Will feminist writers save Playboy?

As Playboy's safe-for-work site has passed the one-month mark, a look at the online media's bedazzled reactions, and how the new image suits the old brand

Many online readers probably think of Jezebel.com and Playboy.com as opposites. But Sara Benincasa, an LA-based comedian and freelance writer, contributes to both sites, as well as other female-oriented publications like Bustle and xoJane.

“It didn’t seem contradictory to me,” she says, because both Jezebel and Playboy.com write about sex and gender in a positive way. Her second Playboy piece, urging readers not to look at leaked nude photos of celebrities, came directly from Playboy’s editors, who wanted to argue from that perspective. “I think of it as an oddly respectful publication. I’ve never known it to be nasty or mean,” Benincasa says. “But I found it interesting that to other people it appeared to be contradictory.”

When Playboy.com relaunched in late August as a general interest, safe-for-work site, its new look was the exact opposite of what media-watchers expected, setting off coverage in which commentators described the new types of articles both as “feminist-y,” and as “a ploy for clicks.” The media interest has carried well across the new site’s one-month mark, proving that no matter what, people seem to still care about the old brand.

Prior to the relaunch [NSFW, of course], Playboy.com was mostly nude content, offered in partnership with adult entertainment company Manwin. Their contract just ended, and now the same URL is virtually indistinguishable from any other general buzzy site. (Nude content is still there but has been relocated to a separate Playboy Plus section with a separate URL.)

But executives at Playboy say this wasn’t a ploy, simply a return to what the brand has always been about—inclusivity, a variety of voices, a pro-consent stance and support for women’s rights, according to Cory Jones, senior vice president for digital content. (And of course, while there’s a limit to audience growth for a site with mostly nude content, the audience for more shareable, general-interest fare is almost unlimited.)

Playboy is about being a gentleman,” says Jones, who declined to describe the brand as feminist in an interview. “I think it’s very inclusive. We have had feminist writers forever; we’re extremely pro-women.”

What many of those who commented on the relaunch missed is that this claim appears to be true. Ask people with a deeper knowledge of Playboy’s origins about its pro-women history, and their answer is usually some version of this:

“I’m not surprised that this debate is happening and that they’re making an attempt to embrace that kind of pro-women label. There’s definitely a history that speaks to that inclination,” says Carrie Pitzulo, adjunct professor at the University of West Georgia and author of the book, Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy.

“When the women’s movement emerged, Playboy was very engaged,” Pitzulo says, explaining that while the magazine was always at odds with feminism that challenged conventional beauty standards, the magazine was very outspoken in support of a more liberal feminist platform that worked for public reform and anti-discrimination in the 1960’s and ’70’s.

Sure, founder Hugh Hefner may have had some vested interest in women’s reproductive rights, but Playboy also supported daycares for working mothers, and rape crisis centers, according to Pitzulo. Online readers and media alike were caught off guard when Playboy published feminist writers in 2014 because younger generations are not aware of that history, Pitzulo says.

That rings true to Kate Dries, an associate editor at Jezebel, where she has covered developments at Playboy.

“When I’ve written about Playboy, a lot of the comments come from a vision of the publication that is not rooted in reality,” she says. Most people don’t seem to think of it as a sex-positive publication with quality writing, says Dries (who, by the way, doesn’t see Jezebel and Playboy as opposites, either). Dries has covered Playboy’s numerous attempts to reinvent itself, and believes the brand’s identity has become blurry because there is no balance between the brand’s licensing (a significant source of revenue), its editorial department, and nude content.

“I think they didn’t realize until recently that it diluted their editorial brand,” she says of licensing agreements.

While Playboy is reworking its online identity, the print publication is undergoing improvements too, says Editorial Director Jimmy Jellinek.

“We’re kicking the magazine in a much more upmarket, luxury direction,” he says.

Print, with a circulation of 1.5 million, according to Jellinek, and online share the same audience, he says, describing it as “affluent, successful 18- to 34-year-olds, who are in their second or third job, beginning to make a little bit of money, and looking for refinement as they mold themselves into gentlemen.”

The idea of the gentleman is a buzzword in Playboy’s attempt to return to its roots. Jones has repeated it in numerous interviews, while the focus of Playboy.com’s new advice column is, “What’s a gentleman in this age?

It was clear what a gentleman was when Playboy was launched in 1953, says Michael Kimmel, professor of sociology and gender studies at Stony Brook University. “This is a very cultivated man, who can spell Nietzsche. He is quite upper class.” The titular playboy was a gentleman, who invited women over for intelligent conversation—and sex, says Kimmel, an idea that elevated Playboy from any other dirty magazine. “This was Hefner’s genius,” he says.

Whether it makes sense to revive that identity online and some 60 years later will be the new Playboy.com’s challenge to prove. The brand is not only facing the well-known challenges of all other legacy publications but struggles with the added challenge that free online pornography has cut into the men’s mag business. Larry Flynt recently declared that Hustler will not survive as a magazine, while Maxim too is going in the direction of general interest.

So far, though, the new safe-for-work website has been a success, and the audience has tripled since the relaunch, says Jones (Playboy doesn’t release traffic data), with a fairly consistent readership from week to week suggesting that the content has an audience beyond the first viral pieces. Much of the site’s traffic comes from social media, he says.

Still, the relaunch and rebranding haven’t come without its critiques and its pitfalls. Playboy’s site remains blocked by many a filter, categorized as porn. This surely circumvents some of the site’s potential traffic, as well as some of its fans—one of Benincasa’s readers, a librarian, had to momentarily turn the online filter at the library off to access her work, Benincasa told CJR. And Shea Strauss, who created the relaunched Playboy.com’s first viral piece to be labelled feminist, “Should you Catcall her?” (a flowchart designed to almost inevitably answer that question with a “Nope. Don’t do it”), says she still hasn’t told her mother that she works for Playboy.

Though some of Playboy’s online audience may miss the site’s old incarnation as it moves farther from its print counterpart—CJR’s copy still comes with the cover obscured—moving the playmates to a discreet online corner and embracing a contemporary tone on gender may be the brand’s best chance of reaching its 70th anniversary.

“I feel like they’ve joined the conversation, this legacy brand, while still paying respect to their history,” Benincasa says. “I hope it goes very well for them. Anything that contributes to making our culture more sex-positive is a good thing. Playboy can be that if they choose to.”

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Lene Bech Sillesen is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @LeneBechS. Tags: , , ,