Playboy: A Seductive Periodical or Champion of Sexual Liberalism?
Recognize the icon above? Perhaps you may not realize this but Playboy the publication, historically speaking, has been a leading magazine devoted to freedom of expression and human rights (to a certain extent). Founded in 1953 in Chicago by Hugh Hefner, Playboy has often been perceived as a "taboo" magazine based on its adult content. You may not realize this but many famous writers have contributed their works to the magazine over the past five decades. The magazine does not only contain photographs but also essays illustrating a segment of American social history.
Here are some notable writers:
- Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre
- Writer Aldous Huxley
- Activist Martin Luther King
- Writer Ralph Ginzburg
- Politician Norman Thomas
- Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
- Writer Ernest Hemingway
- Writer Carl Sandburg
- Writer Isaac Singer
For a complete list of writers from 1953-1969, check out the Index to PLAYBOY (hard copy).The following index databases will not give you full-text of the articles but can you give the dates when the articles were written (you can use those dates for the microfilm copy):
- MLA International Bibliography indexes only for a few interviews (e.g. Ernest Hemingway's) - This database is only available in selected NYPL libraries
- ProQuest Research Library (search under Publication Title) 01/01/1988-07/01/2003 (can be searched remotely with a library card).
At NYPL, we have our own resources and archival sources covering the magazine:
- The Library's Archival Materials Tool can also uncover various archival documents and papers relating to Playboy in our Research Libraries
- A complete list of resources on Playboy
Playboy is also known for its Playboy Mansion and its extravagant parties which is located in Los Angeles, California.
I was able to interview Dr. Carrie Pitzulo on her research relating to Playboy. She is the author of Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy. Read about her interesting research experience as well as her thoughts on the magazine below! How did you get access to the Playboy Archive? Did you meet Hugh Hefner?
I had tremendous luck, which really came down to timing. The archive in Chicago had been closed, the content of some boxes hadn't been seen even by employees in forty years. But when I started my research (as a graduate student at the CUNY Graduate Center), I framed my project, somewhat counter-intuitively, as one on masculinity, and I didn't ask for an interview with Hefner. I assumed that was impossible. I was later told by the editor that granted me access that he appreciated my approach — that he was thankful that an academic was "finally" taking Playboy seriously — and said that most researchers asked for that interview, and when they were told "no," they went away. Also, it was around the 50th anniversary of the founding, so Hefner and the staff were really interested in their historical legacy. So my timing was perfect.
Eventually, I was — somewhat astonishingly — invited to interview Hugh Hefner. I had been interviewing various editors from the early Playboy era. Many of those people remained friends after long careers together at Playboy. So I worked my way through what I called the Playboy "grapevine." After a few years of this, I requested an interview with Hefner's longtime executive assistant, who worked at the Mansion in Los Angeles. At some point, I got an email from one of Hefner's PR people, saying that he heard about my project and wondered if I was interested in interviewing Hefner. Of course, I said, "Yes!" Mouths dropped as I was introduced to people at the Mansion. They were stunned that I, a graduate student, had been granted an interview. They also said that Hefner never did interviews on Fridays (he likes his routines), and I was there on a Friday. So for some reason, I was given this amazing opportunity. He then invited me to stay for dinner with him and his friends. It was surreal, to say the least.
Personally, do you see Playboy as a periodical of seduction or a symbol of sexual liberation?
Seduction or liberation — I think it can be both. Clearly, it was a sexual magazine, but also very politically-minded. It was a very complicated magazine. All of the charges of sexism, weren't wrong, they were just too simple. Without a doubt, there was sexism in Playboy. I don't argue against that. But I do argue that there were elements in the magazine that were clearly supportive of a host of progressive issues regarding gender and sexuality — such as liberal feminism and tolerance for homosexuality. The magazine was vociferous in its support for reproductive rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, and financially supported daycare centers for working women, among many other things. Even the Playmates — certainly not feminist icons — challenged expectations of feminine sexuality in the 1950s and early 1960s. They said that "good" girls — unmarried girls — had a right to be sexual. Of course that was in the service of male heterosexuality, but Playboy had a 25% female readership through these years. And in the 1950s, the claim that good girls, in fact, *DO* challenged an overwhelming popular culture that harshly judged and punished single women who had sex.
Based on your research, has Playboy changed over time in terms of writing content?
During the years I covered in my study (1953-1973), the writing was consistently sophisticated and well-regarded. That was an element that was always there. That was Hefner's point — that male heterosexuality didn't have to be ghettoized in brown paper bags and hidden away in shame. He argued that sex was just one interest of the red-blooded American male. Good writing was another, as were a variety of other non-sexual pursuits, such as travel, sports, etc., and all those things could be presented and read respectfully in one place, in the light of day. Today, while I think that it is still a coup for an unknown writer to be published in Playboy, the magazine doesn't have the same cache that it once did. Like other publications, it's had a hard time keeping up in the digital age, and has had to compete with the so-called lad magazines that emerged in the 1990s, like Maxim. But I do think that from the perspective of Hefner and his staff, they continue to regard Playboy as the "classy," somewhat intellectual, men's magazine.
What is your opinion on Playgirl ?
Playgirl had nothing to do with Playboy. A lot of people think that Hefner created it, but he didn't. Playgirl emerged in the 1970s as the culture was changing so much, becoming so much more openly sexual. My understanding is that there was, in the beginning, some expectation that it would be a magazine for straight women, but it rather quickly appealed to gay men, and pretty much stayed in that market until its recent closing.
What kind of hidden research can these "taboo" periodicals offer?
As I mentioned, the editor that granted me access to the archive was thankful that an academic "finally" took Playboy seriously. In fact, there were a few important historical treatments of the magazine that preceded me, but none based on the archives. Because I took it so seriously, I found a treasure trove of material and insight into one of the most popular magazines of the 20th century. I think that scholars who scoff at "taboo" sources miss a great opportunity. A periodical like Playboy is central to understanding the socio-cultural changes of American history, to say nothing of sexual history itself, and dismissing it — or others like it — only leaves our understanding of that history lacking. I think this is certainly changing, though. In recent years, the academic interest in Playboy has really grown.
I didn't do extensive research into either Penthouse or Hustler, other than some baseline comparisons. Penthouse was modeled on Playboy. It was meant to outdo Playboy, in terms of sexual explicitness, but still be comparable. Like Playboy, only "more." Hustler far outpaced either regarding explicitness and raunch. Both of these magazines offered intense competition for Playboy when they emerged in the late 1960s and early '70s. At first, Playboy tried to keep up by increasing the explicitness of the Playmates — this is when we see the first full frontal centerfold. But by the mid-'70s Hefner refused to compete on those terms. He felt that Playboy set a standard and worked for many years to be a certain type of magazine — sexy, but classy — and he didn't want to destroy that in order to keep up in an increasingly raunchy era. Whatever extravagance he's known for in his personal life, he was actually quite conservative regarding what went into his magazine.