'Playboy' and the End of Nudity

by G. Christopher Williams

27 October 2015

Whatever one thinks of Playboy, the idea that more amateurishly produced Internet pornography has become the norm is troubling, particularly from an aesthetic perspective.

So, if you hadn’t heard, Playboy has announced that it will no longer feature nudes in its magazine starting in March of 2016. Now assuming this is not a PR stunt similar to the one pulled by The Sun earlier this year, regarding no longer publishing images of topless women on Page 3, I think this future for Playboy is an interesting one from a cultural standpoint, and it may prove a significant cultural marker in the history of sex in Western culture. (I should note that I assume that the magazine will return to the nude should this turn out to be a failure, of course—practicality, above all else, after all).

I’ve often said that I think that probably the two living men that have had the most significant impact on 20th century media culture (and no, I’m not saying most significant positive or most significant negative cultural impact, just most significant) are Stan Lee and Hugh Hefner. While, perhaps not for this generation of young men, Playboy, for better or for worse, served a central role in the sexual development of the American male for three or four generations.

The idea of Playboy moving away from nudity is, of course, not really the “end of nudity” at all (I just said that to be hyperbolic). Rather, it just shows the way that free and easily accessible pornography has changed the nature of the business.

Whatever one thinks of Playboy, the idea that more overtly hardcore and more amateurishly produced Internet pornography has now become the norm is troubling, particularly from an aesthetic perspective (not that this hasn’t been true for some time, but this move by Playboy marks that transition rather acutely). Some of the best photographers in the world shot for the magazine and their approach to pornography (both Hefner’s and those photographers) had more tact than their other contemporaries (e.g., the approach of Penthouse or Hustler or hardcore pornography in general).

Hefner’s Playboy took what is largely a more traditional approach to the nude (within the context of the place of the nude in the history of art) by displaying the female body as beautiful and erotic and focused on idealizing the body and those values. Much of what typifies the aesthetics of other pornographers has been a more deviant approach to the erotic, focusing on the strange and creating an often bizarrely biological approach to displaying the female body. In other words, Hefner wasn’t interested, as some pornographers (like the aforementioned ones)  seem to be, in essentially giving his viewer the opportunity to look at women as if they were giving them a gynecological exam.

I realize that other more tactful pornographers exist out there, likePerfect 10 magazine or MetArt online, (and indeed Playboy‘s decision to change its approach to the subject of the erotic may give a boost to those kinds of print and online publications and some opportunity for new publications of that sort to arise and fill that niche), but the end of the nude in Playboy may clearly suggest that the nude treated in that way has moved out of the mainstream of pornography and culture more generally, and something more akin to the gynecological approach that I referred to has moved in as the new normal.

Such a phenomenon seems to have already occurred in the American art world, of course. The introduction to art historian, Bram Djikstra’s book Naked: The Nude in America details Djikstra’s difficulties in getting to view the subject matter for his book; the nude as painted, sculpted, or photographed by American artists, and displayed in American art museums. Indeed, he even had difficulty locating nudes created by foreign artists that were owned by American museums, explaining that “over the past fifty years American museums have relegated to deep storage virtually all painted ... versions of attractively nude ... humanity” (Rizzoli, p. 11).

Djikstra explains in more detail the distinction that he’s making between “attractively nude” figures (in other words, nudes that are intended to be displayed as beautiful and erotic) as opposed to the few nudes that have become acceptable in a museum setting: 

The Puritan standards of condemnation that ruled the past may have mutated in the minds of current art critics, but many of them are still so afraid of being focused on sex that they automatically dismiss work that cannot clearly be identified as ironic or fetishistic—and therefore cutting edge. Artists who refuse to assault the body with stylishly perverse psychological or physical deformations are usually dismissed as hopelessly out of tune with today’s art world.” (p.10-11)

While I’m doubtful that most pornographers intend to be “ironic” or “cutting edge” in some artistic sense, descriptions like “fetishistic”, “stylishly perverse”, and “psychological and physical deformations”  seem more appropriate in describing what Playboy‘s announcement seems to symbolize has now become the most familiar and mainstream form of pornography, Internet pornography. Sites like Bang Bros and Bang Bus don’t seem especially interested in presenting erotic, let alone beautiful images of the body. That the word “bang” is present in the title of both sites speaks to how low rent pornographers seem interested in merely recording the act of pounding away at flesh, not in recording erotic imagery. It suggests an approach that appreciates seeing bodies treated with brutality and crudity, not an attempt to appreciate form and ideal.

Admittedly, Djikstra himself is critical of Playboy‘s seemingly fetishistic admiration of women’s breasts. However, he does recognize that in the history of the nude in America, the magazine hews closer to traditions that idealize beauty and sexuality than it does the cutting edge irony and distortion of the body that is more common to contemporary nude images. As I noted, Hefner’s approach to female beauty is a highly idealized one, an idealization represented in the centerfolds of the ‘50s and ‘60s (and largely through the ‘70s and ‘80s) through an emphasis on a particular kind of female body.

