Playboy, the brainchild of Hugh Hefner, was born in 1953. Its first issue, featuring Marilyn Monroe, was undated because, as Hefner put it, he was not sure there would be a second (Miller 1984). Not only was there a second issue, there has been more than half a century of one of the world's most successful men's sex magazines, one that has continued to be profitable while its competitors have fallen by the wayside and one that brought the nude girlie magazine out of working-class garages and into the cultural mainstream.
Alfred Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) was a major inspiration for Hefner, as was Kinsey's follow-up study of sexual behavior in the female published five years later. Hefner linked himself directly to Kinsey: "We believe … that we are filling a publishing need only slightly less important than the one just taken care of by the Kinsey Report" (Miller 1984, p. 39). Max Lerner commented that "in the sexual revolution Kinsey was the researcher and Hef its pamphleteer" (Petersen 1999, p. 229).
For Hefner, image, in both senses of the term, was the key. His pages created a fantasy world and guide for the man about town. Hefner had the ability to read America after World War II. Whereas other men's magazines touted the great outdoors, Hefner made it clear to his readers that "we plan spending most of our time inside" (Miller 1984, p. 39). The logo created by Hefner's team was a bunny with large ears. Symbolically ambidextrous, the rabbit could represent the sophisticated man about town positioned to enjoy the pleasures of life. As a bunny in a rabbit-eared costume, it represented the available female. Both images function as symbols of sexual activity. In its ubiquity the Playboy rabbit has been second only to the equally large-eared Mickey Mouse, and it survives on clothing and other consumer products as a symbol of openness to sexual pleasure.
Hefner's reader was treated to a monthly female Playmate who was posed provocatively to suggest the American ideal of that time: blond, white, young, and buxom. In 1965 Playboy featured its first African-American Playmate. In the 1970s the magazine felt pressure from other sex magazines, specifically Penthouse, to include pubic hair in the photographs. The Playmate pictorial is the one area of the magazine that Hefner always has insisted on supervising personally. The result has been an extraordinary consistency of vision across the years of changing fashions and sexual mores. The pornographic equivalent of comfort food, Hefner's pictorials feature soft, nonthreatening nude and seminude girl-next-door types and generally eschew the darker provinces of eroticism.
However, Playboy did not restrict itself to pictures of human flesh. In 1956 the magazine began to publish fiction by authors such as Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977) and James Baldwin (1924–1987). In 1962 the Playboy classic interviews began. The list of interviewees included world celebrities in the arts, literature, and politics: Nabokov, Malcolm X (1925–1965), Peter Sellers (1925–1980), Jean Genet (1910–1986), George Wallace (1919–1998), Jimmy Carter (b. 1924), and many others. The pages of the magazine were filled by suggestions from the Playboy Advisor, followed by the Playboy Forum (1963). The Advisor was there to answer questions from readers with problems, whereas the Forum published letters penned by readers. Hefner adumbrated a Playboy philosophy composed of critiques of censorship and advocacy of open sexual expression all wrapped in a democratic egalitarianism and associated with the magazine's rampant consumerism. Playboy succeeded in combining the open sexuality of the girlie magazine tradition with enough high cultural features to create a kind of Hollywood respectability and a durable position among American cultural elites. The opposition of feminists illustrated, for example, by an investigative article penned by the young Gloria Steinem, barely dented the magazine's influence as Hefner took a prowomen's rights but prosexual liberation stance.
Hugh Hefner did not simply publish a revolutionary magazine but changed the face of sex world wide. He created a veritable corporation, including Playboy Clubs in many cities, a phase in the development of the Playboy Enterprises that later was eliminated. As head of the empire Hefner has been succeeded by his daughter, Christie Hefner. Despite some grim naysayers, Playboy Enterprises has remained a major forum for sex because of its successful combination of consistency and adaptation to the American culture that gave it birth.
Acocella, Joan. 2006. "The Girls Next Door." The New Yorker, March 20, pp.144-148.
Kinsey, Alfred; Wardell B. Pomeroy; and Clyde E. Martin. 1988. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Miller, Russell. 1984. Bunny: The Real Story of Playboy. London: Michael Joseph.
Petersen, James R. 1999. The Century of Sex: Playboy's History of the Sexual Revolution 1900–1999, ed., with foreword by Hugh M. Hefner. New York: Grove Press.