Let’s start this essay with a poem shall we?
High on his stockroom ladder like a dunce
The stock-boy sits, and studies like a sage
The subject matter of one glossy page,
As lost in curves as Archimedes once.
Sometimes, without a glance, he feeds himself.
The left hand, like a mother-bird in flight
Brings him a sandwich for a sidelong bite,
And then returns it to a dusty shelf.
What so engrosses him? The wild décor
Of this pink-papered alcove into which
A naked girl has stumbled, with its rich
Welter of pelts and pillows on the floor,
Amidst which, kneeling in a supple pose,
She lifts a goblet in her farther hand,
As if about to toast a flower-stand
Above which hovers an exploding rose
Fired from a long-necked crystal vase that rests
Upon a tasseled and vermilion cloth
One taste of which would shrivel up a moth?
Or is he pondering her perfect breasts?
Nothing escapes him of her body’s grace
Or of her floodlit skin, so sleek and warm
And yet so strangely uniform,
But what now grips his fancy is her face,
And how the cunning picture holds her still
At just that smiling instant when her soul,
Grown sweetly faint, and swept beyond control
Consents to his inexorable will.
Playboy, by Richard Wilbur
There was a time when, like this young man, I enjoyed reading Playboy magazine. That time has since passed. One should not leap to the conclusion that this love died when I recognized myself as a feminist for I still hold in my possession a thick tome entitled 50: The Playboy Book which collects the various centerfolds, artwork, cartoons, and snippets of interviews (the last respectable component of that once, dare I say great, periodical) that brings me both personal joy and occasional intellectual engagement. It should be noted as I write this that my wife, that I hold most dearly in my heart, is most likely contemplating the “accidental” destruction of this tome but let us resume the examination.
The above poem presents in my mind a delightfully male experience while ending with a powerful feminist sentiment. I was five years old when I first discovered one of my father’s Playboys. Stealing the magazine to my bedroom I studied each “portrait” as a contemporary art graduate student might study the work of Raphael or Francis Bacon. Each color, line, contour, and crevice became something new in my psyche. Something to be considered, further studied, and eventually understood. I returned the Playboy only to steal it several more times over the course of my development. (There’s yet to be a word created for the inevitable confrontation between father and son when your actions have been discovered; it is terrifying with a soupcon of personal achievement since your father has now recognized your libido making you “a man.”). On a personal note what fascinated me most about the female
form was not the great curvaceous mounds of flesh later to be assigned the sublime name of breasts, but in fact was the territory below them that I later discovered was the source of so much male fascination and discomfort: pubic hair. (On yet another side note, to this day I have never fully understood men’s intense devotion to scoring “pussy” and then simultaneously becoming repulsed should anyone even consider mentioning menstruation; why spend so much time thinking about something you want to know nothing about). Studying these women’s bodies at such a young age I could not possibly consider sexual intercourse with them, but their airbrushed perfect forms arranged so in sync with their surroundings made me recognize the atmosphere of sex and feel with such intensity the possibility for bliss. Every man will encounter the image of a naked woman, and hopefully it will be as pleasant as mine was. In my mind I do not believe there is anything tawdry or obscene in observing and appreciating nude bodies, whether they be female or male (and in fact I would always prefer children to encounter soft core pornography by accident such as Playboy before being exposed to horror films, call me what you will I will not apologize for this). The poem succeeds in capturing for us, that definitively male moment in which we discover the erotic enticement of voyeurism.
Were that such joys did not regress into something sour.
When I was eighteen years old I received the inevitable enticement in the mail. 12 issues of Playboy at half the retail price. Rock & Roll, Bill Murray movies on Friday night, and Playboy seem to be the defining moments of American male youth (or at least they used to be). My parents paid for my subscription (my mother’s smile and warm giggle remains a hysterical reaction to me now when she said “Hey Playboy sent you the subscription card”) and at least three months later the black wrapped magazine arrived. Ripping through the protective seal I stared upon the cover. Looking back at it now I envy my previous self. Anna Faris is on the cover, her blond locks puffed out. She’s wearing a pink two piece. The subtitles promise an article on the rise of Guns N’ Roses (a band which, at that time, was shaping my life alongside the master work of SLIPKNOT). The Interview was with Dana White, the current head of the UFC and the centerfold (that supposed paradigm-changing-social-movement-inspired magnum opus according to numerous sources, most of which originate from Playboy employees themselves) was Valerie Mason.
Playboys came and accumulated and over time something began to happen. The magazine stopped being exciting. Where was the thrill of observing the female form. It was gone. Interviews became the one solace as adds dominated, the articles ceased becoming inspiring, the artwork and arrangement of the magazine inspired migraines, and month after month I was reminded that Hugh Hefner was surrounded by beautiful women and I was a long-haired nobody listening to rock music and going nowhere. (Though let me be clear, the intense love of rock music remains in my mind my one the few redeeming values of my existence at this time in my life, apart from my writing).
The image of the boy refusing to tear his eyes away from the page as he swallows up the arranged and approved position photograph is definitively male, and while the initial appreciation is nothing to feel ashamed for the continual hunger allows for festering to take place. The picture assumes a “cunning” will overpowering the model, nameless it should be noted, and the inevitable shudder must be felt as “when her soul,/Grown sweetly faint, and swept beyond control/Consents to his inexorable will.” It is at this moment when a power play has assumed the “dangerous pornography” has assumed precedent over sexual exploration.