Hefner’s playmate was attractive, not like a runway model, but in a familiar, girl-next-door kind of way. That girl-next-door’s sexuality, sensuality, and eroticism was, of course, expressed through her often “extremely” feminine body. Basically, Hefner did seem to favor women who had exceptionally large breasts and wide curvy hips. In some sense, Hefner was looking to photograph fertility goddesses in the flesh, with figures that spoke of female sexuality in the most visually obvious way possible. Essentially, he sought to display the most voluptuous examples of the female body (within certain confines of that description, as Playboy models are never overweight) that he and his photographers could find. This was the ideal feminine.

In this kind of idealization and display, Hefner doesn’t differ much from any number of classic artists. While seized for a time alongside other paintings deemed obscene by the Inquisition, Francisco Goya’s La Maja Desnuda (The Nude Maja) (1797-1800), which features a voluptuous woman displaying the full length of her naked body on a couch, currently hangs in the Museo de Prado in Madrid.

La maja desnuda, Francisco Goya, c. 1797–1800. Museo del Prado, Madrid. 97cm x 190cm (partial) (public domain)

La maja desnuda, Francisco Goya, c. 1797–1800. Museo del Prado, Madrid. 97cm x 190cm (partial) (public domain / Google Art Project)

The erotic quality of the picture is obvious, but is made even more obvious when hung along with Goya’s follow up La Maja Vestido (The Clothed Maja) (1803), a painting identical to the first in subject matter and pose, but in which the same model is fully clothed.

La maja vestida, c. 1803, Francisco Goya (partial) (public domain)

La maja vestida, c. 1803, Francisco Goya (partial) (public domain / Google Art Project)

In Goya in the Twilight of Entertainment, Janis Tomlinson describes an early account of the clothed version of the painting being displayed in front of the nude version. A rope and pulley system allowed the Maja to be disrobed and, thus, for the nude to be erotically displayed to its audience. The painting was intended to be overtly sexual, beautiful, and erotic.

While more naturalistic in tone and rejected by critics for being banal, since it seems to feature two nude prostitutes in the company of two clothed men, the casual quality of Edouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass) (1862-1863) lends to its eroticism. The lack of concern that the women have at being naked before these men, and that these men appear comfortable in the company of two naked women is at once erotic and also seemingly quite taboo.

Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, Edouard Manet (1863) (partial) (public domain)

Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, Edouard Manet (1863) (partial) (public domain / Google Art Project)

However, the way in which the men and women sit together is altogether familiar. Sexuality is not treated as freakish or odd in the painting, but instead it is a part of the lives of these young men and women. The women’s bodies are presented here as voluptuous and beautiful, not as tortured or somehow ironic in this context, as the bodies of women in Bang Bros or Bang Bus videos are treated. The idea that men and women might want to share in mutual pleasure is entirely absent from this kind of presentation of “banging a chick.” By contrast, sex is almost pastoralized in Manet’s casual representation of spending one’s afternoon in the company of attractive women, being with them, chatting with them, with the eventual idea of engaging with them in sex, not one gender simply “banging” the other.

In a world where visual pleasure can be located online through keywords like “creampies” and “bukkake”, “prostate massage” and “granny sex”, Hefner’s approach to the nude as familiar, inviting, and erotic might seem rather quaint and careful. However, there seems to have been an aesthetic of the familiar present in Hefner’s presentation of the nude, which may indeed justify the idea that the erotic body or the pornographic body could be treated more carefully and more artfully than much of pornography is.

Hefner’s playmates did represent an idealized vision of the body, but from a perspective that still assumed that while one might exaggerate certain elements of the female body, still one sought to present the body as something beautiful because it’s something that men admire in the women that actually do surround them. It’s unsurprising, then, that Hefner’s earliest playmates appear in kitchens, bedrooms, and living rooms, spaces that are to be occupied by both sexes together, spaces clearly representing home and domesticity. These are not women picked up in a van called the Bang Bus to be “banged” and then discarded after “the bro” has had his fill. There’s nothing familiar about actual sexuality in such a crude and ugly context. Hefner presented an exceptional body, but a body to appreciated, because normal sexual experiences do not occur in a van with a camera and a bunch of leering onlookers.

Thus, it troubles me that the idea of the nude as represented in Playboy is somehow no longer seemingly relevant to American culture. Hefner doesn’t seem to merely be just like any other pornographer. Certainly, his work is voyeuristic, and he recognized that an empire could be built on the strong instinctual nature of the male gaze. However, if Playboy has managed to teach me something about erotic presentation, it might simply be that if one is to have some interest in sex and the body, and wants to present the body as beautiful and appealing, then at the very least, a little tact might be appreciated. 

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