Ner's One-Time Revolution
In honor of Hugh Hefner's 80th birthday the other day, I went out and bought a copy of Playboy magazine. This was, to the very best of my recollection, the first Playboy I have ever bought. I was interested to note that my suburban newsagent, without being asked, put it in a brown paper bag for me.
Not that I have been unacquainted with the magazine. At various times since the late 1960s I have read copies that were being passed around by guys I knew, or that I found in club common rooms and the like. I was once stuck penniless and unemployed in a travelers' hostel in the Far East with nothing but a stack of old Playboys for company. I'm pretty familiar with the thing. My not having bought it before isn't due to any kind of distaste, nor to any particular point of principle — against the objectification of women's bodies, for example. So far as all that is concerned, I'm a pure libertarian. Playboy isn't even an exceptionally pricey publication (currently $5.99), and anyway I have at various points in my life been quite prosperous, so the expense wouldn't have been an obstacle.
It's just that Playboy isn't my kind of magazine. I hadn't bought it until last week for the same reason I have never bought a copy of MotorcycleWorld or BirdWatcher's Digest. I know enough about Playboy to know that it's not just a skin mag, it's a package — according to its founder, indeed, it's a philosophy. The package is targeted at boulevardiers, at bon vivants, at connoisseurs and gourmets (what a need we seem to have for French words in this zone!) or — much more often, I am sure — at those who would like to imagine themselves as such. It's for guys who think about appearance and style a lot — having the right car, the right clothes, the right aftershave, the right gadgets, the right level of interest in sports. That kind of guy. And I'm just not that kind of guy. That's all.
The late Bernard Levin once wrote about walking with a couple of books under his arm along a street in London's Soho, back in the days when Soho was a red light district, in which streetwalkers actually walked the streets, or more commonly stood around on the streets sizing up passers-by as possible business prospects. Passing two such, Levin overheard one of them say: "Not that one. Look, he's got books." Now, I'm not going to argue the relative merits of books against the kinds of pleasures advertised in Playboy (which, to be fair, includes a page of book mini-reviews), but it's a plain fact that there isn't much of an intersection between boulvardiers and littérateurs — between guys who care enough about sports cars, designer socks, brands of vodka, and nude women to shell out $5.99 and some corresponding amount of reading time on them, and guys who, as some Anglican bishop is supposed to have said, would rather curl up in bed with a nice Trollope.
And in fact, in spite of not having been much of a Playboy reader, I did once read a book about Playboy: Russell Miller's 1985 Bunny — The Real Story of Playboy. I can only recall two things from the book. The first was the custom among Hefner's inner-inner circle to differentiate themselves from the mere inner circle, who referred to the great man as "Hef," by referring to him among themselves as "Ner." For some reason I find this usage so irresistible, I'm going to adopt it for the rest of this column. The other thing I remember is the utter crushing boredom of Ner's lifestyle — the all-night games of Monopoly, the endless vapid partying, the heroic consumption of Coca Cola, the succession of interchangeable bimbos: Mandy, Sandy, Candy, Brandy. Richard Branson goes round the world in balloons; Scott McNealy plays hockey; Bill Gates tends his business meticulously; Ner just partied. (He had given up active involvement in his creation long before Miller wrote his book.)
Stasis, in fact, is the main characteristic of Playboy, as of its founder's own lifestyle. The whole thing is frozen in time, like some image of the Garden of Eden. The main impulse to my buying the May 2006 Playboy was indirect: not to peruse the ads for ideas about how to spend my pitiful quantity of disposable income, nor to read the interview with Ozzie Guillen (of whom I had never heard), nor even to cast a lustful eye on the naked girls (honestly!) I was mainly just curious as to where the thing had gone to since the last time I looked into it — which was, I think, around 1977. And the short answer is: nowhere. I suppose there have been tremendous advances in printing technology since 1977, and three or four revolutions in magazine layout, ad design, and so on. Content-wise, though, Playboy is one of those curious, and oddly reassuring, instances of stasis in human affairs, like Pez dispensers, the standard big-house opera repertory, or Fidel Castro's speeches.
