't thought much about the recent demise of Playgirl magazine
until a New York Times obituary -- in the Sunday Styles section --
gave me reason to grieve. Apparently, Playgirl launched in 1973 as a
"feminist response to Playboy and Penthouse." Somehow that historic
moment was overshadowed in my women's studies textbooks by that
year's wee little court ruling on reproductive rights. But it is good
to now know that, as many celebrated their right to choose, some also
rejoiced at their right to sexy pictorials of men with feathered
locks, handlebar mustaches and hair busting cleavage-like from
In the years that followed, the magazine featured Burt Reynolds in a
Santa hat and Christmas PJs, cover model Alan Thicke alongside a
reference to his -- nudge, nudge -- "growing pains" and Jean-Claude
Van Damme in a stretch purple unitard. Woo, feminism?
In fairness, I do have a single fond memory of Playgirl's 35-year
history: the Brad Pitt issue. The (OK, seriously ethically
questionable) photos of him frolicking in the nude while on vacation
were published when I was in 8th grade, and I managed to hunt down
one of the shots online. Flooded with confused excitement, I
immediately announced my discovery to my mother, who replied: "Print
me out a copy?" In her infinite motherly wisdom she recognized it as
an opportunity to communicate her view of the naked human body as
natural and shameless, and, if necessary, to discuss any unhealthy
messages about sex and sexuality conveyed in the photo. (But, also:
Brad Pitt, naked. Hello!)
This was Playgirl's history from the outside, though -- the
obstructed view of the magazine as it peeked out from behind rows and
rows of more acceptable magazines. Apparently the looks of its
cheese-ball cover models deceived; there was a whole lot more going
on behind the scenes. In recent years, a team of three female editors
in their 20s took over and decided to try to "bring Playgirl back to
its roots" and cover "issues like abortion and equal rights,
interspersing sexy shots of men with work from writers like Raymond
Carver and Joyce Carol Oates." That description alone is orgasm-worthy.
But the magazine's publisher, Blue Horizon Media, wanted fewer words
and more extreme closeups of waxed private parts. The Times reports
that the women adopted a "do-it-yourself ethic" -- call it riot grrrl
porn -- and tried desperately to revive the magazine with parties and
a blog, and very little help from higher-ups. But, alas, their
efforts went unrewarded and the publisher decided this summer to
shutter the magazine. The final, January/February 2009 issue now
sits on newsstands.
Don't get me wrong: I won't miss Playgirl. The few times I flipped
through it, I instantly felt that I was not even remotely the target,
that the photos were aimed at gay men, or women with very different
leanings. That isn't to suggest that only gay men like to look at
photos of naked men, it's just that there was nothing for me in the
pictorials of greasy, fully-waxed musclemen. Former Playgirl editor
Colleen Kane recently wrote in Radar that it was a challenge for the
editorial team to meet the tastes of all of their readers, "to
recognize that some want smiling hunks only, some like manscaping,
some hate it, some loved tattooed models while others hated them, and
one woman's cougar-bait is another woman's jailbait."
I suppose that's the trouble you run into when you are the only
magazine publishing photos of naked men for women. (And, even at
that, according to some reports, men comprised roughly 50 percent of
the audience.) Also, look at how endless celebrity centerfolds have
firmly propped up the Playboy brand; meanwhile, Playgirl had ... Burt
Reynolds, stripped to his rawhide skin. Male celebrities simply don't
have the same motivation to bare all -- and I refuse to believe it's
for actual lack of interest on women's part.
Kane also suggested that there might be "some parallels between
Playgirl's struggle to find its identity and readership and the
developing lack of cohesiveness among feminists, as the ranks divided
into second and third waves, and the waves subdivided with different
opinions about sex, porn." But certainly one doesn't have to be a
feminist to have a hunger for porn, and I dare say that if the
previously mentioned vision of legitimately sexy shots alongside
smart writing didn't bridge feminists' supposed generational divide,
it still would have gained a large enough audience to thrive. That
vision was never realized, though; it seems the publisher never gave
it a chance.
