November 17, 2008
Contemplating the significance of Playgirl’s end
There was an article today in the New York Times about the recent end to Playgirl magazine. Recently it’s publisher cancelled the magazine’s distribution. I pulled out a few things from the article that I felt were very telling:*
So [in trying to rebrand Playgirl after the emphasis on gay imagery by previous ownership and editors] she and her fellow editors, all women in their 20s and all relative neophytes to the world of magazines — and pornography — resolved to fill Playgirl with something different. They aspired to bring Playgirl back to its roots, back to a time when the magazine covered issues like abortion and equal rights, interspersing sexy shots of men with work from writers like Raymond Carverand Joyce Carol Oates.
All the while, the editors juggled the demands of the publisher, Blue Horizon Media, which they said pushed to fill Playgirl with even more nudes and fewer words.
“I’m not a publishing expert, but it seems to me like it would be impossible to sustain a magazine on the quantity of ads Playgirl sold,” Ms. Collins said.
Although the Playgirl Web site is still running, the graphic content is geared more toward gay men. None of the magazine’s editors are involved.
Ms. Caldwell [one of only 3 editors] said Playgirl magazine suffered from the twin malaises of rising costs and declining sales.
Playgirl was started 35 years ago as a feminist response to Playboy and Penthouse. (Playboy sued Playgirl in 1973 for trademark infringement; the suit was settled amicably.) Over the years, the magazine changed ownership, began catering more to gay men, and whittled its operations down. Still, the magazine drew an avid readership, Ms. Caldwell said, selling 600,000 copies per issue in more than three dozen countries.
“For better or worse, this was a real blow for feminism. We were the only magazine that offered naked men to women.”
In the end, Playgirl was run by a skeleton crew of these three editors, along with what Ms. Caldwell described as “a whole horde of eager unpaid interns.”
The magazine had no marketing or public relations budget, so its editors sought to revive the Playgirl brand themselves, throwing parties at a Lower East Side bar. After Blue Horizon denied a request to finance a blog, Ms. Collins built one herself, starting it on WordPress, a free platform.
Their efforts, the women said, got virtually no support; indeed, their higher-ups, all of them men, usually resisted their push to give the magazine editorial heft.
Early in 2008, warning signs surfaced. While newsstands sales were up, Ms. Caldwell said, so were production costs.
The magazine’s editors said they were never told why the magazine was shut down. But, they said, they were always struck by the paucity of ads.
I quote these segments, because I can see the writing on the wall: pornography for women is not economically viable–see, Playgirl proves it! But the recurring themes I see in the Playgirl story is a lack of conceptual, financial, and marketing support by the male-controlled publisher. While the women editors wanted a mix of smart, political writings (a la Playboy), the men-in-charge wanted image content over textual content; while the (very small staff of) women thought up creative publicity schemes, they received no support from the male publishing heads. Clearly, these women had a vision for where the magazine should go, and it didn’t seem to fit in with what the publishers had in mind. Whether the publishers were trying to make the magazine fail, or were taking a laisse-faire approach, or would only endorse a women’s skin magazine that didn’t threaten male privilege or appeal to thinking women, they succeeded. It seems to be that after 2 decades of gay-targeted imagery in Playgirl, that the publisher needed to include some additional resources in order to rebrand the magazine, something they clearly were unwilling to do.
I also have to wonder what kind of assumptions dictated the actions (or inactions) of the publisher. Was the too-small quantity of ads a result of the assumption that they couldn’t sell ad-space in a women’s sex magazine to businesses? Are those in positions of power in the sex industry (read: white men) still unwilling to come to terms with women as sexual consumers, not just products?
