Reclaiming the Centerfold

You have arrived. At this point, you are halfway through this glimpse at the student body. Hopefully, you have considered your own body in relation to it. What is important is that you and your body are here now, in the center of this magazine. If this were Playboy, if this were Hustler, if this were any number of other adult magazines, you would be staring at a naked woman right now. She would be staring back. Maybe she’s laying on a couch with a cigarette in her mouth. Maybe she’s standing there in boots. If you are reading something more R-rated than Playboy, you might not even bother with the setting. Regardless, she is the literal and metaphorical focal point of this edition. She has some title like “Playmate of the Month,” and listed alongside her are her birthdate, measurements, turn-ons and turn-offs. Maybe she will even get picked to be the Playmate of the Year – a title that comes with a cash payment and a new car lease. She seems happy to be here. She’s following in the footsteps of figures like Marilyn Monroe, after all.

On the topic of Marilyn Monroe’s figure: she didn’t get paid for it. Hugh Hefner used the photo without her permission, and she had to buy a copy of Playboy just to see it. The original photo shoot was a last-ditch effort to make a car payment of $50 – this was before her big acting break. The photographer sold them to be made into a pinup calendar for $900. Hugh Hefner bought the rights to the photos for $500 and sold the magazine featuring “the better” of the two nude shots for 50 cents. Monroe only ever saw that first $50, but her photos helped launch Playboy and Hefner into stardom. They had never met, and they never would. Now, the two of them lie side by side at the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery – almost certainly with the same amount of consent on Monroe’s part that she was able to give for the use of her photographs: none.

The history of the modern centerfold begins with an act of desperation and ends with a man’s willingness to profit from it. Since then, the pay has certainly been higher, but the goal is the same: profiting off of women’s bodies, even under the guise of social progress. Throughout the years, the centerfold has diversified its ranks, including Playboy’s first openly transgender Playmate, Ines Rau – Playmate of the Month for November 2017. To the magazine’s credit, Rau was not the first-ever transgender model to be featured in Playboy, just the first to be picked as Playmate of the Month. Cooper Hefner, son of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, has attempted a more inclusive rebranding of the magazine following Hefner’s death in 2017. The magazine’s tagline was changed from “entertainment for men” to “entertainment for all,” to start. The younger Hefner insists that the legacy of his father is one of creating conversations about sex that are healthy and open. Supporters of the Playboy mission claim that Hefner was a champion of women, supporting women’s rights and allowing them to feel empowered in their nudity. It can hardly be surprising that Hefner, as the founder of a magazine and cultural phenomenon based on sex, was an advocate for abortion rights. Is this what he thought of when using Monroe’s picture to sell his first issue? Can a woman be “empowered” without her permission? Critics of Hefner and Playboy take issue with this stance.

 Despite the claims of empowered nudity, all-nude centerfolds were done away with completely by Playboy in 2015. In response to a surge in the accessibility of online nudity, the magazine tried to rely more on its journalism and lifestyle pieces. This ban turned out to be nothing more than a hiatus, and nude photographs were reintroduced in 2017. It seems the tradition is too deeply rooted in Playboy’s history to get rid of. Another question arises from this situation: why do away with the nude shots if they were “empowering” to women? Perhaps because the problem was one of access, not empowerment. Even while professing to encourage the sexual freedom of “girls next door,” the accompanying commentary was more often sexist than not. New York Times Culture writer Amanda Hess describes Hefner’s brand as being “about power” and the dynamics between men and women rather than purely about sex or sexual liberation. The fact is, the nude photographs were not and are not aimed at celebrating nudity or empowering women with their own sexuality. The centerfold celebrates Hugh Hefner’s fantasy: young women with “a healthy, intelligent, American look—a young lady that looks like she might be a very efficient secretary or an undergrad at Vassar.”

This fantasy, through Hefner’s massive success, has had much larger cultural effects. Psychologist Dr. Gary R. Brooks coined the term “centerfold syndrome” to explain the deeply ingrained objectification of women that young boys learn through years of ogling at women in magazines – traditionally, the centerfold model is the most coveted picture of them all. Because of the habitual practice of focusing on an unrealistic woman’s body rather than on the woman herself, these boys grow up to be men who see all the women around them in this objectifying light. Hefner’s ideal woman has become the ideal to which many men hold other women. More than this, Hefner’s success rested on his ability to make the centerfold a coveted position for the models themselves. An aspect of Playboy nudes that differentiated it from its competitors early on was the fact that the women actually looked like they wanted to be there instead of just posing for the payment. Hugh Hefner convinced large swaths of his audience not only that this unachievable fantasy was good, but that it was the fantasy of the women as well.

The centerfold has come a long way since the early days of Playboy. Some of that progress is common sense, like compensating models and making sure they are of age before photo shoots. Other areas have seen the magazine become more inclusive, but at the root of it all – in the seams of the centerfold – is the objectification of women. Where do we go from here? How can magazines like Playboy turn away from this harmful cycle of objectification and towards a brand of nudity and sex positivity that actually celebrates women? Many publications have embraced a more body-positive attitude, showing models of a variety of backgrounds and sizes. In the words of New York Times Culture writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner, “Playboy fell like Rome – slowly, then all at once.” It is time to let women celebrate their own bodies – to see them not through the filter of men like Hugh Hefner, and certainly not without their permission. It is time to reclaim the centerfold and use it for images that inspire us instead of holding us to impossible standards. So, as you move on from this centerfold and into the rest of these pages, imagine yourself here. The world needs centerfolds full of people like you and me.

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