In the Radar piece, Kane writes: "What are women going to do for porn
now? I don't know; honestly, I don't even particularly like porn."
Maybe some women who do like porn will come along and create a little
something for other women who do too.
They Couldn't Get Past the 'Mimbos'
By CARA BUCKLEY
Published: November 14, 2008
NOT long after Nicole Caldwell became editor in chief of Playgirl
magazine, she realized that looking at photos of naked men all day
was not everything she had imagined it would be. When she would meet
them, there was often a curious vapidity to the men, who Ms. Caldwell
took to describing as "mimbos."
Readers, Ms. Caldwell decided, deserved more.
So she and her fellow editors, all women in their 20s and all
relative neophytes to the world of magazines and pornography
resolved to fill Playgirl with something different. They aspired to
bring Playgirl back to its roots, back to a time when the magazine
covered issues like abortion and equal rights, interspersing sexy
shots of men with work from writers like Raymond Carver and Joyce Carol Oates.
All the while, the editors juggled the demands of the publisher, Blue
Horizon Media, which they said pushed to fill Playgirl with even more
nudes and fewer words.
"It always felt like this uphill battle," said Jessanne Collins, 29,
who was Playgirl's senior editor.
The women's dreams crashed when Blue Horizon Media, which also puts
out hard-core magazines, announced it was shutting Playgirl. The last
issue, dated January/February 2009, recently arrived on newsstands.
Although the Playgirl Web site is still running, the graphic content
is geared more toward gay men. None of the magazine's editors are involved.
Ms. Caldwell said Playgirl magazine suffered from the twin malaises
of rising costs and declining sales; Blue Horizon Media did not
return repeated calls for this article.
Playgirl's passing certainly will not be lamented as would the death
of a more respected, or even a mildly respected, magazine. Yet for
its writers and fans, something tangible has been lost in its closure.
"It was almost a way to get back at Playboy," said Pamela Des Barres,
the famed former rock groupie, who wrote a music column for Playgirl.
"It was a great idea, and it could have been done better. It did
offer women a way to see some gorgeous hot, young, sexy guys, and
nothing's wrong with that."
Playgirl was started 35 years ago as a feminist response to Playboy
and Penthouse. (Playboy sued Playgirl in 1973 for trademark
infringement; the suit was settled amicably.) Over the years, the
magazine changed ownership, began catering more to gay men, and
whittled its operations down. Still, the magazine drew an avid
readership, Ms. Caldwell said, selling 600,000 copies per issue in
more than three dozen countries.
In contrast to much of the slender offerings of pornography aimed at
women, which tends to be softer and more story-driven than that
marketed toward men, Playgirl was in-your-face.
Now the three editors' nudie magazine with feminist leanings is gone,
and with it, strange and exciting career moments.
"I think a different kind of porn is very degrading to women, but the
kind of stuff we were peddling was about what women wanted," said Ms.
Caldwell, who is 26. "For better or worse, this was a real blow for
feminism. We were the only magazine that offered naked men to women."
In the end, Playgirl was run by a skeleton crew of these three
editors, along with what Ms. Caldwell described as "a whole horde of
eager unpaid interns."
Ms. Caldwell was a New Jersey girl who had helped run a community
newspaper and graduated from Columbia's journalism school; Ms.
Collins has a master's in creative writing from the New School; and
Corinne Weiner, 26, the magazine's designer for its last two and a
half years, was a graduate of Pratt.
Ms. Weiner and Ms. Caldwell got their jobs the old-fashioned way: by
sending in a résumé. Landing such a high-profile job just four months
out of graduate school seemed "so over the top," Ms. Caldwell said.
"In the end," she said, "that was far greater than reservations I had."
Ms. Caldwell hired Ms. Collins after she wrote an essay for the
magazine about orgasm-related migraines. Ms. Weiner was the only one
who said she half aspired to a career in pornography publishing. "It
definitely was bit intense at first," she said. "But it really didn't
bother me. I'm definitely all about looking at naked dudes."
