In 1953, Hugh Hefner invited men between the ages of “18 and 80” to enjoy their journalism with a side of sex. It was Playboy’s inaugural issue, featuring Marylyn Monroe as the centerfold, and it launched an institution that reached behind drugstore counters, onto reality TV, and under dad’s mattresses. It was racy and cutting edge and ultimately, iconic. Posing for Playboy was a daring declaration of success among American actresses and the cause of suspension for a Baylor University student [i]. But edges move, and today, Playboy vestiges can be found on the Food Network.
In August, Playboy stopped showing nude images on their website. The New York Times reports that viewership subsequently increased from 4 million to 16 million. That’s fourfold growth!! In what can only be described as good business sense, the company announced that in March, they will stop including nude women in their magazine as well. Putting clothes on appears surprisingly profitable.
In the NYT piece, Playboy CEO Scott Flanders explains the decision: You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it’s just passé at this juncture… That battle has been fought and won.
Flanders is right. The Internet has changed the sex industry. Pornography has never been more accessible, nor has its consumption been more acceptable. Porn websites draw more visitors than Twitter, Netflix, and Amazon combined. My colleague who studies pornography consumption tells me that among college men, he and his team find about a 90% consumption rate. Today, people take their porn interactive, amateur, queer, multi-partied, penetrational, and however else they come to imagine. What this means for the evolution of sexuality is a complicated can of worms, but what’s clear is that set shots of airbrushed women, arms grasping bedposts, mouths partially open and eyes partially closed, are as outdated as Playboy’s most identifiable medium (the magazine).
So Playboy is going normcore. While normcore first referred to exceptionally unexceptional and gender neutral clothing, it has broadened to mean a pushback against the fast-paced attention demands of an identity-saturated moment, largely facilitated by digital technologies that afford 24 hour news cycles, widespread content creators, and self-started brand initiatives. Normcore is resistance through normalcy—hardcore normalcy.
Playboy will replace the nude images with scantily clad ones. They’ll also return more attention to the journalistic portion of the publication (maybe people really will get it for the stories). A XXX market renders R rated content definitively vanilla, and a move to PG-13 comparatively bold. As evidenced by the brand’s enormous website growth following their decision to put clothes on the models, subtle is the new edgy and “tasteful” is a market niche.
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[i] The incident resulted in a fraternity having to “write essays” as punishment for posing in the same issue fully clothed alongside women in bikinis. The female student who posed nude, however, was indeed suspended. Because, gender.