May 1999
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back issues
by Joshua Allen


My adult life thus far has been one dubious attempt after another to recapture the aching intensity and fiery tension of my teenage years. I had some small success the other day when I entered a bookstore the other day and bought the latest Playboy magazine for the sole purpose of writing this article. Once I made the decision to buy that particular magazine, the store suddenly became alive with intrigue and horror. Sounds and shapes became, somehow, both muted and spicy. I immediately assumed a persona, the one that acts as if every single passing second is proceeding exactly as planned, with every person and object performing some menial task specifically for me. I use it a lot, and it helps give me that nonchalance and precision that I so treasure.

Thank god the clerk was a man! Goodness knows what a female clerk would have thought of me purchasing Playboy! But with a man, I could meet his gaze with my head held high, giving him a sort of implied high-five.

Note 1: I felt obligated to buy a copy of Ms., as a kind of buffer.

Note 2: Frankly, I was more embarrassed buying Martha Stewart Living.

I giggled as I scurried out of the store, but even in that moment of youthful jubilation, I realized something was off. Something had changed since I last took a gander at Playboy magazine, oh those many years ago, and I couldn't pinpoint it until much later. It's this: The bookstore I went to had a fairly thorough selection of adult magazines, tastefully hidden behind an opaque plank that prevented innocent passersby from viewing anything on the cover except for the title. This is where I first sought Playboy, from ten or fifteen yards away, ostensibly browsing through New Non-Fiction ("Ah! How excellent that the Jon-Benet book has been discounted to a more reasonable price!") but really scouting out the adult section. At first I didn't see Playboy anywhere, and was about to settle for Perfect 10, the silicon-free Playboy spinoff, when I saw the real deal not in the concealed adult area but prominently displayed in its own golden wire display stand, right there next to Time and Vanity Fair and all. There was Charlize Theron, hands barely over breasts, staring vacantly at me right out in the open.

That's when I realized that Playboy is no longer the risque treasure it once was, not because I'd grown up and moved on to more perverse perversions, but because the whole world has. The Playboy cover was practically demure compared to some of the other mainstream magazines. I mean, what magazine doesn't have a woman holding her breasts on the cover these days?

But I knew Playboy wouldn't let me down. Playboy exists to provide sweaty-palm excitement to young men, and since young men these days are exposed to so much more pornography in day-to-day life, Playboy must have upped the ante somehow. They must have cranked the entire experience up a few notches to keep that exquisite tension alive for the youth of today.

No, sir. I was astonished to discover that Playboy hadn't changed in the slightest in the past ten years. The sections were the same (Playboy After Hours, Playboy Party Jokes, Playboy Advisor), the format was the same, the typefaces were the same, the cartoons were the same (some of them even looked like they were recycled from the olden days, what with the swinging characters still wearing pantsuits and wide lapels), the three-photo interview was the same, the hand-scrawled Playmate Data Sheet with inane comments was the same ("Ambitions: To see how far I can go as a model and actress, while studying naturopathic medicine."), the absurd activities the models are doing while nude are just as absurd (brushing their teeth, feeding an elephant, playing a rousing game of chess with another topless woman, etc.).

Someone taking a quick glance through this issue would be unable to determine what era it came from. You have to really look closely to find the 90s. There are the new "Wired" and "Living Online" columns, the Playboy cargo pants and Carmen Electra pool cue for sale, the ongoing natural vs. implant debate on the Letters page, the tiny ankle-tattoo ("TLC") and ridiculously cropped and sculpted pubic hair of the Playmate, and that's about it.

Playboy is a time capsule, not a source for illicit pleasure. Its nudes, airbrushed almost into Expressionism, seem quaint, sweet, and relentlessly sexless. There is no threat, no debauchery, no lust. The only thrill I got was from pure nostalgia, and this is what Playboy excels at because it refuses to change its format or look. What other magazine has stayed so solid and resolute for so long? So inflexible in the face of trends and politics? Playboy has become the venerable patriarch, like Hef himself (who, newly single, is currently "dating" triplets - hats off to you, sir), upholding tradition, oddly respectable and decent.

In this era of [insert Lewinsky reference here, I can't bring myself to do it], Playboy has curiously chosen to take the high road. Even weirder, it seems to be working. The magazine is still a huge seller, and I think it's because Playboy has become comfort porn. A familiar world that works as it should is appealing, and draws people back again and again. Why mess with the formula when the formula works?

Suckle at its creepily flawless teat, I say, and leave the wide-open bluntness of internet porn to the kids.



in the junk drawer

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