brucekluger.com

    USA Today, October 14, 2015

    For 13 years at 'Playboy,' bods were my beat
    'Zine helped empower women's movement that now has pushed it out of the
    centerfold business.

    By Bruce Kluger

    In 1997, my uncle, historian Richard Kluger,
    won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction for his
    book Ashes to Ashes, a history of the
    American tobacco wars of the 20th century.
    At the time, my brother Jeffrey was still
    celebrating the triumph of his best-seller,
    Apollo 13, which had been made into a
    blockbusting film. It was a good year for the
    family.

    And yet I was conflicted. Indeed, on the day
    Uncle Dick’s Pulitzer was announced, I was
    buried in work at my desk at Playboy
    magazine, writing and rewriting the same
    essay as assigned to me by the magazine’s
    founder, Hugh Hefner. The topic? “The
    Blondeness of Pamela Anderson.”
    Sometimes life isn’t fair.

    If you read any pictorial in Playboy from 1986 to 1999 (and, yes, I assure you, all of
    the pictorials were accompanied by words), chances are I wrote it. From “The
    Women of the Ivy League” to the “exclusive nudes” of Cindy Crawford to the
    random Playmate centerfold, I was your man on the street (or, more precisely, in
    the boudoir). Granted, I had other assignments at the magazine during my 13-year
    stint there, from editing the historic Playboy Interview to assigning and writing a
    variety of columns and features. But “girl copy” was my primary beat, and—my
    family’s journalistic accolades aside—I actually dug it. There were worse ways a
    thirtysomething, straight male could spend his day than looking at nudes of
    beautiful women.

    And so it is with a bit of melancholy that I read this week’s headlines announcing
    that Playboy will no longer feature nudity in its pages. That’s like reading that
    popcorn will no longer include corn. Or the pop.

    The rationale for this decision is partially due to numbers. Having once enjoyed a
    circulation in excess of 5 million in the mid-'70s, Playboy has now withered to
    relatively paltry 800,000, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. That’s
    because the Boomers who fueled its astonishing half-century run are dying off; and
    subsequent generations—the Xers and the Millennials—have written off the
    magazine as a creaky, if not embarrassing, artifact of their parents’ (and
    grandparents’) youth. As for those who still need their regular fix of R- and X-rated
    eye candy, the Internet is happy to provide all the action they can ogle. For free.

    But Playboy’s newfound demureness is also the result of a significant cultural
    transformation, not unlike the seismic one that announced its arrival in 1953. When
    the magazine first hit newsstands that December (Marilyn Monroe was both its
    covergirl and centerfold) it captivated the nation, even as it confounded it. As David
    Halberstam explained in his seminal book The Fifties, Hugh Hefner recognized that
    America was in the path of a hurricane of new societal freedoms, particularly those
    that related to gender and sexuality. The Kinsey Report. The Pill. And, later on,
    Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique—each one signaling the first hormonal
    surges of what would ultimately become the sexual revolution.

    “It was Hefner’s particular genius to know that it was now,” wrote Halberstam, “in this
    new era, going to be permissible to have an upscale, slick magazine of male sexual
    fantasies that customers might not be embarrassed to be seen buying—or even to
    leave out on their coffee tables.”

    So Hef ran with his baby, and in the ensuing 60 years, Playboy would go on to
    delight its fans and infuriate its critics, in part because it had the audacity to publish
    first-class fiction (John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, David Foster Wallace, you name
    ‘em) and hard-nosed journalism alongside photos of smiling, naked models, which
    many feminists justifiably labeled objectifying.

    But even as he took hits from all corners, Hefner was—and remains—obsessed
    with staying true to his crusade for freedom. During my time at the magazine, we
    were required to write and report on the righteous battles women continued to wage
    as the century drew to a close—from the fight for reproductive rights to equal pay
    and equal say. At the same time, the company’s philanthropic arm would regularly
    lend support to its alleged enemies, contributing funds to such groups as the
    National Organization for Women, EMILY's List, Planned Parenthood and the
    National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL).

    And that’s where things get ironic. It was this very conscientiousness that helped
    give birth to a new generation of young women (and men) who have successfully
    made the argument that Playboy’s time has passed—at least when it comes to
    pinups. It’s the reason that Maxim, that other “laddy mag,” has also recently
    shuttered its British print edition. And it’s the reason my daughters have sternly
    directed me to remove my back issues of Playboy from the living room shelf—and I
    have quietly acquiesced to that “request.”

    It would be easy to make fun of Hugh Hefner—as some in the news media have
    already begun doing—for staying too long at the party. To the contrary, I say here’s
    a tip of the bunny ears to a guy who’s worn his pajamas to work for 62 years and, in
    the process, helped make the culture a little more grown-up.

    As for the “girl next door” who will no longer grace the gatefold of Hef’s
    “Entertainment for Men” monthly, what can I say? Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.


    (Photo from Instant Memories)