Playgirl shared offices with Blue Horizon's other publications in a
fluorescent-lighted hive of gray cubicles in an old Art Deco building
near Grand Central Terminal. Outwardly, it seemed the blandest of
places, were it not for the lurid photos and videos that filled
workers' computer screens.
After being hired at Playgirl, each woman followed a similar
trajectory of experiences:
¶First week: shock at being inundated with photos of naked men;
slight horror at catching sight of photos from Blue Horizon's triple
X magazines; terror at having to put out a magazine with only two other people.
¶Second week: less shock, less terror, less horror. Amusement at all
the full-frontal photos that regular Joes plumbers among them mailed in.
¶Third week: the realization that one's eyes are glazing over at the
sight of photos of naked men, who all begin to look the same.
Bewilderment at the letters from female fans, who wanted specific
fantasies to appear. (A common theme: a naked man doing chores for
the fully dressed lady of the house. The editors complied with a photo spread.)
Ms. Caldwell was struck by how many people would assume she was an
expert in sex and then go on to disclose highly private details about
their lives. Ms. Weiner said her parents found her job "hilarious."
Ms. Collins's parents were congratulatory, at first. But just after
being hired, she called their home in eastern Connecticut and sensed
some hesitation in her father's voice.
" 'I thought you were really into this,' " she said.
"Yeah," her father replied. "That's before Mom went out and bought a
copy of the magazine."
The editors strove to publish articles that were saucy but relevant.
They printed articles about a campaign to take toxic chemicals out of
cosmetics and about problems with Amsterdam's red-light district. To
her delight, Ms. Caldwell landed interviews with Jack LaLanne and
A do-it-yourself ethic bloomed. The magazine had no marketing or
public relations budget, so its editors sought to revive the Playgirl
brand themselves, throwing parties at a Lower East Side bar. After
Blue Horizon denied a request to finance a blog, Ms. Collins built
one herself, starting it on WordPress, a free platform.
Their efforts, the women said, got virtually no support; indeed,
their higher-ups, all of them men, usually resisted their push to
give the magazine editorial heft.
Early in 2008, warning signs surfaced. While newsstands sales were
up, Ms. Caldwell said, so were production costs. In the spring,
subscription cards suddenly vanished; the staff members were told it
was a cost cutting measure. Then they were told that issues would
come out bimonthly. In July, a subscriber wrote to complain about a
letter from Blue Horizon saying that Playgirl was no longer in print.
Ms. Caldwell entered the office of an executive editor at Blue
Horizon and asked: "Is there something you want to tell us?" After
some blustering, she learned that the magazine's end was near.
And so began the death throes of Playgirl, which, for all its
swinging history and sass, ended remarkably unremarkably.
There were no final cocktails, no last hurrah. Instead, there was a
frigidness between the Playgirl staff members and the other Blue
Horizon workers. "It was kind of like a long breakup, where you're
both still living together and neither of you have left the
apartment," Ms. Weiner said.
The magazine's editors said they were never told why the magazine was
shut down. But, they said, they were always struck by the paucity of ads.
"I'm not a publishing expert, but it seems to me like it would be
impossible to sustain a magazine on the quantity of ads Playgirl
sold," Ms. Collins said.
ON the Monday of her last week, Ms. Caldwell was called into a
morning meeting, where she received an awkward round of applause from
Blue Horizon staff members. Two days later, the executive editor took
Ms. Caldwell and Ms. Collins out for sushi. (Ms. Weiner had already left.)
Ms. Caldwell's last day was Oct. 3. Ms. Weiner and Ms. Collins were
not around; they had already found new jobs Ms. Weiner as an
officer manager in Brooklyn, Ms. Collins as a copy editor at a male
lifestyle magazine. (Ms. Caldwell now edits at Diamond District News.)
By 6 p.m., Ms. Caldwell had nearly cleared her desk. She rode the No.
4 train home.