We moved into a new house recently. While putting away the empty cases in the loft, the workers unearthed a pile of well-thumbed Playboy magazines. There was a time when such a scenario was impossible; when demand for these babies would so far outweigh supply that no owner would willingly abandon even a single issue.
Leafing through a Playboy magazine stolen from an uncle or older brother’s hidden stash was almost a rite of passage for young boys across the world. The, err, handbook for the urban male—with its titillating photo spreads, risqué party jokes and surprisingly erudite articles—inspired brotherhood. And commerce.
Brotherhood, because the explicit pictures and text brought adolescent boys together to spend hours leafing through the pages in quiet, reverential contemplation. Commerce, because ownership of a Playboy, never mind its vintage, gave them currency. The magazine could be traded for goods, swapped for services and, finally, bartered for other Playboys.
Ownership also gave the lads hero status, but only after they had smuggled it into school or onto the playground and proven to their friends that they actually had it. If there was ever a twinge of discomfort, it stemmed from speculation about the original owner of the magazine. As a young man told me: “An uncle was fine; I didn’t want to think that I’d inherited the Playboy from my father.”
Today, 60 years after Hugh Hefner spun out the first issue with Marilyn Monroe on the cover and immediately sold 54,000 copies, things are rather different. For one, everyone’s openly talking, and even singing, about sex; two, the Internet, where pornography comprises 25 per cent of searches, is here. No one—not even red-blooded, adolescent boys with raging hormones—needs a magazine to teach them their way around a nude.
Most girly magazines, hit by shrinking circulation and advertising revenue, have admitted defeat and shut shop. Playboy is battered and bruised but refuses to be broken. Its circulation may have dropped from 7 million to 1.26 million, but its Playmate of the Year still gets a ‘Playboy Mansion’ luncheon hosted by Hefner, a Jaguar convertible and $100,000 in cash. Plus, Hefner is out to rejig the magazine’s contents.
Time was when people claimed to like Playboy for its literary merit. They weren’t all joking. The magazine’s contributor list read like an honour roll, with bylines of Jack Kerouac, Arthur C Clarke, Vladimir Nabokov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and even P G Wodehouse. Interviewees included the likes of Martin Luther King and Fidel Castro. No wonder many adults bought the magazine to ogle, but stayed to read.
Now they can look at the art. To combat the threat from the Net and move from under the mattress to the coffee table, Playboy says it plans to marry its old eroticism with a new emphasis on fine art. The January issue, with supermodel Kate Moss in bunny gear, didn’t exactly showcase the new intent. But let’s give it time.
I’ve already detected hope. Even as I instructed the movers to add the stack of Playboys to the pile earmarked for the kabaadi, my peripheral vision caught my cook gesturing to them to take the magazines to his room instead. Since he can barely read, it’s definitely not the articles that he’s interested in. Maybe he likes fine art.