So despite a strong readership, the magazine failed for structural reasons–a lack of institutional supports. I want to point this out because I get pretty frustrated when women continue to see a lack in the cultural representation of their interests, especially regarding women’s sexuality (the doing part of women’s sexuality, not the being a sex object part of it), the common response to such critiques is “then do it yourself.” Clearly, that’s not enough, because even a magazine with an increasing circulation and publishing longevity such as Playgirl is thwarted by the publishing powers-that-be, who quite like their position of power in the sex industry and their ability to dictate what sexual representations get distributed and which do not. It’s clearly not enough to produce sexual entertainment that doesn’t degrade women’s humanity or agency when one does not own the means of production. Sure, there are many women who have control over the direction their sex work takes; but what happens if the desired direction contradicts the kind of output that the publishing and producing higher-ups want? Will these same women still have control if those who own the means of production are largely white men?
This is of course not to say that the many women-run sex websites are not important or are irrelevant; indeed they are not. One especially good one I’d like to point out is Ms. Naughty’s website and excellent sex blog. But there is something to be said about the inclusion of women’s desires and women-as-consumers in mainstream venues, where sexual entertainment for women is highly visible and is part of the mainstream sex market, rather than relegated to a secondary, niche status. Visibility is needed in order to challenge the assumption that porn=pictures of naked women in uncomfortable positions, or that porn=videos of women doing things that make men feel good or that (het) men like to watch. I have written before about how all to often porn sites, by their very language and categories, assume that porn consumers are (het or gay) men. I use one example in that post but there are many–for another quick example, this one is one I stumbled on a while ago claims to be a classy, couple-friendly site, with tasteful pornographic images, yet by their front page advertising, it seems to forget (at least) half of the couple’s potential sexual interest: there are no men! Indeed, the site assumes that the woman-half of the couple would enjoy looking at women, but absolutely impossible that the man-half might enjoy looking at pictures of men, and that the woman-half’s possible (likely?) interest in male bodies is irrelevant to the couple. The focus on male-as-consumer and women-as-product is true of the porn industry as a whole; how else does porn with two women get categorized as heterosexual by the AVN awards? How else is there no distinction by the AVN between girl-girl and lesbian porn? How is there a new starlet category for new hot female actors, but not male actors?** And how else does the Gay Adult Video awards not include lesbian porn? So in addition to challenging the assumptions of sex culture and the sex industry, there’s also a legitimacy effect of such visibility that gets lost when the expression and consumption of women’s sexual desires takes place primarily or solely in the expanse of the internet, rather than on store shelves, where it can be easily lost or never seen. (This is why I list several sex stores and resources for women on my blogroll-”proving” a market for women consumers is important.)
It seems to me that this was the perfect time to rebrand Playgirl. Because of the internet, there is easier access to a greater variety of sexual imagery (and according to 2006 statistics, women account for a third of online pornography viewers). Not that it’s very easy to weed out the quality, non-sexist sites, or that those are as inexpensive, but it’s easier than in the past when one might have depended on the male-dominated and often sexist choices from your local sex shop. I think women are more interested in sexual entertainment than in the past, because there is more available that speaks to them in a non/less-sexist way. I don’t want to romanticize it–the bulk of porn is male-focused and rather problematic for sexist, racist, and heterosexist reasons, not to mention questionable labor practices. But the internet has help with the, um, exposure of a greater variety of imagery available to those with anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-heteronormative, non-phallocentric sensibilities.
It is unfortunate, then, that the Playgirl staff cannot get the support they need in order to be able to de-center phallocentric sexuality, and to provide equal opportunity eroticism + smart writing.
*disclaimer: this post is not meant to endorse Playgirl, per se. My goal is to point out that consumer interest is not enough for an endeavour that threatens existing power structures, as well as to discuss why such endeavours are important for challenging gender ideologies. All in all, I am using this recognizable example to discuss a structural issue.
**While I’m on the topic, can I say how sad the category of “young girl” feature is, defined as a film that markets females ages 18-21. News flash: teenagers are girls, period. Young girls are adolescents or younger. 18-21 year olds can only be marketed as “young girls” by an industry that refuses to identify its participants as women, denying them the intellectual and emotional maturity, responsibility, and independence that the term “woman” confers.