Is nothing sacred?
Yeah, I know—icons topple, certainties fade and assumptions aren’t what they used to be. Much of that turmoil is useful. Our species would not have stumbled forward to this exalted state were it not for our capacity to adapt to circumstances. And on a personal level change keeps the game interesting—what’s the point of it all if each day is the same as the last?
But that doesn’t mean that coping with change is easy.
I awoke one recent morning to the news that Playboy magazine is jettisoning its photographs of stark naked women. I’m no longer a regular peruser of the publication, so my reaction was merely philosophical: “Holy shit!”
This event marks the end of an era in which I have lived my life. (I was created in 1952, Playboy in 1953.) The tremulous excitement of a thirteen-year-old boy opening a dog-eared copy of Playboy pulled from an inconspicuous drawer requires no elaboration for males of my age cohort. The memory is visceral and has something to do with how we have thought about ourselves for decades after pubescence.
For the record, I was a precocious thirteen-year-old. I swear that I really did “read the articles.” Eventually, anyway. The glossy pages of Playboy shaped my view of that murky adult world that I knew awaited, and of which I had minimal direct experience. I was a middle-class kid and I read a lot, so I figured I was destined to live my adult life in one of those sleek business offices in which guys wearing skinny ties flirted suavely with receptive women sporting puffy hair and big breasts. And I looked forward to it.
I’ve read that Playboy’s good fortune was to appear at a time when millions of American men were finding themselves the first in their families to attend college and go to work in the corporate hierarchy that bloomed after the big war. They secretly feared that they lacked the sophisticated skills expected in their new roles, so Playboy was a convenient handbook for the aspiring white-collar hipster. Sure, the tits and ass were an attraction, but maybe also a cover for even more sensitive motivations—learning how to be a success, or at least not embarrass oneself, in an unfamiliar environment.
For me Barbie Benton’s perky nipples (the image remains permanently etched in my retinal nerves) did inspire an odd flutter in my gut, but the deeper allure was the prospect that I would someday, in that distant future that lay ten or fifteen years ahead, be a player among these handsome sophisticates. Spinning jazz LPs on the hi-fi, mixing drinks for visitors to my bachelor pad, discussing art or liberal politics with an understated savoir faire (and knowing what “savoir faire” means). Yeah, that was gonna be great.
Time has, as they say, passed, and I no longer read Playboy. I don’t even lock the bathroom door any more. But I still appreciate Mr. Hefner’s creation. OK, I did find out that those corporate offices were not nearly as exciting as I expected, and adults are really not that damn sophisticated, but ya gotta start somewhere, and Playboy was a pretty good source of inspiration to get things rolling. And I found that real tits are even better than the glossy photographs.
So I note the passing of an era with a warm appreciation and sincere gratitude. Hef, thank you for your service.