Over time my appreciation of Playboy diminished because the women assumed less and less real reality to them. They were pages to be quickly devoured and forgotten. Playboy, much to my disgust, annoyance, and repugnance, continues to this day to include childhood photos and profile personalities with their centerfolds as if to emotionally connect the viewers to this fraud of a feminine form when in fact all it does is create the juxtaposition of childhood and erotica (an odious combination which borders on child pornography in my mind). Why must these photos be present? The traditional argument has been that Playboy provides numerous women modeling opportunities when this is simply not the case. The standard behavior of many Playmates is to have the pictures taken, receive the “bounty” of cash prize, and then book it in hopes achieving whatever it was pushed that them to pursue such a path and dreams in the first place. It is not enough that Playboy attempts to provide these women with a “soul” and a “past”, but the back of the centerfold also provides a glimpse at what is surely the greatest pulp and piffle manufactured by a porn industry. Playmates are encouraged to provide a few personal facts about their character (because what self respecting masturbator doesn’t appreciate character in the object of his desire). Many of these have clearly been written by an outside party to cater to the ravenous intent of the lonely desperate for some form of human connection. The name is at the top of the page, promptly followed by bust, waist, hips, height, and weight respectively (but we want to hear about your personality too) followed by ambitions, Turn-ons, Turn-offs, “My philosophy of life” (this adage tends to annoy me because it unravels the power of philosophy by reducing human experience to a few manufactured platitudes and clumsily employed irony that would make anyone sick), and the rest are merely attempts to create a pseudo-connection between the object and her audience to encourage the purveyor that the object they are ingesting with their eyes is in fact an independent woman who you could honestly meet on the street. And then bang.
All of these ultimately amount to a cheap and contemptible experience that does little to create a genuine sense of what sex is. The body plans possess all the personality of a high school geometry text-book, and the racial diversity of Playboy is surely one the numerous ignored civil rights issues of our time (the few latina women present in the magazine are perhaps the whitest women you will ever see outside of Iceland). Playboy’s self promoted centerfold is perhaps the most detestable aspect of the magazine and one of the chiefest reason I have abandoned a subscription to it (not entirely true, I’m currently receiving the magazine again. I considered giving it a second chance and this remains one of my greatest mistakes for the magazine has abandoned what little charm it ever possessed).
But doesn’t Playboy, my invisible contester butts in as always, I’d be nothing without him or her, provide an opportunity for men to retreat and feel confident in themselves.
Playboy has sold the “myth” of itself, as any good car salesman sells you the truck that has no starting fluid, windshield wipers, or even a damn engine. I will grant the magazine that at the time of its publication they were instrumental in at least encouraging the conversation for open displays of sexuality without fear of social or legal reprisal. However Playboy has since paraded itself as one of the top dogs in the “Sexual Revolution” that took place in this country during the 1960’s, when in fact their influence has encouraged only a prolongation of domination in pornography. There are no men in the centerfolds that may appeal to female viewers. In fact almost every presentation of men within the magazine are portrayed as, clothed for one thing, an alpha male of contemporary society or else a horny imbecile. Some may argue that this is merely an attempt to provide men escapist entertainment from the grind of their daily routine, which would be fine were it not for the fact that the rhetoric of Playboy is not just an escape, but a lifestyle to aspire to.
Playboy is no longer selling a magazine that encourages men to wear suits, drink martinis, and live a sexual life without shame(odd how it is only ever in apologies or defenses that such a similar lifestyle is encouraged for women), it is now a fully functioning corporation intent upon the selling of videos, a television channel, assorted merchandise including flasks, lighters, and even perfume in an effort to be branded, as my mother and sister so charmingly put it when the topic arises, “Smut with Class.”
Therein lies a conundrum of Playboy. The women are objects to be observed and appreciated, they are decoration no different from the couch, liquor cabinet, or the golf clubs tucked between the red-head’s legs. The young boy observed in Wilbur’s poem assumed tremendous weight as we consider the position of pornography in our daily lives. A child today is expected to see at least 100 images of pornography by the age of twelve (that is a conservative estimate by the way). These images are surely nothing like the centerfolds our fathers and grandfathers (and yes mothers and Grandmothers) will have witnessed. Women can be gangbanged, performing blowjobs, receiving vaginal or (as is more often the case these days) anal penetration, all while wearing outfits stolen from a twelve years olds dresser cabinet and fucking in bedrooms modeled to purposefully demonstrate severe youth. In such extreme cases surely Playboy cannot seem so bad.
While I will admit that I would prefer my son or daughter to stumble upon an image from Playboy than from a hardcore website (it’s far easier to explain a naked woman riding a horse than bukkake), it is still a presentation of sexuality that is skewed. Until this power-play masquerading as open-mindedness has been resolved we the readers of this pornographic magazine will remain, as Wilbur said it best, “High on his stockroom ladder like a dunce.”
Writing this essay I struggled with my own feelings for there is an impulse to merely shrug and say, “It’s just Playboy, what harm could come from it?” That impulse must be fought. It is ridiculous to suppress the libido, for I am a mammal and a human being subject to error and impulse. However, if that impulse must come at the cost of individual will and misogynist domination then I cannot in good conscience remain silent. I believe Playboy magazine can be appreciated in the first sentiment expressed in the early stanzas of Wilbur’s poem, for that discovery of sexuality is one of life’s greatest joys. However the implied domination that arises and profits from the control of the rhetoric of sexual expression must be contested, for in that way the magazine, and others like it, can dictate our sentiment and ideas concerning procreation. When we are told the behavior of our impulses, rather than naturally feeling them, then we have lost a fundamental aspect that defines our species.
Wilbur’s poem reveals a definitive twentieth century impression of sexual experience. Are we satisfied by the impression?