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Goodbye, Playboy

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Playboy, the men’s magazine-turned-‘brand management company’ said this week that it was getting out of the nudity business. ‘The battle has been fought and won,’ Playboy’s CEO, Scott Flanders, told the New York Times, though the announcement sounded more like an admission of defeat.

Flanders came on board in 2009, taking over from Hugh Hefner’s daughter, Christie. He fired 75 per cent of the staff, closed the company’s offices in Chicago and New York, and set about changing the corporate culture – up to a point. (A few years later, Flanders was accused of failing to ‘observe the expected boundaries between a CEO and female employees’ and, apparently, sent on sensitivity training.)

The magazine had been changing already. In 2006, Playboy published ‘The Wisdom of the Doulas’, a short story by Sam Lipsyte that described the travails of a male birthing coach; it may have been the first time since its launch, in 1953, that the magazine acknowledged that procreation was a possible outcome of copulation. In the years that followed, Playboy’s models tended more towards the natural-looking (or, at least, the less obviously enhanced); in 2014, Playboy got rid of the nudes on its website. But only this week did it renege on its raison d’etre.

There’s nothing to be sad about here. For all its pretensions and aspirations – all the in-depth interviews with Nabokov, Schweitzer et al – Playboy couldn’t help but reflect Hefner’s grody personality. But, as with last year’s collapse of the New Republic, you don’t have to mourn the institution to regret the manner of its dismantling. Flanders told the Times that all the changes he’s making were driven by focus groups: ‘The magazine will feature visual artists, with their work dotted through the pages, because research revealed that younger people are drawn to art,’ is one depressing line from the article, which also says that ‘some of the moves, like expanded coverage of liquor’ are ‘partly’ (which is to say, entirely) ‘commercial’. And while Playboy’s ‘chief content officer,’ Cory Jones, told the Times that he remains committed to the interviews, investigative journalism and fiction (by Joseph Heller, Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, Kurt Vonnegut and others), it’s easy to imagine those commitments going the way of the centerfold.

‘The difference between us and Vice,’ Jones said snarkily, ‘is that we’re going after the guy with a job.’ A few hours later, the Times reported that Gloria Steinem – who’d gone undercover as a Playboy Bunny and written about it more than a decade before Jones was born – had been hired by Vice.

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