Playboy Man, homo lascivus, still drinks tequila or exotic brands of imported vodka. He still wants to buy, or fantasize about buying, sleek sports cars. (In this issue, a 2007 Jaguar XK convertible: "The joy starts the moment you sink into the leathery cockpit…") He still smokes cigarettes, though Ner gave up his famous pipe several years ago after his stroke. Playboy Man still seeks advice about fine-tuning his lifestyle, sexual and otherwise. He still wants a dash of highbrow commentary and fiction — in this issue, a rather good diary of a trip to Iraq with Dick Cheney by Fox News journalist James Rosen, and a feeble short story by Joyce Carol Oates. And of course, he still wants to look at young women's naked bodies in soft-porn poses.
Leafing through Playboy, you would never know that the great social revolutions of our time had happened. Gay liberation, feminism, affirmative action, the rise of the internet — barely a mention. Even the revolution in race relations from the 1960s on might never have taken place. There are almost no black people in this issue of the magazine. Of the 115 naked breasts on display (yes, I counted them — no labor too arduous in pursuit of truth), not one is black. All but half a dozen are Caucasian. If you exclude the ads, in fact, I think there is only one picture of a black person. She, however, is a former (January '04) centerfold model, pictured here clothed, at some sort of convention. There's nothing racist about Ner, or Playboy. The first black centerfold showed up in March 1965, and there have been many since. The paucity of black faces (or other parts) in this particular issue likely just reflects the fact that we have come right through the racial revolution and out the other side, to a place where Playboy feels no obligation to fulfil any race quotas, either one way or the other.
Similarly with feminism. To anyone who fears that our colleges and universities are dominated by politically-correct dogmas, enforced by grim crop-haired feminists, Playboy's 10-page section on Top Ten Party Schools offers welcome reassurance. Here are 40-odd corn-fed American college girls stripped to the buff, in blithe ignorance of, or defiance of, all the labors of Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, and Andrea Dworkin. Not one of the girls is identified as pursuing Women's Studies. (The majors identified are: Communications, Art, Biology, Education, Public Health, Communications again, Nursing, Pharmacy, Interior Design, Math (hey!), and Drama.)
The famous centerfold offers further evidence of the essentially static and, yes, conservative, nature of Playboy. Her texture, her pout, her poses, her accessories, the lighting, are as stylized as a Kabuki drama. These things were settled long ago. What need to change them? True, you see a bit more of the lady than you did back in 1960, but only a very little bit, and the constraints of the soft-porn format mean that there is no further distance to be traveled along this road. To be perfectly frank, I found Miss May about as sexy as a ball bearing. Those college girls, by contrast, actually look like actual people you might actually meet somewhere, and are correspondingly more interesting. Most engaging of all, though occupying a mere half a page, is the "Employee of the Month" item, featuring an orthodontic treatment coordinator named Jennifer Harrison, a real girl-next-door type with a chirpy style of dialogue.
Playboy. Is your body an issue when you're with a patient?
Jennifer. It can be. When patients come in for their initial consultation, I take what we call intraoral photos. I have to get extremely close to the patient's face with the camera, and sometimes I'll straddle him. It's been brought to my attention that sometimes that's too intimate …
I wonder if I've left it too late to go for orthodontal treatment?
I suppose there are social conservatives who find Playboy objectionable on moral grounds, but it all seems pretty harmless to me. I don't think I'll be buying any more issues, but it's strangely comforting to know that it, and its progenitor, are still around, fixed points in a changing world. Ner's revolution was of the kind that, once accomplished, requires no further changes — insists, in fact, that no further changes be made, for fear of losing the affections of what must be a fairly stable market segment. In that respect, Playboy is a conservative magazine. With that in mind, from an employee of one fifty-something conservative magazine to the founder of another, I offer belated birthday greetings to Ner. Party on, guy.